Paraprofessionals are known as the backbones of the classroom for their work supporting student learning and well-being. But they report feeling underpaid and overworked—a perennial issue that’s only getting more dire as inflation soars and schools struggle to fully staff classrooms.
Paraprofessionals, or paraeducators, are typically hourly workers who are tapped to support students with disabilities, supervise individual or small-group work, help with behavior management, and handle setting up and cleaning up classrooms. A new nationally representative survey, conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in May, shows that these staffers are, on the whole, satisfied with their jobs and feel like they’re making a difference in student learning. They don’t want to quit, but low wages may drive some out of the classroom.
“For as hard as we work, we do deserve a whole lot more,” said Becky Medina, a paraprofessional at Pascual LeDoux Academy, a preschool in Denver that’s part of the public school system there. For $15.87 an hour, she changes diapers, helps potty train, dries tears, calms children down, supervises lunch and nap time, and assists with teaching small groups. “If we didn’t love the kids as much as we do, I don’t know how many of us would stay.”
Paraprofessionals say the job has become more demanding in recent years, as school leaders rely on them to help cover staffing shortages that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. And as large shares of teachers warn in surveys that they’re likely to leave the classroom, district leaders are increasingly looking to paraprofessionals as a potential pool for future teachers. Nationally, the number of paraprofessionals has more than doubled over the past three decades—in 2018, there were about 825,000 paraeducators, compared to 3.2 million teachers.
But that pool may be drying up, too. More than a quarter of paraprofessionals say they’re likely to leave their job within the next year and go into a field outside of K-12, according to the survey sample of 3,481 paraprofessionals, classroom assistants, and school teaching assistants. Seventy-one percent of those paraprofessionals who indicated that they’re likely to leave said pay was a major reason.
A third said they were likely to leave because of their school or district’s approach to student discipline. Educators across the board have reported that student behavior has worsened since the start of the pandemic, perhaps because of the trauma and turbulence of the past two years.
“I know a lot of aides are quitting because they can get paid more at a grocery store and not have to deal with the behaviors that we’re dealing with,” said Nat Legg, a kindergarten instructional assistant who asked for Education Week not to share her location due to privacy concerns. Legg makes $11.52 an hour: “It’s not sustainable.”
Employers across the country and across industries have raised hourly wages to attract workers in a competitive job market. Some unions representing paraprofessionals have said schools should follow suit.
“You go to McDonald’s, you go to Burger King, and they’re offering $18 an hour,” said Bernie Jiron, the president of the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees. “We’re an education institution, and we’re offering $15.87.”
Paraprofessionals in Denver staged a rally last month, calling on the school district to bump up their pay to $20 an hour.
“Denver Public Schools is confident that we are at or above market levels for paraprofessional compensation when compared to school districts in the state of Colorado,” said Edwin Hudson, the chief of talent for the district, in a statement provided to Education Week. “We totally understand the contributions paraprofessionals make every day in classrooms, and we are looking forward with optimism to our continued discussions during bargaining.”
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, teachers and education support professionals went on strike for 14 school days this spring. Paraprofessionals’ starting pay in the district is about $24,000 a year, and their union pushed for that to increase to $35,000. With the new contract, a “significant number” of full-time education support professionals will have the opportunity to earn that amount, the union says. Also, all paraprofessionals will receive a one-time $6,000 bonus, split evenly over the next two years, and paraprofessionals who have a decade or more experience will receive an additional $1,000 bonus.
Paraprofessionals “are the backbone of our schools and deserve a living wage,” the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Professionals said in a summary of the agreement. “These significant improvements will allow [education support professionals] to stay at our schools and fill staff vacancies.”
Some paraprofessionals rely on government support
Nationally, paraprofessionals say they work an average of 35 hours a week in schools and make about $19 an hour, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey. A third say they work two or more jobs—with the additional jobs typically outside of education.
More than a quarter of paraprofessionals say they can’t afford to live in the community where they work, and small but significant shares of these workers say they’ve had to rely on government or community assistance because their salaries weren’t enough to support themselves or their families.
About a quarter of paraprofessionals say their child or children qualified for free or reduced-price meals at school, 19 percent have visited a food pantry, 18 percent have participated in Medicaid, 16 percent have received food stamps, and 14 percent have received emergency assistance with utility bills and/or rent.
Research shows that about three-quarters of paraprofessionals don’t have a bachelor’s degree, which is one reason why school districts pay them so much less than teachers, said Amaya Garcia, the deputy director of preK-12 education at the left-leaning think tank New America.
But paraprofessionals’ responsibilities and skills vary so widely, she said. For example, some are bilingual and can provide dual-language instruction, a highly sought-after skill in many communities. Others focus mainly on helping students with their basic needs.
