Teaching Profession

Most Aides Eligible to Return to Duty This School Year

By Vaishali Honawar — August 29, 2006 6 min read

Teachers may have another year to pass muster, but the deadline is past for the nation’s paraprofessionals.

A large proportion of classroom paraprofessionals appear to have acquired at least the minimum qualifications necessary under the No Child Left Behind Act, but the few who did not meet the June 30 deadline could find themselves out of their jobs in this new school year.

The federal government has not yet compiled data on how many academic aides have fulfilled the guidelines set when the law was passed in 2001. Past reports, however, show the number of qualified paraprofessionals varies widely from state to state.

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“We are worried that once the school year begins, paraprofessionals who did not meet the requirements may not be rehired or may be transferred,” said Joel Packer, the National Education Association’s manager for NCLB policy. Once the school year gets under way throughout the country, he expects a better picture to emerge. The union has about 178,000 paraprofessionals among its members.

The federal law, of course, does not force districts to fire paraprofessionals if they do not meet qualifications, and it applies only to those involved in teaching academic subjects in schools that receive Title I money.

But at least in some districts, aides who were not qualified by June 30 will not be allowed to return to the classroom.

In Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish school district, just over 30 aides, out of a total of nearly 1,000, did not have the required qualifications, said Laura Harper, the chairwoman for the Jefferson Federation of Teachers’ paraprofessional and school-related personnel division. Those aides have been given the choice of going on leave without pay until they qualify or being placed in another job, she said.

In San Antonio, said Rachel Martinez, the executive vice president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, 28 of the district’s 900 instructional aides were not deemed qualified before the deadline. They will now be placed in other positions in the district, she added.

Patricia Olshefski, the director of the paraprofessional and school-related personnel department at the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 150,000 paraprofessionals, said she has also heard of layoffs among affiliates in Oklahoma City, Okla., and Cleveland. But the total number of paraeducators without qualifications is likely under 5 percent, she added.

A majority of states have worked with paras to help them become qualified, typically through testing, or providing tutoring for testing and financial incentives for college courses, said Marilyn Likins, the co-director of the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals, in Logan, Utah.

Ms. Likins’ group is preparing a survey that will be sent out this fall to gain a better understanding of how states and school districts have handled the “highly qualified” requirement for paraprofessionals.

Three Routes

Under the federal law, paraprofessionals can take one of three routes to attain highly qualified status: acquire an associate’s degree, take at least two years’ worth of college courses, or pass a test that measures knowledge and ability to assist teachers in teaching math, reading, and writing.

Some states and districts started work early on to get all paras highly qualified, with good results. In Montgomery County, Md., only six of the 100 paraeducators who were not qualified when the law was passed had to be reassigned to non-Title 1 schools, said Jane Woodburn, the director of recruitment and staffing for the district. All others met the deadline.

Clara Floyd, the president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said only a handful of aides out of a total of more than 9,200 will lose their jobs in her state. She said the state union and local affiliates worked with districts to provide extra training and incentives, including financial help for earning college credits.

“In some of our counties, the work had started even before NCLB, so we were already a step ahead of NCLB,” Ms. Floyd said.

The quality of the assessments differs considerably from one state to another. Ms. Likins said that while some states have chosen to put in place rigorous assessments tied to standards and skill competencies, many others have chosen the “easy route” of using tests like ParaPro, devised by the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service. Just under 40 states have chosen to use ParaPro, which measures the reading, writing, and math skills of test-takers, and their ability to apply those skills while assisting in classroom instruction.

making a difference?

Carolina Mendiola, who has been a special education teacher’s aide in San Antonio for 11 years, decided to take the test because she says she can’t afford to retire.

A high school graduate, Ms. Mendiola, 57, said she chose to work with children who have severe disabilities because her own son has a disability. She sees little benefit to being “highly qualified” by federal standards, she said, because the material she learned in her test-prep crash course will make little difference to the children in her classroom at Jefferson High School.

“This doesn’t teach me how to change a diaper better, or be more sanitary about it,” Ms. Mendiola said of her new status.

What the law did, she said, was give her many sleepless nights and cold sweats. “I had nightmares and blackouts and crying sessions. … I dreamed I was late for the test. I thought I would go crazy,” she said.

Some paraeducators, like Ms. Mendiola, say it is unfair that the law requires them to be qualified while doing nothing to improve their salaries.

“Paraprofessionals make such low salaries, they could make more money working in a fast-food place,” said the NEA’s Mr. Packer. According to the NEA, the average salary for a paraeducator in 2005 was $18,052. Most typically work four- to seven-hour days, 38 weeks each year.

But even those critical of the law say it has had some positive effects.

Ms. Olshefski of the AFT says the law defines more clearly the roles and responsibilities of teachers’ aides. “Up until we had this, paras were misused all the time, used as a substitute, or to design curriculum,” she said.

Under the law, an aide can tutor eligible students one-on-one in the teacher’s absence, assist with classroom management, help in a computer laboratory, provide support in a library or media center, and act as a translator, among other responsibilities.

Margie Brumfield, the president of the Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals in New York, calls the law a “blessing in disguise” because it is forcing districts to hire highly qualified aides.

“Most people at one point would just hire anyone whether they were really qualified for the job or not,” she said, noting that the federal requirement is now attracting more of those who see the job as a career.

Still, Ms. Brumfield acknowledged the “havoc” when the law first passed. “Everyone was concerned about their jobs and felt they wouldn’t have one,” she said. Many aides in her district, she said, are middle-aged and have been in their jobs for as long as 30 years.

“They didn’t want to go out and go back to school,” she said.

In the end, she said, some paraprofessionals chose to stay and get the needed qualifications, some chose to find other jobs, and still others chose to retire.

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week as Most Aides Eligible To Return to Duty This School Year

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