April 2, 2021
Paraeducators, also known as teaching assistants, play an essential role in supporting student learning. They provide one-on-one assistance to students with disabilities, help manage classroom activities, lead small group instruction, provide real-time translation for English learner (EL) students, and facilitate communication with families who speak languages other than English. Yet, they are some of the lowest paid staff members in school buildings, earning a mean annual wage of about $30,000, often receive inadequate professional development, and face barriers to career advancement.
In 2016, New America held a series of focus groups with multilingual paraprofessionals to learn more about their work in the classroom and their career aspirations. A common theme that emerged was that paraeducators’ roles vary widely depending on the grade level they work in and the teacher(s) they are supporting. As one participant shared with us, the role of a paraeducator can be hectic, “I’m jumping around. I have one hour with this teacher, then I go to recess, then I have time to translate, then go to another teacher, then translate, then go back to the classroom.” While this specific experience isn’t true for every paraeducator, it is illustrative of the multifaceted roles that paraeducators play in school buildings.
Nationally, paraeducators make up nearly 13 percent of the school workforce, but their impact on student learning and outcomes has been understudied. That’s according to a new research study by Steven Hemelt, Helen Ladd and Calen Clifton that explores how paraeducators influenced student learning in North Carolina. The authors use North Carolina’s unique school funding structure, which provides school districts with allotments for specific positions such as teachers and paraeducators and requires that districts report on staffing levels by category at the school level, to examine whether paraeducators have a positive effect on students’ achievement in math and reading. Specifically, they studied the relationship between changes in the number of paraeducators (many of whom were laid off as a result of the 2008 Great Recession) and changes in student achievement between the years 2001-2012.
Hemelt, Ladd and Clifton found that paraeducators had a positive impact on students’ reading and math achievement scores on state standardized tests and that these impacts were particularly strong for students of color. Teacher assistants also helped boost overall school proficiency rates, with the strongest effects seen for students of color and schools in high-poverty districts. The researchers posit that paraeducators may be providing additional support to students who are on the cusp of proficiency or allowing teachers more time to work with those students. Additionally, they conclude that hiring additional paraeducators is a “cost-effective” strategy for increasing student test scores. These findings are especially salient given the stalled progress and learning disruptions that have occurred during the past year and current efforts to provide students with additional support to curb these losses. Not to mention the thousands of paraeducators who were laid off at the beginning of the current school year due to the shift to remote learning.
Paraeducators are also an underestimated part of the pipeline of experienced teachers at a time when we need more teachers. The pandemic has exacerbated teacher shortages and strained current teachers to the point of leaving the profession altogether. While the long term impacts of the pandemic on the teacher workforce remain unclear, there is even more urgency to ensure that students have access to well-prepared teachers.
We have written in the past that paraeducators represent an untapped pool of potential teacher talent due to their experience working with students, familiarity with how schools function, shared linguistic and cultural backgrounds with students, and connections with families. Luckily, many states and school districts across the country have developed teacher pathways for paraeducators. Also known as Grow Your Own (GYO) educator programs, these partnerships join school districts, teacher preparation programs and/or community based organizations to recruit and prepare community members to become teachers in local schools.
We have been researching and writing about GYO programs across the country as a strategy to stem teacher shortages and increase the racial and linguistic diversity of the teacher workforce. In January, New America launched a national network of Grow Your Own Educator programs that brings together a dozen programs across 10 states. Network members represent teacher preparation programs, school districts and community based organizations who are working together to create pathways for paraeducators and community members to become teachers. The network will provide an opportunity for sharing best practices, addressing common challenges and professional learning to help sustain and grow programs. Moreover, we hope that the work of the network will help ensure that we leverage the talent of our paraeducators, an essential but often overlooked part of our educator workforce.
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