Lemon Aides?

February 01, 2000 6 min read

In July 1998, Maria Santistevan, a Title I classroom aide in Pueblo, Colorado, a working-class city of 100,000, opened her local newspaper one day and got a shock. This hardworking, energetic grandmother and president of the local chapter of the Colorado Classified Employees Association learned she had just been laid off.

The paper reported that, the day before, the school board had voted to prohibit schools from using classroom aides in their Title I programs, which are federally financed efforts to improve the achievement of disadvantaged schoolchildren. The district had decided to replace its 51 aides with six master-teachers and “literacy leaders"—educators who had undergone extensive training in the schools’ newly adopted reading and math programs. It didn’t matter that Santistevan, then 56, was a dedicated employee with deep ties to the community—she had begun her career as a Title I aide in the district in 1971—or that she was well-loved by her charges. Too many students in Pueblo’s Title I schools had crashed and burned in a statewide test administered in 1996. And in spite of revamped curricula introduced to combat this crisis, school officials did not see enough improvement in students’ basic skills. “We were spending a lot of money and resources and not getting a lot of returns,” school board member Jack Rink recalls. “We realized we needed to make some fundamental changes and hard decisions.”

It was bitter medicine, indeed—but just what the researchers ordered. Since the creation of Title I during the Johnson administration, nearly every study of the program has challenged the effectiveness of aides such as Santistevan. Those same reports have stressed that schools should hire teachers who are highly trained in research-proven methods for Title I jobs.

The research has fueled a drive to redefine the role of the country’s 77,000 Title I aides—or eliminate them altogether. Critics point to the studies and complain that aides have failed to close the academic gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers. Schools should use the nearly $8 billion in Title I funding to hire specialists, they say, as Pueblo did.

The aides are not without their supporters, including the two national teachers’ unions. They argue that it’s how aides are used—not the aides themselves—that needs fixing.

The debate has spilled over into Congress, with lawmakers considering a group of bills aimed at Title I aides. The House, for instance, has passed legislation that would require aides to have two years of postsecondary education or to pass a basic-skills exam. The bill also would prohibit most districts from creating new aide positions. President Clinton, meanwhile, has proposed that all aides must hold a high school diploma or its equivalent. Under the Clinton plan, only aides with two years of college would be permitted to help teachers instruct students.

According to U.S. Department of Education estimates, aides make up about half of all the Title I program’s instructors. Recent federal reports show that most aides, regardless of their qualifications, are directly instructing students for significant periods of time. According to a July report, 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.

The department has criticized districts’ liberal use of aides; most are not well-trained and are playing too great a role in teaching, it claims. “The most critical thing we can do is limit the role of what [aides] can do,” says Mary Jean LeTendre, the Education Department’s director for compensatory programs.

Changing the status quo, however, may be tough, particularly in today’s tough job market. Staffing Title I programs is already a problem for large urban districts; federal research suggests aides in major cities typically have the least training and skills.

“Our school districts would like to put the most qualified people in front of the kids,” says Jeff Simering, government relations director for the Council of the Great City Schools, a group that represents large urban school systems. “However, we have substantial problems in recruiting and retaining teachers and other staff, including specialists.” In some immigrant communities, he adds, recruiting aides has been the only way to overcome language barriers.

Bruce Hunter, 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, he says. It is inevitable, he says, 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.”

Many aides are members of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, and both unions have argued that well-trained aides help lighten Title I teachers’ workloads by performing clerical duties such as grading papers and making copies. The AFT recently released a summary of a union-sponsored study on Title I aides, which reports that they can play a significant role in efforts to raise the achievement of students. The study looked at eight high-performing Title I schools and found that aides were key to so-called whole-school reforms when they were given clear tasks, training, and opportunities to plan lessons with teachers. The unions and others also defend the aides as a vital link to parents and the community, noting that they often live in low-income neighborhoods near their schools and are familiar with their schools’ diverse enrollments. The program sometimes also provides higher-paying jobs than the residents of blighted areas could earn elsewhere.

The AFT 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,” says 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 adds.

In Pueblo, aides have been banished from Title I classrooms for now, and test scores are rising impressively. Though some administrators and teachers say they miss the aides, they agree the new system is working well. Gary Trujillo, principal of Bessemer Elementary School, sums up his view of the situation this way: “If I had the choice to have both, I’d take both. But from the standpoint of educators, the research bears that you receive better impact with a trained, certified teacher.”

Some aides, however, still bristle at their abrupt removal. District officials believe they eased hard feelings when they quickly called back all but a handful of the aides for other jobs. But Santistevan disagrees. Though she enjoys her new job as a kindergarten aide, she claims that district officials treated her and her peers unfairly and in a demeaning manner. Aides still fear for their job security and feel like second-class employees, she observes, particularly when it comes to pay. While the aides earned between $6 and $9 an hour working part time in the Title I program, their replacements earn a considerably higher salary: between $45,000 and $52,000, plus full-time benefits.

Carmen Flores, 47, a former classroom aide who now works as an office aide in the district, says kids have been hurt by the move. “The classroom teachers feel that high-risk students are not receiving the intense daily support that was once there,” Flores contends. She recalls occasions when she helped students whose families had run out of food stamps.

Though both Flores and Santistevan have taken a few college courses, they don’t intend to return to school for degrees, saying they’re too old, too poor, and too busy with their families. Flores adds that she 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 says.

—Joetta L. Sack