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The Paraeducator Paradox

An excellent article in Exceptional Parent Magazine/September 2002 by Patricia H. Mueller, EdD.

Somewhere along the line something went wrong. Special education has become a system that depends heavily on relatively untrained, underpaid, and devalued staff members to provide instruction to our most challenging students. That is what I call the "paraeducator paradox."

The following is a brief description of some of the larger issues and growing concerns that surround the employment, training, retention and support of paraeducators, and a list of steps that parents can take to help improve the situation. The ideas presented come from research; many are from the numerous paraeducators with whom I’ve worked over the past ten years. My hat goes off to those dedicated professionals!


Inadequate orientation and professional development ~ Paraeducators aren’t "aides" anymore, running the ditto machine and performing clerical tasks. They spend most of their time providing instruction, and many report that they independently plan instruction for students. However, most paraeducators also report that they receive little or no training to perform these roles. Most training occurs on the job or from another paraeducator. If they do receive orientation training, the focus is typically on confidentiality, while many other important topics—orientation to the classroom and students, reporting suspected abuse or neglect, home/school communication—are not discussed.

If pareducators are paid to attend the district in-service workshops, they often report that the topics are irrelevant. They also report inconsistencies in payment to attend either in-district or out-of-district in-service, thus decreasing their ability to access training opportunities.

Role Confusion from absence of a dear job description ~ Paraeducators frequently laugh when asked if they have job descriptions; many have none. If they do, most are out-of- date and no longer reflect the current role of the paraeducator. Many written descriptions add the phrase, "and all other duties as assigned by the supervisor (teacher, principal)." Paraeducators have often reported that they have been assigned tasks for which they felt they were not qualified, but obligated to perform. The effect of these practices is role confusion about who does what, when and with whom.

Poor supervision and lack of ongoing support ~ Many paraeducators indicate having little contact with supervising special and general educators. They are rarely observed and provided with corrective feedback. What support they do receive is from other paraeducators. As a result they often feel isolated and alone.

Inadequate performance evaluation ~ I think this quote from a Vermont paraeducator sums it up, "In the nine years I worked in this district, I have received two evaluations!" Paraeducators often report that they a evaluated infrequently and that, on those rare occasions, evaluations are often conducted by administrators who are unfamiliar with the paraeducators’ work, thus making the reviews irrelevant.

Lack of respect as on educational community member ~ Paraeducators continue to feel that they are the lowest on the totem pole. These feelings are certainly substantiated by poor salaries and benefits, a combination which causes many to leave the profession. Paraeducators across the country report that they do not feel they are respected or valued for their contributions, as so eloquently expressed by a Vermont paraeducator: "The rewards to be had in doing this are from the kids. the school where I work, paras are still thought of as houses wives with part time jobs. We never know what is going on but are expected to implement decisions that we are never part of. As far as the pay goes, there is no differential for education or job performance. If you are one of the capable paras, you are asked to do more and more classroom teaching without any additional pay. If you love the kids and are hooked on the learning process, the administration gets an extra teacher in the bargain. Recognition is pretty much lacking. If it were not for the parents and their children, paras would go pretty much unnoticed."

Over use of paraeducators (the Band-Aid approach) ~ Assignment of paraeducators as the one and only method to support students in general education programs has skyrocketed (check your local school budget increases in the area of personnel). Paraeducators certainly do provide the support some students need, but they can also hinder a students growth. For example, when a paraeducator becomes "velcroed" to a student, the student’s social interactions with peers can be significantly affected. Similarly, when a paraeducator becomes the student’s primary teacher, the general educator abdicates responsibility for the student, further isolating the student. In such instances, the paraeducator may lack the necessary qualifications and training to effectively implement instructional and behavioral programs. As a result the student may not develop peer relationships or receive quality instruction. These situations illustrate what I refer to as "irresponsible" inclusion.

PROMISING PRACTICES ~ Now you have probably identified practices that maybe in your child’s district. Here are some proposed changes that can ultimately affect the quality of your child’s education.

When possible, participate in the hiring process ~ Speak with your district administrator and ask to be a member of the hiring team. You may know the best "fit" (personality type) for your child. As a former district administrator, I know this participation may not always be possible, but your input can assist in the hiring, orientation training and ongoing relationship you will have with the paraeducator providing support to your child.

