Teacher aides finding they won't be left behind
Ohanian Comment: The arbitrary nature of paraprofessional requirements under NCLB has been documented elsewhere on this site. Milwaukee's program sounds useful, even beneficial to aides and students. The article closes with an interesting observation: In the long run. . . unions representing aides will probably push for higher wages because of increasing standards, which could increase the financial burdens of No Child Left Behind on local schools serving low-income students.
By Amy Hetzner
After nearly two decades working in schools as a general educational assistant, doing everything from typing letters to helping non-English-speaking students with their lessons, Dolores Schroeder had to prove she was qualified to keep her job.
"It was scary," said Schroeder, 51, who works at Doerfler Elementary School in Milwaukee. "I'm not a spring chicken anymore, and I couldn't foresee spending thousands and thousands of dollars to go to college."
Under one of the many new provisions of the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, all instructional aides working in programs that receive federal funds for low-income students have to be "highly qualified" by the end of the 2005-'06 school year. The law lays out two ways to get there: earning two years of college credits or by demonstrating their subject knowledge.
Now, four years after the law went into effect and with the deadline looming for aides to meet the new standard, the initial fears of aides such as Schroeder and the school districts that rely upon their help appear misplaced.
A recent study of 44 states and nearly 80 high-poverty districts found most expect almost all of their aides will meet the "highly qualified" standard by the June deadline. Wisconsin was one of the states surveyed for the study conducted by the Urban Institute and Massachusetts-based Recruiting New Teachers.
The state Department of Public Instruction doesn't have current numbers for how many affected aides in Wisconsin have met the requirements. But reports filed with the U.S. Department of Education show that 60.3% of aides had met the standard in the 2003-'04 school year, up from only 35% the year before.
"I don't think it's been that big of a problem to do," said Mike Thompson, executive assistant to Wisconsin's superintendent of schools.
Part of the reason could be the large amount of discretion the state has given to its 426 school districts to decide whether aides meet rigorous standards of quality.
The DPI issued guidelines for what school districts could do to assess their aides, which they recommended be two of three options: a test in reading, writing and mathematics; an interview; or an evaluation of their on-the-job performance. It left the responsibility for making sure schools followed the law to principals.
Wisconsin's approach differs from that taken by a majority of states, which have adopted tests to certify their aides, according to the national study released in December. It also paves the way for differing standards from one school district to another.
"We have no idea how each of these school districts is interpreting the framework for how to become highly qualified," said Charlene Gearing, director of teaching and learning for the state's largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
Milwaukee Public Schools leaders settled on combining a modified version of WEAC's existing certificate for educational assistants with administrator observations of in-class work.
MPS and the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, the local union for the teacher aides, spent a long time looking at various options under the law, including national tests for paraprofessionals, MTEA Executive Director Sam Carmen said.
"We wanted something that would be meaningful to the people that work in MPS, something that would directly connect this professional development opportunity to the work that they do every day," Carmen said.
MPS lost 66 general educational assistants after it first rolled out its requirements. Janet Cleary, MPS' manager of classified staffing, estimates only 75 of the remaining aides haven't met the new standards. Altogether, MPS has 678 general educational assistants, in addition to 973 paraprofessionals who already met the college requirements of the law.
Both Schroeder and Claribel Rodriguez, a general educational assistant at Forest Home Elementary School, say MPS' program for aides was worthwhile, despite initial fears.
Rodriguez, who also is in her fourth semester at Milwaukee Area Technical College, said she learned new ways to work with students on writing, math and reading through her work toward becoming "highly qualified."
"Now I apply all the things that I learn," said Rodriguez, who has worked as a teacher aide for 14 years.
The bar has been raised for aspiring teacher aides as well, who have had to meet the "highly qualified" requirement for any new jobs since 2002.
Nancy Ruiz, a student in the instructional assistant degree program at Waukesha County Technical College, said she has found most school systems are now seeking aides with a college background in education.
Even though she came into WCTC's program with years of volunteer work in her children's Menomonee Falls schools, she said she's learned a lot from her classes. That became apparent when she went to Maple Avenue Elementary School in Sussex last year to do her class fieldwork.
"I understood where the teacher was coming from," said Ruiz, who plans to work as an aide as she pursues a bachelor's degree in education.
Of all the provisions of No Child Left Behind, those that apply to aides have received little attention, even from the federal government, said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Even though studies have found that aides are used for teaching responsibilities that their background does not qualify them for, Walsh said it was hard to get outraged over possible lax governmental enforcement of this aspect of the law. In particular, she pointed to the low salaries - often $8 to $11 an hour - that teacher aides are paid.
In the long run, she said, unions representing aides will probably push for higher wages because of increasing standards, which could increase the financial burdens of No Child Left Behind on local schools serving low-income students.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES