Thanks to a lesser-known provision of the No Child Left Behind Act, some school paraprofessionals-- or teachers’ aides--are subject to their own rules for becoming “highly qualified.” Many school administrators are concerned about what effects state requirements under the law will have on their staffing needs.
In general, only aides hired with Title I money must do one of the following to be considered qualified under the NCLB law by January 2006: complete at least two years of college; obtain an associate’s degree or higher; or pass a state or local assessment designed to demonstrate the ability to help in teaching reading, writing, and mathematics.
According to Education Week, states have developed different approaches to meeting the standards-setting requirement. While some have chosen to require passing a written or multiple- choice test developed specifically for paraprofessionals, others allow portfolio plans in which aides include formal evaluations, classroom observations, student work, and more. Many states allow several options, leaving it up to districts to narrow down choices.
Some observers are concerned over such flexibility in standards-setting. “If they set the bar too low, paras will be qualified without the skills they need,” said Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust, in a recent Education Week article.
Moreover, critics say the requirements may be a deterrent to the profession: the federal law does not specify consequences for states that fail to meet the standards, yet districts may be able to force unqualified aides out of the classroom.
Some paraeducators, however, see the new standards requirement as an opportunity, believing heightened qualifications could lead to pay raises, according to a recent Education Week article. Tightened standards may also push some aides to pursue additional training, perhaps even teacher-preparation programs, which could be a boon for school administrators looking to fulfill teaching positions.
In fact, administrators often overlook teachers’ aides already working in their schools as teacher candidates, a 2002 report from the Urban Institute suggests. The study, which evaluated the Pathways to Teaching Careers program, found that, once certified, paraprofessionals often outperform and stay in the profession longer than their peers.
However, going back to college full-time is not always a popular option for teachers’ aides. “So many paras are not in a position to do that, given that they earn on average $13,000 to $14,000 a year, may hold two jobs, and head a household alone,” Patricia Olshefski, who oversees paraeducator issues for the American Federation of Teachers, told Education Week in a 2004 article.
Several states already offer financial incentives specifically for paraprofessionals who wish to obtain teacher certification. According to an April 2003 report from the Southern Regional Education Board, Louisiana and Texas offer scholarships or tuition exemption to aides who remain employed full-time and who agree to teach in-state after completing a degree. In other states, such as South Carolina, eligible aides may participate in a “career-changers” program that permits borrowing up to $15,000 each academic year. A percentage of that loan is forgiven if the participant teaches in a high-shortage subject or geographic area.
Regardless of whether or not aides choose to pursue a teaching career, many are happy to prove their skills and believe the profession is gaining some much-needed attention, reports Education Week. With qualifications on display, said one aide, “people will recognize that we are a valid part of the students’ education.”