Develop comprehensive job descriptions ~ With input from paraeducators and other key staff, recommend to district administrators that they develop job descriptions that include qualifications needed for the position. These should include orientation and training requirements for the position, duties and responsibilities of the position and guidelines for supervision, ongoing support and evaluation. Model job descriptions do exist in various districts throughout the country.

Relevant orientation and professional development ~ Encourage your district to provide an orientation that includes a review of the district’s/school’s policies and procedures and orients the paraeducator to your child, the classroom and other staff that support your child. You may want to participate in this orientation effort, since you have valuable information about your child’s learning style.

Paraeducators should help to build relevant professional development programs that meet their unique needs. Some districts have created successful mentoring programs in which trained, veteran paraeducators mentor the "new kids on the block." Others have flexible in-house mechanisms for paraeducators to earn credit for the on-the-job training they receive. Work with your State Department of Education and institutions of higher education to develop appropriate training for paraeducators. Funding these initiatives is not as difficult as it may seem; many districts can access their professional-development funds or state/federal grant funds.

Adequate supervision and ongoing support ~ Special and general educators who supervise paraeducators need their own professional development program that describes how to best utilize these fellow teachers. Most have never received this information through their pre-service or in-service training programs. An excellent resource book, "Supervising Paraeducators in School Settings: A Team Approach" (AL. Pickett and K. Gerlach, Eds, Austin, TX, 1997) can help your district to develop a strong staff training program. The National Research Center for Paraprofessionals in Education and Related Services provides training and technical assistance, disseminates information about promising practices in the field conducts research and develops policy related to paraeducators issues and concerns.

Develop on appropriate evaluation system ~ Suggest linking the job description to the evaluation system, including professional goal setting, so paraeducator’ can determine how they want to grow during the yea Recommend that those educators who know the work the paraeducator complete the evaluation, rather than administrator or supervisor who lacks specific knowledge about the paraeducator’s work.

Value the paraeducator as a part of the team ~ Acknowledging paraeducators for what they do can range from small things such as using the title "paraeducator" to increasing salaries and improving benefits. Paraeducators appreciate it when their input is recognized and valued such as through participation in JEP meetings. Encourage~ teachers to value paraeducators as true team members Help to educate community and school board member about the importance of these staff members. Suggest creating a committee made up of staff and community members to brainstorm cost-effective ways to celebrate paraeducator accomplishments

Develop a process for determining when and if paraeducator support is necessary ~ One of my colleagues has developed a three-step team process to determine whether a student requires paraeducator support. The process identifies: 1) the specific student needs, such as safety; 2) what the student can and cannot do and the extent to which she/he needs assistance during the course of the day; and 3) where, when and how the paraeducator will provide support or encourage independence. Implementation of a process such as this ensures that students receive the level of support they need. It also encourages teams to actively discuss how peers will interact with the student, and how gradual independence will occur to the greatest extent possible. As parents, it’s important to understand that assigning a paraeducator to support your child 100 per cent of the day may not be of benefit.

Review staffing assignments ~Districts that assign paraeducators to classroom and/or to teachers, not to individual students, help to avoid the "Velcro effect." Assigning paraeducators to work with a variety of students and developing job share positions for students with intensive needs or strategies that deal with student dependency issues and he!help reduce paraeducator burnout.

I HOPE this article has given you the opportunity to think about some of the challenges facing you and your school system in the hiring, employment, deployment, training, support and evaluation of the paraeducators who are probably providing significant levels of direct instruction to your child. The "promising practices" described are a reality in schools across the country. If you work collaboratively with your district to develop comprehensive processes and strategies that will support your children, they will be as successful as you know they can be. Readers can contact me for models, resources and/or references. There’s a lot out there, so the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented. EP

For nine years, Dr. Pat Mueller, coordinated the University of Vermont’s Certificate of Study Program for Paraeducators that prepared paraeducators to work in inclusive schools and community settings. Dr. Mueller is the President of Evergreen Educational Consulting, a consulting firm in Vermont that provides professional development and technical assistance to state Departments of Education, local school Districts and other agencies interested in developing qualified and dedicated educational support teams.

The author would like to thank Fran Campbell and Joyce Brabazon of Parent to Parent of Vermont for their thoughtful editorial reviews and comments.