“When you have that level of unevenness across the profession, it makes it even harder to think—how do we pay them, how do we develop them, how do we help them grow?” Garcia said.
She added: “I think that paraeducators, for the most part, are not a policy conversation and are fairly marginalized within schools. There’s not a lot of understanding about what they do and the ways they support students among policymakers.”
About a fifth of paraprofessionals said they don’t feel respected or seen as a professional by the general public, and 22 percent said they don’t feel respected by educators at their school, according to the EdWeek survey.
“I kind of feel like we are looked down upon,” said Angela Alfaro, a paraprofessional at Pascual LeDoux Academy in Denver. “We do most of the—I don’t want to call it the dirty work, but it’s kind of the dirty work: the cleaning, the picking up after the kids, the potty training.”
And some paraprofessionals say that while their work is crucial to school operations, it often goes unnoticed. Aracelis Hogan, a veteran elementary paraprofessional in Ohio, said teachers are generally respectful of paraprofessionals, since the two groups work so closely together. But of her school’s administrators, she said: “If I had them sitting in front of me and asked them to name 10 things I’ve done in the last few weeks, they could not tell you.”
Paraprofessionals also lack dedicated training
One way to show paraprofessionals they’re valued as professionals? Offer them professional learning, New America’s Garcia said. Yet the EdWeek survey found that 42 percent of paraprofessionals say they receive too little professional development for their jobs. Thirteen percent said they received no PD in the past year, and more than half said they received 10 hours or less of training.
Last fall, a team of researchers from Brown University and the University of Washington analyzed the collective bargaining agreements and employment handbooks of the largest districts in the 10 most populated states and found that in that sample, paraeducators receive fewer mentoring and leadership opportunities compared to teachers. Paraprofessionals also tend to receive formal observations less often and get less support for an unsatisfactory evaluation rating than teachers do. Instead of being put on a remediation plan or receiving coaching, paraeducators are more likely to receive punitive action, such as probation or dismissal.
Min Sun, an associate professor in education policy at the University of Washington and an author of the report, said more districts are starting to realize that supporting paraprofessionals can be one pathway toward diversifying the teaching profession. Paraprofessionals as a group are much more likely to be racially diverse than teachers.
However, going through the teacher certification process shouldn’t be the only form of professional growth for paraeducators, Sun said. Many paraprofessionals are happy where they are.
“Teaching has too much paperwork for me,” said Legg, the kindergarten instructional assistant. “I love the fact that I get to be so hands on and with the children, versus having to sit at a desk and teach material. I don’t see myself going back and getting the degree.”
Even so, Legg said she would like more professional development and support, so she can feel more confident with classroom management.
After all, paraprofessionals often work with students who have the most needs, said Jack Busbee, the associate director of education pathways and the paraeducator board at the Washington State Professional Educator Standards Board.
A few years ago, Washington became the first—and, so far, only—state in the country to create a paraeducator board that establishes requirements and policies for paraeducator professional development and advancement. School districts must provide 28 hours of training on paraeducator standards of practice and an additional 70 hours of professional development so that paraeducators can earn a general certificate. (If the state legislature doesn’t provide funds for this training, the mandate goes away.)
And paraeducators can choose to earn certificates in special education or working with English-language learners. They can also work toward an advanced paraeducator certificate so they can support specialized instruction, mentor other paraprofessionals, or, if they choose, act as a short-term emergency substitute teacher. (Pay bumps associated with these certificates are worked out on the local level, Busbee said.)
The goal is that these professional-development offerings will improve paraeducator retention in the state, Busbee said, adding that before the pandemic, about 70 percent of new paraeducators in the state persisted after one year—in comparison, more than 80 percent of new teachers continued to teach in the state after one year.
“For paraeducators to really be solidified in their roles, they need that training in order for them to assist the certified teacher in an effective way—not just doing taskwork, but actually doing cognitive work and being strategic in how to assist students in different arenas,” said Pamella Johnson, the chair of the paraeducator board who is an academic and behavioral intervention specialist in the Rochester, Wash., school district. “For me in my own personal experience, it gives me more of a leg to stand on when I go into the classroom.”
Why do paraprofessionals stay?
Despite the low pay and other challenges, 78 percent of paraprofessionals say they’re satisfied with their jobs, and most don’t plan on leaving any time soon. That’s in stark contrast to teachers—an EdWeek Research Center survey from January and February found that just about half of teachers are satisfied with their jobs.
Paraprofessionals say they like the flexible work schedule of the jobs, and nearly two-thirds point to the students as a reason for keeping them in the profession.
“Other than the pay, this is probably the best job I’ve ever had,” said Medina, the paraprofessional at the Denver preschool. “It’s just the love.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2022 edition of Education Week as Paraprofessionals: As the ‘Backbones’ of the Classroom, They Get Low Pay, Little Support