As a former teacher and state Title I coordinator, I always wrestled with the need for extra assistance when working with children at risk of failure while recognizing the limited training of the available paraeducators.
The roles of the latter have changed dramatically over the past 20 years — perhaps to the point where their roles exceed their qualifications.
With limited resources to hire more teachers, school districts rely heavily on paraeducators to meet the needs of at-risk students. In studying highly committed paraeducators during their interactions with students in our schools, I found them to be greatly valued by educators as they provide necessary support services. Yet research shows these aides lack appropriate training for the jobs they perform. They often view their role as an extension of parenthood rather than one needing expertise in education and child development.
When paraeducators are asked to describe their roles in working with students in Title I or special education programs, the response is often, “I have worked here a long time; I love the children, and I do as much as a teacher.” Michael Giangreco, a researcher on disabilities and inclusion at University of Vermont, noted in his article “Working with Paraprofessionals” in the October 2003 issue of Educational Leadership: “Sometimes relying on paraeducators may feel effective because it relieves, distributes or shifts responsibility for educating a student with specialized needs, but educators should not confuse this outcome with effectiveness for students.”
The National Center for Education Statistics in 2006 reported long-term trend data showing improvements in reading achievement over the past 20 years for 3rd graders but no significant changes for 7th and 12th graders. Literacy problems get worse as students advance through school and are exposed to progressively more complex concepts and courses. Many school districts have created remedial programs designed to produce, on average, about one year’s gain in reading skills for each year of instruction. If children begin such programs two years below grade level, they will never close the gap.
To satisfy No Child Left Behind requirements, Idaho requires paraeducators to either earn a degree based on 32 academic college credits or pass the Educational Testing Service’s Praxis ParaPro Assessment and be evaluated on the Idaho Paraeducator Standards and Competencies.
The latter is a checklist designed by administrators based on 10 basic principles in three categories — knowledge, disposition and performance. Teachers and administrators evaluate paraeducators in one of three levels — entry, intermediate and advanced — depending on skill and experience, which we feel is more relevant to successful practice than a test. In addition, each school district must provide annual in-service training for paraeducators specific to their assigned areas.
Assisting individual students with their homework or reading with them no longer is a beneficial task for paraeducators for improving student achievement; yet it remains a common practice in some school districts. Many districts in Idaho realized if paraeducators are to provide instructional interventions leading to better achievement, the district must provide appropriate training and use a team approach.
During the required in-service training days, paraeducators now are either included in the teacher workshops facilitated by experts in the field on subject-area interventions and assessments, adaptations or accommodations, or they are given separate training, often by their supervising teachers, which is specific to their roles in Title I or special education. Using monies provided through NCLB and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, paraeducators participate in statewide conferences for Title I and the Council for Exceptional Children formerly reserved for teachers only.
Due to their higher-poverty levels, several Idaho districts provide Title I services under the schoolwide model, which allows fewer restrictions in regard to staffing roles and working with students. During an uninterrupted 90-minute reading block, students in the same grade level rotate through different small groups led by teachers and paraeducators depending on students’ individual needs. For example, the classroom teacher provides the basal reading instruction, the Title I teacher with the expertise and training in reading provides the research-based interventions needed for students below grade level, and the paraeducator offers reinforcement and guided practice or additional intervention for any students at the direction of one of the teachers.
More common is the traditional targeted assisted model in which reading instruction is provided in a 60- to 90-minute block but with paraeducators providing focused interventions or adaptations after the teacher-directed lesson for specific Title I students under the guidance and supervision of the classroom or Title I teacher.
Variations to this program model exist, depending on the size of the school, staffing resources and building limitations. However, the models that are most effective for student success involve paraeducators trained in research-based instructional practices working with small groups or individuals to supplement the teacher’s instruction.
Paraeducators teach in tandem with the classroom teacher in the regular classroom working with different students. Some paraeducators pull the students out into the hallway or separate room. They either reinforce the teacher’s lesson or teach additional skills following the instruction of a Title I teacher or the classroom teacher. The teacher and paraeducator each do student progress assessments weekly, discuss strategies and track the progress of their students based on state standards.
The most effective models in terms of student achievement gains are the ones in which teachers and paraeducators communicate daily, plan and implement lessons together, set goals based on individual students’ needs, and monitor student progress through ongoing, formative assessments. Essential to the success of this team approach for students is that paraeducators possess the knowledge and skills to effectively perform the tasks teachers and administrators assign to them.
Jan Byers-Kirsch is a former Title I coordinator for the Idaho State Department of Education in Boise, Idaho. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org