Should We Invest in Paraprofessionals?
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, teaching assistant hired after January 2002 must meet certain educational or testing requirements before they can work in Title 1 classrooms. The intent of the law is similar to the provision requiring teachers to be "highly qualified." That is, paraprofessionals must either earn an associate's degree, have an equivalent two years of college experience, or pass a "rigorous" assessment of their skills.
But will these paraprofessionals be effective instructional partners? Will they have a real impact on student achievement? As a New York state superintendent who has observed numerous classrooms over the years, I have my doubts. Certainly, paraeducators have a place in the school system. For example, teaching assistants can help teachers manage large classrooms that cannot be easily divided into smaller groups. But I question whether, in most instances, districts wouldn't be better served by directing as much of their instructional resources as possible toward their teacher corps.
Long before Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, New York state schools mounted a vigorous campaign to help all children meet high learning standards. A centerpiece of this effort has been the drive to hire the most highly qualified teachers and to provide them with professional development opportunities that strengthen their skills. Teachers with master's degrees from demanding programs, in specialization areas such as special education, reading, and math education, are chosen over those with more generic degrees in elementary education.
Within their first five years on the job, new teachers in New York must complete 175 hours of in-service education on topics directly related to demonstrated student needs. These requirements have been driven by the desire to create a professional teaching cadre capable of understanding the nedds of all students and providing instruction that leads to increased achievement, even in the most challenging circumstances.
Meeting students' needs
Despite political rhetoric that says we know how to teach every child to read and write, the reality is that learning is a daunting task for a significant number of children. Helping these children reach the learning standards set for all students requires great insight and expertise. Even the best teachers confront situation that test their abilities. Educators accept this challenge, recognizing that we cannot meet it without increasing the resources we dedicate to teaching, especially to teaching those who struggle to learn.
At first glance, NCLB's insistence on better-qualified teaching assistants and paraprofessionals appears to provide that increased support. But on closer examination, it becomes clear that requiring the support staff to complete two years of college-level courses is unlikely to make a real difference in the uality of instruction available to children, especially those who need the most help.
It is a sad irony that the students who most need highly specialized instruction methods are the ones who are mostly likely to be taught by teaching assistants, who cannot be expected to have the professional knowledge and skills to teach them well. This is of particularly concern regarding students with disabilities.
As schools work to implement the spirit and the letter of the Iindividualls with Disabilities Education Act, children with special needs, such as those with cognitive disabilities or behavior disorders, increasingly are placed in general education classrooms. Assigning one-to-one assistance to these student is a common way to satisfy parents who are concerned about the children's adjustment to the new environment. But unfortunately, the presence of such an aide can sometimes restrict the child's access to non-disabled peers and to the general education curriculum.
In the intesne environment of the elementary school classroom, where 25 youngsters vie simultaneously for one teacher's attention, teachers sometimes make pragmatic decisions. THey give quickinstructions to teaching assistants, who then work one-on-one with children, adpting methods and materials to the best of their ability as the lesson progresses.
How will a two-year degree from a community college enhance a teaching assistant's ability to provide the individualized, standards-based instruction the child needs? (If it does, one would certainly question the value of having teachers complete rigorous master's degree programs and constly in-service training.)
Staffing and student achievement
In the late 1980s, Tennessee's groundbreaking Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) reported that increasing the number of teachers, and thereby lowering the student/teacher ration,increased student achievement. Increaisng the number of paraprofessionals, however, did not.
When looking at the economics of hiring, districts have found that in real costs--including salary and fringe benefits, such as medical insurace, workers' compensation, and retirement contributions--two to two and a half teaching assistant positions equal the cost of one teaching position. Would a district be better off with 30 additional teachers in place of 75 assistants? The question of which staffing patterns lead to growth in student achievement levels calls for empirical study along the lines of the STAR research.
This is an emotionally charged issue. Paraprofessionals are frequently local taxpayers who need their jobs not only for salary, but also for benefits. They have a voice in the community. Yet if we are to increase achievement--and truly have "no child left behind"--we must maximize our resources andn objectively examine all our instructional practices, not matter how uncomfortable the task.
Barnett Sturm, superintendent, Lakeland Central School District, Shrub Oak,
American School Board Journal
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES