Teaching Profession

Spotlight Shining on Overlooked Paraeducators

By Bess Keller — June 16, 2004 7 min read
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Sandra Taylor might have viewed a new requirement laid on her by the federal government as a threat and a burden. Instead, she sees it as a recipe for respect.

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Read the accompanying story, “Teachers Fret Over Potential Loss of Aides.”

Along with other aides in the New Orleans public schools, the 59-year-old preschool assistant plans to take the test that Louisiana has set for paraeducators to be deemed qualified for their jobs. And she’ll sign up for more college courses, a second possible route to qualified status.

Ms. Taylor credits the No Child Left Behind Act with taking paraeducators off “the back burner.” Now, with their qualifications on display, she said, people will recognize that “we are a valid part of the students’ education.”

While the federal law’s requirements about “highly qualified” teachers have occasionally grabbed the top of the news, those for paraeducators have mostly languished out of sight.

But with the January 2006 deadline for meeting the qualifications on the horizon, and with progress related to the law on other fronts, that has started to change.

Still, it’s a daunting job that school officials face. And much is at stake. Observers warn that the late starts in some places could lead paraeducators to lose their jobs and, ultimately, could create shortages of skilled and experienced aides.

Others stress that the standards-setting must be done well.

“If they set the bar too low, paras will be [deemed] qualified without the knowledge and skills they need,” said Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust, an advocacy and research group in Washington. “And we know very well that poor and minority children will bear a disproportionate burden,” he said, because they are more often served by aides than other children are.

States seemed to have a long way to go in satisfying the law at the beginning of this past school year. In reports submitted to the U.S. Department of Education by Sept. 1, 30 states put the proportion of aides who had met the qualified standard in the 2002-03 school year at 20 percent to 55 percent. Hawaii posted a low of 11 percent and Iowa a high of 99 percent, while 17 states said they did not yet have the data they needed.

Nationally, about 1 million aides work in public schools. They provide tutoring, help teachers manage classrooms, translate for non-English- speakers, and tend to children with disabilities, among other tasks. The 2½-year-old federal law technically applies only to positions that involve teaching academic subjects in schools that receive Title I anti-poverty money from the federal government. But many districts and some states have chosen to extend the requirements to all paraeducators within their boundaries.

To be considered qualified under the law, aides must complete a minimum of two years’ worth of college courses or show through a formal state or local assessment that they have the skills to help with the teaching of reading, writing, and mathematics. Paraeducators hired after January 2002 had to meet the requirements as a condition of employment, while those already on the job have until January 2006 to do so. In practical terms, few expect that any layoff action would take place before the end of that school year.

Different Approaches

States have taken different approaches to the requirements. At least two, California and Pennsylvania, leave the decisions largely to districts. As an alternative to two years of college, most states either require a test or, much more commonly, allow one in a menu of options. Districts can narrow those options.

Just under 40 states have chosen to use the Educational Testing Service’s new ParaPro test, according to Ines Bosworth, a regional director of the Princeton, N.J., test-maker, who worked on the multiple-choice exam. Most of the rest have designated another test, usually WorkKeys, produced by the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc. Any test that is used must assess reading, writing, and mathematical skills at a level consonant with the classrooms in which the paraeducator will work, along with the “ability to instruct” in those subjects.

About a half-dozen states have drafted portfolio plans, some resembling the High Objective Uniform State Standards of Evaluation, or HOUSSE, approach that most states have devised as a test alternative for teachers already in the classroom. Such portfolios generally require documentation of knowledge and skills closely linked to the job, using evidence of courses taken, formal observations or evaluations, student work, and the like. (“Rigor Disputed in Standards for Teachers,” Jan. 14, 2004.)

States have been obliged to find a relatively low-cost alternative to two years’ of college courses, said Patricia Olshefski, who oversees paraeducator issues for the American Federation of Teachers. “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, she said.

Ms. Olshefski and others lament that more states had not been working on standards for aides before the passage of the federal law. Requirements for professional development, for instance, might then have formed the basis of the evaluation. Instead, said Marilyn Likins, a director of the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals and Related Service Providers in Logan, Utah, “they looked for the path of least resistance in terms of what could be put in place quickly.”

Even among the states that use a test, though, some have built in additional requirements and provided alternative routes. North Carolina, for instance, allows aides to take the employment-oriented WorkKeys test, but to meet the qualified standard, paraeducators must also undergo 96 hours of pertinent continuing education. Other choices are successful completion of an apprenticeship program in conjunction with a community college, or enrollment in a college program, again with continuing education.

More or Less Stress?

In the southeastern corner of North Carolina, the 7,000- student Pender County district is well on its way to designating all its aides qualified, said Doloris Rhodes, the director of personnel services. More than half of the 64 paraeducators are taking the apprenticeship route, she said. But for those who want to take the test, the district is offering refresher courses and study guides. It is also reimbursing the cost of two college courses a year.

“The stress level [of the district’s aides] has decreased a lot” from two years ago, Ms. Rhodes said. “They are finally seeing the rewards of it.”

Like others in her position, the personnel administrator said she expected all the district’s paraeducators to reach qualified status. State officials in North Carolina and elsewhere express similar optimism for their aides statewide.

Not everyone agrees that the stress level is dropping, however. Some say the real stress is just beginning, as districts use the lack of aides’ qualified status to lay them off or fire them. The federal law does not specify any individual consequences for failing to meet the standard, but districts can do so.

Sharon Scott, a paraeducator and teachers’ union official in Alexandria, La., described the Friday before Memorial Day weekend as painful. Five of her colleagues at Cherokee Elementary School that day received letters pointing to their lack of qualified status, while others at the school got contracts for next year in the same mailing, she said.

Three of the five aides plan to take the ParaPro test this summer. “I don’t know if they’ll get a contract when they pass the test,” said Ms. Scott, who is a vice president of the Rapides Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “All of this work and stress to keep a job that pays barely over $13,000 a year.”

From Fear to Hope

Many pareducators initially reacted to the law with fear and anger, exacerbated in some places by the long wait for states and districts to spell out their definitions of “qualified.” Now that the requirements have largely been set, and aides know what they are, “people are beginning to buckle down … and realize it’s doable,” Ms. Likins said.

Some aides, like Ms. Taylor in New Orleans, believe the new standards will be a boon for the profession, maybe even boosting pay. In a few districts, heightened qualifications have been tied to raises, though the federal law does not mention salaries.

Other paraeducators see individual benefits for proving their skills.

“The times are changing; a 12th grade education is no longer enough,” said Jacqueline Chapman, who would like to have the option of getting a job that pays better than the one she has at a Philadelphia elementary school. The 53-year-old aide, who works with special education students and in a timeout room, failed the district’s test by a single point last fall, she said. After a district- sponsored math brush-up class, she plans to try again this month.

People inside and outside the profession endorse the contributions paraeducators can make when the right people meet the right circumstances.

Martin E. Orland, who studied compensatory education programs that used aides in the 1980s, said the standard set in the law is a good start—but only a start. “I support the wisdom of having those standards, as long as it’s not considered the end of the road,” said Mr. Orland, who heads the Center for Education at the National Research Council.

“I’m glad a really neglected area can have some light shined on it.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2004 edition of Education Week as Spotlight Shining on Overlooked Paraeducators

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