Debate Turns on Role Of Title I Aides
Nov. 3, 1996, was, by many accounts, the day a bomb dropped on this working-class city of 100,000.
The first scores from Colorado's new assessments, released that day, showed that Title I schools in Pueblo had performed so poorly that only a small fraction of their students could demonstrate basic reading and mathematics proficiency. While some city officials had long suspected that the schools had problems, nobody expected to see so many ranked at the bottom of the state list.
In short order, school leaders here declared a crisis, began re-evaluating their curricula, and poured time and money into new reading programs for students.
Then, in July of last year, the school board dropped another bomb: It announced that schools could no longer use classroom aides in their Title I programs, which are federally financed efforts designed to help improve the achievement of disadvantaged schoolchildren. The district's 51 aides were replaced by six master-teachers and "literacy leaders," who had undergone extensive training in the new reading and math programs the schools had chosen.
"We were spending a lot of money and resources and not getting a lot of returns," school board member Jack Rink recalled. "We realized we needed to make some fundamental changes and hard decisions."
That action puts a sharp edge on a debate that has resounded in Congress this year: defining the proper role of Title I aides, low-paid paraprofessionals who work in some of the nation's most challenging learning environments.
The decision by Pueblo officials was extraordinary by most districts' standards. But it was just what research suggested should be done. Nearly every study of the 35-year-old Title I program has deemed such aides ineffective and stressed that program teachers should be highly trained in research-proven methods. But the debate rages on as supporters of the aides, including the major teachers' unions, argue that it's the ways aides are used—not the aides themselves—that needs fixing.
Today, the Title I schools in Pueblo's 18,000-student District 60—the school district within the boundaries of this city with a 50 percent Hispanic population—have shown impressive gains as gauged by state and local assessments. And while some school administrators and teachers here say they miss the aides, they agree the new system is working well and is getting the district's test scores back on track.
Program Under Fire
The Title I program, enacted in 1965 as a cornerstone of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society and still the flagship federal program in precollegiate education, has come under increasing fire in Washington. Critics point to numerous studies for evidence that it has failed in its goal of closing the academic gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers.
But while many members of Congress have decried districts' dependence on aides in providing Title I services, they tiptoed around the issue as debate began on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization this year.
The House, for instance, has proposed a bill that would require aides to have two years of postsecondary education or to pass a basic-skills exam, and that would prohibit most districts from adding new aide jobs. President Clinton, meanwhile, has proposed requiring that all aides hold a high school diploma or its equivalent, and allowing only those with two years of college to help teachers instruct students.
The Department of Education estimates that 92 percent of Title I's annual state and local grants, currently just shy of $8 billion, is spent on instruction and support, and that about half of all instructors hired are aides. Recent department reports have criticized districts' liberal use of aides; most are not well-trained and are playing too great a role in teaching, according to the department. The agency estimates that some 77,000 aides are working in Title I schools across the country. ("Study: Title I Aides Often Acting as Teachers," Aug. 4, 1999.)
"The most critical thing we can do is limit the role of what [aides] can do," said Mary Jean LeTendre, the Education Department's director for compensatory programs.
Both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the two main teachers' unions, strongly support the use of well-trained aides in Title I—and those aides make up significant portions of their memberships. Further, the aides help lighten teachers' workloads by performing clerical duties such as grading papers and making copies.
The AFT recently released a summary of its upcoming study on Title I aides, which reports that well-trained aides can play a significant role in efforts to raise the achievement of Title I students.
The study looked at eight high-performing Title I schools and found that aides were an important part of so-called whole-school reforms if they were given clear tasks and professional development and participated in collaborative planning with teachers.
In addition, the unions and others defend the use of aides as a vital link to parents and the community, noting that they often live in low-income neighborhoods near their schools and are more familiar with their schools' diverse enrollments. The program sometimes also provides higher-paying jobs than the residents of blighted areas would be able to attain otherwise.
