April 3, 2018
Three years ago, New America held focus groups with over 60 multilingual paraeducators in five localities (Minneapolis, MN; Orange County, CA; San Antonio, TX; Seattle, WA; and Washington, DC) to learn more about the barriers they face to becoming licensed teachers. As part of those discussions, we also heard about their roles and responsibilities, challenges in their work, and desire for targeted professional development.
Paraeducators (also referred to as paraprofessionals, teacher assistants or instructional aides) have a wide range of duties including leading small group instruction, assisting with student behavior, cleaning up, escorting students to lunch and recess, and for those who are multilingual, providing translation services and native language instruction/support. But as many who spoke with New America shared, a primary challenge they face in their job is a lack of understanding on the part of teachers and school administrators on how best to leverage paraeducators. As two participants from Seattle told us in response to what is the hardest part of being a pareducator:
“I would say, the lack of direction from admin on what exactly are we supposed to be doing day to day...Sometimes you walk into class and you just sit there 20 minutes and you are watching them teach. [I ask] ‘Hey what do you need me to do?’ 'Oh just hang on,’ and nothing ever happens.”
“The main problem for us as [paraeducators] is the role – our role in school is difficult to understand for the teachers. That makes a lot [of] confusion because nobody know exactly what we need to do.”
Luckily, these challenges are not going unnoticed by state policymakers in Washington. In 2014, the state created a Paraeducator Workgroup that was tasked with developing recommendations to help address existing policy gaps regarding the role of paraeducators, employment standards, requirements for certification and ongoing professional development. As the Workgroup wrote in their 2014 report, despite the integral role that paraeducators play in supporting the learning of vulnerable student populations such as English learners (ELs) and special education students, “[T]here are discrepancies between policies, regulatory procedures, job descriptions, teacher expectations, and learner needs. Paraeducator skill levels and their extent of formal education can also be disparate. Training options for paraeducators are rarely standardized or competency-based, usually piecemeal, and not necessarily based on accurate assessments of the evolving roles of teachers and paraeducators.”
One of their key recommendations was to create a Paraeducator Board that would be responsible for setting policy regarding paraeducator standards, professional development and career ladders. Specifically, the Board is tasked with:
Defining what is a paraeducator
Adopting minimum employment requirements and standards of practice for paraeducators
Establishing requirements and policies for general and advanced paraeducator certificates
Developing requirements and policies for paraeducator subject matter certificates in English Language Learners and Special Education
Approving and developing courses required to meet paraeducator certification requirements
Making policy recommendations for a paraeducator career ladder that will increase opportunities for professional advancement
The nine member Paraeducator Board was formally created during the 2017 legislative session and launched in the Fall of 2017. Over the past few months they have been addressing essential issues such as moving the paraeducators standards of practice forward and specifying the requirements for the four paraeducator certificates that will eventually be offered in the state (General, Advanced, English Language Learner (ELL), and Special Education (SPED)).
The general certificate includes a 98 hour certificate of completion including a 28 clock hour Fundamental Course of study focused on professional development specifically for the paraeducator role. The subject matter certificates can be embedded in the general certificate and will consist of 20 clock hours which have been mapped onto specific learning modules designed to help paraeducators further develop their skills and knowledge as education professionals in ELL and Special Education. For example, the proposed ELL certificate would include coursework on: 1) defining the role of the ELL paraeducator, 2) ELLs and the law, 3) cultural competence, 4) effective communication with culturally and linguistically diverse students and families, 5) foundations for language acquisition and 6) ELL instruction and strategies. Paraeducator certificates will first be piloted in several school districts before being rolled out across the state.
Importantly, the Professional Educator Standards Board, the agency that staffs the Paraeducator Board is endeavoring to make changes to the standards for teacher and administrator preparation in pre-service preparation programs to provide training on how to effectively leverage paraeducators in classrooms and schools. Moreover, the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is creating professional development modules around working with paraeducators for current teachers and school administrators. These efforts should help to clarify paraeducators’ roles and strengthen their ability to assist teachers with meeting the learning needs of all of their students.
Washington is also taking the lead in creating multiple career pathways for paraeducators to become licensed teachers. A 2017 survey of almost 5,000 paraeducators in the state revealed that 46 percent are encouraged to pursue certification and would like to become teachers and 37 percent were interested in pursuing teacher certification if provided with the support to do so. New America profiled one of these approaches, the alternative route to teaching block grant, that gives school districts and preparation programs the opportunity to partner and create Grow Your Own programs to help fill critical teacher shortages.
Alternative route programs allow paraeducators to learn how to teach while teaching through career connected learning onsite in schools. A full 77 percent of grant recipients are paraeducators and the program design is targeted to support educator diversity and culturally responsive teaching. The grant program provides paraeducators with the necessary financial, academic, and logistical supports to become certified teachers. In addition, they offer a Pipeline for Paraeducator Conditional Loan Scholarship Program that provides financial support to pursue their Associate of Arts (AA) degree and get them started on the path towards obtaining teacher certification.
Taken together, the state is providing a model for how to ensure high-quality standards and training for all education professionals. The rationale for the initiative is clearly spelled out in the law that authorized the board’s creation, “Paraeducators provide the majority of instruction in programs designed by the legislature to reduce the opportunity gap. By setting common statewide standards, requiring training in the standards, and offering career development for paraeducators, as well as training for teachers and principals who work with paraeducators, students in these programs have a better chance of succeeding.” The question is whether other states will follow Washington’s lead to create robust and meaningful opportunities to enhance the skills of paraeducators and ultimately improve student outcomes.