Facing a potentially challenging new federal mandate on training for teachers’ aides, school districts across Illinois recently received some welcome guidance from state education officials.
At a state board of education meeting Jan. 16, the panel approved draft guidelines designed to help districts work with the up to 9,000 teachers’ aides in Illinois who must be tested or return to school to meet higher training thresholds under the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. The guidelines have since been sent to districts.
Nationwide, teachers’ aides already working in schools must either finish a minimum of two years of postsecondary study, earn at least an associate’s degree, or show through a formal state or local assessment the ability to help teach reading, writing, or mathematics by the end of the 2005-06 school year. Aides hired as of Jan. 8 must have started their jobs having met the standards.
Under preliminary guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Education last fall, observations and portfolios could also be used alone or in combination with standardized tests to assess employees. (“Draft Would Not Order Written Tests for Aides,” Nov. 27, 2002.)
Nationally, about 1 million paraprofessionals work in K-12 schools. The new guidelines apply only to those who provide instruction in core academic areas, or who work in schools that receive federal Title I funding.
The American Federation of Teachers, a union whose 1.2 million members include thousands of aides, estimates that about 40 percent of paraprofessionals fall into that category. But in urban areas, the percentage of paraprofessionals affected will be higher, the AFT said.
Even before the federal law passed, aides in Illinois were required to complete 30 hours of college coursework. Many aides around the country often hold only high school diplomas or General Educational Development credentials.
At the Jan. 16 meeting, state board officials approved a short-term solution for current teacher aides, but they plan to work with the Illinois Board of Higher Education and the Illinois Community College Board for more long-term approaches.
For now, the state board recommended that aides take an assessment developed by the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service to measure classroom skills, as a means of showing that they meet the new federal requirements. The board will also consider accepting assessments developed by the ACT Inc. based in Iowa City, Iowa.
The state board is also working to set up a statewide training curriculum using paraprofessional standards developed by the AFT. The curriculum, which was recommended by a paraprofessional task force made up of community college representatives, union officials, and others in the state, would culminate in an Associate of Applied Science degree. The proposal calls for making the training program available this year and seeking the approval of the state board of education, the community college board, and the board of higher education this spring.
‘A Running Start’
Unlike some states, Illinois is at an advantage because it already had college-credit requirements in place for its aides, said Robert E. Schiller, the state’s superintendent of education.
“We have a running start,” he said. “We are in better shape than most.”
Raising the bar for teachers’ aides is important, Mr. Schiller added, but he acknowledged that many such employees—who often make less than $20,000 a year—will be hard-pressed to find the time and money for more classes. In Chicago alone, about 5,000 aides need additional credentials.
And, with Illinois facing a $5 billion deficit, Mr. Schiller doesn’t expect the state to help aides pay for classes and testing fees. “We hope that locals will provide some support,” he said.
Susan Shea, the education policy director for the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, with 115,000 members, said her organization will hold seminars and workshops to help aides prepare for exams. But she worries that many paraprofessionals, who are often women with young children, will find it difficult to go back to school and may end up leaving the field.
“There are going to be huge shortages,” she predicted.
Tish Olshefski, the director of the AFT’s paraprofessional and school-related personnel department, said she is gathering information now on how prepared states will have to be to enable their aides to meet the new standards.
“The less attention states have paid to paraprofessionals, the harder it will be for them,” Ms. Olshefski said. Only a handful of states, she added, have certfication standards for teachers’ aides.
While Ms. Olshefski supports establishing standards for paraprofessionals—something the AFT has advocated for two decades—she said she thinks the new standards miss an important element.
“The way the law is written doesn’t allow for recognition of anyone’s experience. Two of the three options [for meeting the standards] are not based on the work people do,” she said. “Just because someone has a college degree doesn’t mean they are going to be a successful paraprofessional.”