Direct Instructional Role
Recent Education Department reports show that most Title I aides, regardless of qualifications, are directly instructing students during a significant portion of the school day. A July report showed that, during the 1997-98 school year, Title I aides spent more than half their day instructing students, often without a teacher present. In that same school year, federal officials found, 25 percent of the aides had bachelor's degrees.
Whatever the research findings on the limitations of aides, some school lobbyists say that factors such as the tight job market and the social ties between some aides and the poor communities where their schools are located undercut the feasibility of proposals to change the status quo.
"Our school districts would like to put the most-qualified people in front of the kids," said Jeff Simering, the government- relations director for the Council of the Great City Schools. His group represents large, urban districts, where Title I aides typically have the least training and skills, according to Education Department research.
"However, we have substantial problems in recruiting and retaining teachers and other staff, including specialists," Mr. Simering said. In some immigrant communities, he added, recruiting aides has been the only way to overcome language barriers.
Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, supports raising the bar for aides' qualifications. But that would make it even more difficult for some districts to find staff members, he said. It is inevitable, he said, that aides will wind up teaching some students.
"Even though they have [legislative] language on who instructs, everybody knows aides are going to do instruction some of the time," Mr. Hunter said.
The AFT, though, says that much of the problem lies with school administrators, who, in the union's view, misassign aides and do not see that they have proper training.
"The big problem is they are not used in the right way, and they are not trained," said Tish Olshefski, who heads the paraprofessionals department of the AFT. Administrators often use paraprofessionals as substitute teachers, and some local union chapters routinely fight to ensure that their aides are not doing the jobs of teachers, she added.
Fears for Job Security
The Pueblo aides earned between $6 and $9 an hour, working 25 hours a week, with no benefits aside from a few professional-development opportunities. The master teachers and literacy leaders, meanwhile, earn about $45,000 to $52,000, along with the benefits all full-time employees receive, according to the district.
Former Title I aide Maria Santistevan, who is the president of the local chapter of the Colorado Classified Employees Association, is typical of many of the aides employed by districts across the country: She's a hardworking, energetic grandmother who's well-loved by her charges. She has deep ties to the Pueblo district and began her career as a Title I aide here in 1971.
After the district's announcement, Ms. Santistevan, 58, was reassigned as an aide in a kindergarten class, a job she enjoys. But she still feels that district officials treated her and her peers unfairly and in a demeaning manner.
The aides first learned of the board's decision in the local newspaper, a day after the vote to eliminate their jobs. While some district officials acknowledge that the classified employees union was not strong or savvy enough to overcome the will of the school board, they say that hard feelings were eased when all but a handful of the aides were quickly called back for other jobs.
But the aides still fear for their job security and feel like second-class employees, Ms. Santistevan said. The district officials "never get off their chairs upstairs and see how we work," she maintained. "We have yet to get an answer as to why" the aides' jobs were scrapped, she said.
What's more, added Carmen Flores, 47, a former classroom aide who now works as an office aide in the district, "the classroom teachers feel that high-risk students are not receiving the intense daily support that was once there." She recalled times when she helped students whose families had run out of food stamps and had not eaten.
While both she and Ms. Santistevan have taken a few college courses, they both say they doubt they would return to earn degrees, citing their age, a lack of money, and a lack of desire to spend too much time away from their families.
Ms. Flores added that she had attended workshops and received training through teachers during her seven years as an aide. "I feel that because of the excellent training I've had, I'm better equipped to teach than many college students," she said.
Still, district administrators are sure that they'll keep the new system in place. And while they may miss the aides, they are pleased with the work of the master teachers.
"If I had the choice to have both, I'd take both," said Gary L. Trujillo, the principal of Bessemer Elementary School in Pueblo. "But from the standpoint of educators, the research bears that you receive better impact with a trained, certified teacher."
Vol. 19, Issue 14, Pages 1,26-27