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Teacher aides fail to make the grade

Ohanian Comment Many/most teacher aides are highly qualified to help in classrooms, and local districts don't need any interference from the Feds. In classrooms which do things correctly, aides are NOT put in charge of teaching children.

Nearly 40 percent of teacher aides in Illinois are not qualified to be in the classroom under No Child Left Behind requirements, but state officials have no intention of ensuring that the aides live up to the law's new standards.

Beginning next school year, every classroom aide who works in a low-income school must have an associate's degree, two years of college credits or pass a state math, reading and writing exam.

But like many aspects of No Child Left Behind, the law leaves a loophole large enough to drive a school bus through.

Only aides hired after the law took effect in 2002 must meet the standard. The federal government leaves it up to the states to determine the consequences for unqualified aides who were already working in schools.

Illinois State Board of Education officials are taking a hands-off approach to enforcing the law.

"We will assure that all schools are following all the requirements of No Child Left Behind, but we have no plans to take any actions that go beyond that," said Becky Watts, chief of staff for the board. "We are not going to tell districts to fire people."

The only requirement the board plans to enforce is one that mandates districts notify parents that they have a right to know if the aide working with their child is qualified under the law.

U.S. Department of Education officials say they cannot force districts to get rid of teacher aides.

"We are not in the business of making hiring and firing decisions for districts," said Rene Islas, an adviser on teacher quality for the department. "States can make decisions that are best for their students. We will monitor the states to make sure they have the systems in place to report who meets the qualifications and who does not."

Despite Illinois' decision, some aides without the required qualifications have decided to quit or retire--assuming they will be fired at the end of the year if they do not go back to school or take the exam.

"I don't think I can pass the test. I might have a problem with the math," said Anna Toledo, an aide at Nettelhorst Elementary School in Lakeview who has a high school diploma and 10 college credit hours. Toledo, who doesn't know she will not lose her job under the law, has been an aide for 21 years and spends her days helping preschoolers learn how to use scissors, tie their shoes and hold a paintbrush properly.

"What's the point of taking this humongous test?" Toledo asked. "It's just easier to leave now."

Nationwide, tens of thousands of aides face a similar dilemma.

Of the estimated 750,000 to 1 million teaching assistants across the country, about 40 percent were not qualified during the 2003 school year, according to data collected recently by the U.S. Department of Education. The department was unable to provide more recent data.

In Illinois, about 60 percent of the 5,530 aides met the requirements last school year, according to the state board.

Classroom aides have been around for decades. Initially, they served as secretaries or baby-sitters, performing non-instructional activities. They helped teachers manage the classroom, watched children in the cafeteria, ran off copies and helped straighten the library. They often were mothers who lived in the community and had children in the school.

In most states, including Illinois, they needed only a high school diploma to get their job.

But as district budgets tightened and teachers were saddled with larger class sizes, aides took on teaching duties. Now they tutor students in reading and math, translate for non-English-speaking children, and work closely with special-education students who need academic assistance.

Most states prohibit aides from running a classroom or teaching students new concepts. But studies have shown, and anecdotal evidence suggests, that aides are sometimes pressed into such duties when teachers call in sick or schools are short on teachers.

The aides "are working with the students who need the most help--without any kind of training as an instructor," Islas said. "If they are not trained properly, they are not supporting instruction and they are not helping students. We felt they should have some minimum qualifications."

When Toledo began her career, minimum qualifications in Illinois meant a high school diploma.

In 1987, the state ratcheted up the requirements and mandated that aides obtain 30 college credit hours. But those hours could be earned in anything. Aides already in the classroom were grandfathered out of the requirement.

The new federal law increased required college credits to two years, or mandates that aides pass an academic test. States are allowed to select--even develop--the exam their aides must pass. Illinois uses a national test created for teacher aides or the ACT Work Keys, an exam the state's 11th graders must take as part of the state Prairie State Achievement Exam.

Some aides say they would like to go to college and earn an associate's degree, but many cannot afford it. Nationwide, aides make about $14,000 a year, according to a recent study of aides conducted by Recruiting New Teachers Inc., a non-profit Massachusetts group that lobbies for teachers.

In Chicago, aides start at about $20,000 and max out at $31,000 after 22 years. Even in upscale districts such as Winnetka Public Schools District 39, aides make about $10 to $12 an hour. Winnetka, however, requires classroom aides to have a four-year degree.

Some districts, including Chicago Public Schools, have been trying to get aides up to the new standards. The district has worked closely with the teachers union to offer a free refresher math, reading and writing course to help aides pass the state exam. Cicero School District 99 also has worked aggressively to help its aides meet requirements.

The Illinois State Board of Education launched a $1.5 million program this year to help aides meet the requirements.

"We want our kids to have the best qualified people around them, and we are doing what we can to provide as many avenues as we possibly can for aides to get qualified," said Ginger Reynolds, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for the state board.

Chicago school officials say they have not had a difficult time finding new classroom aides who meet the requirements. They are recruiting aides out of local college education programs and trying to persuade substitute teachers, who must have a four-year degree, to move over to working as aides.

Susan Kurland, Nettelhorst's principal, said she hates to lose Toledo, but she supports the law's requirements.

"The bottom line should be: what is best for children," Kurland said. "I believe that having the highest qualified folks in front of children is better for students, and that's where the focus should be."



— Stephanie Banchero
Chicago Tribune


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