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NCLB Outrages

Teacher's Aides Filling Growing Gap

Ohanian Note: Paras should not have instructional responsibility for children, and in conscientious districts, they don't.

If you want to see the NCLB requirements for paras, take a look at my research:

The NCLB Law, $8-an-Hour Paraprofessionals, & Explaining the Long-Range Theory of Probability


LINTHICUM, Md. Gather a group of teacher's aides together and ask if they've ever had to take over a classroom. Then stand back.

The No Child Left Behind program is forcing schools to upgrade the training that teacher's aides like Nelia Moreta receive.
By Anne Ryan, USA TODAY

One had to fill in for an ill colleague for six weeks. Another for six months. One for most of a year.

With little or no training, they say, they're often responsible for teaching poor, troubled or disabled kids and communicating with parents who often speak little English.

As academic demands arise for kids as early as kindergarten, so do the stakes for teacher's aides, now commonly called "paraeducators," or "paras" for short.

"The paras are not here to babysit," says Sheila Walker, a paraeducator at Harry Stone Montessori Academy, a Dallas public school.

President Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform law raised the bar for paras, who historically have been moms with part-time jobs at school. By 2006, the law says, most paras must have either an associate's degree, 30 hours of college credit or proof that they've passed a state assessment in basic teaching and academic skills.

Critics say it's unfair to demand that workers who earn as little as $12,000 a year pay for college. So districts and unions are training paras themselves.

The 1.3-million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has been doing it for 21 years, and the 2.7-million-member National Education Association (NEA) has been funding similar training for four years. But now it's taking on a new urgency, officials say.

"They've been a very underserved group of people who are important in the functioning of the school," says AFT's Diane Airhart.

In a week-long session here last month, paras got intensive training in one of five areas: math, reading, student discipline, parental involvement or foundations of teaching. Participants will return to their school districts to train others.

The training is essential, participants say. Many "are weaker in math than some of their kids," says B.C. Kindred, a para at Eagle River Elementary School in Anchorage. Some, she says, have been teaching for years "with absolutely no training. The teachers don't have time to train you."

The week's classes are grounded in educational theory, but they also stress hands-on skills.

In the math session, paras learn, for instance, how to help kids add two difficult-to-add numbers, such as 49+27, in their heads:

1) Add 1 to 49.

2) Subtract 1 from 27.

3) 50+26=76.

Since many paras have children in school, they usually live in the neighborhood and know families well often better than teachers do. They get more face time with parents, whether greeting them at the bus stop, translating at parent-teacher conferences or calling home when a child is ill.

"You're there when the teachers are not there," Walker says.

Both unions see paras as an important new source of membership and revenue. "Support staff" is the fastest-growing group of active members, which also includes "education support professionals" (ESPs), which includes nurses, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians and technical support.

And as more baby-boomer teachers retire, officials say, they'll rely more on ESPs as new members.

But since dues are based on salary, ESPs pay about 56% of what teachers pay. (NEA says the average teacher earns $46,758, ESPs $25,116.)

Raising salaries likely will be a tough fight. Most districts automatically give teachers raises for a master's degree or other college coursework, but not to paras.

"If the law is demanding more rigorous (preparation), there should be compensation," says Karen Mahurin, president of the National Council for Education Support Professionals, an NEA advocacy group. "For the majority of our ESPs, that does not happen."

— Greg Toppo
USA Today


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