Law needs to keep high standards for paraprofessionals
“PARAS ARE A VITAL PART of the complete educational process,” wrote one school support worker from Illinois. “We have to make sure that all our paraprofessionals are not only qualified, but have the continuing professional development needed to perform the duties they are hired for,” wrote another. “We are asked to perform many tasks with students which require training,” wrote yet another. “We cannot go backwards.”
These are but a few of the many comments paraprofessionals from across the country submitted regarding the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the ESEA as part of his War on Poverty—the very same year our own secretary-treasurer, Lorretta Johnson, started working as a paraprofessional in Baltimore City public schools. She described recently the transformation the law brought: “By 1968, there were more than 3,500 paraprofessionals supporting nearly every classroom and student in the city. Our city—once plagued with Jim Crow discrimination and deep inequity in our schools—got the boost that it needed to meet students where they were and put them on a path to achieving the American dream.”
The original law included vital support for classroom paraprofessionals, who help lower class sizes, provide individual attention for children with special needs, and help English language learners. It helped level the playing field for students, and as a result we saw the achievement gap shrink across the country.
No Child Left Behind, the latest iteration of ESEA, has allowed high-stakes testing to eclipse all else, including our kids. Tests should be used to get parents and school communities the information they need to help students make progress. Instead, under NCLB, they’ve been used to sanction and scapegoat, and progress has slowed to a halt. That’s why we’re fighting to limit the stakes of testing in the reauthorization of this law.
However, out of all the things NCLB got wrong, it got this right: It gave our nation’s schools more highly qualified paraprofessionals.
NCLB put in place qualification requirements for paraprofessionals working in high-poverty districts. Those requirements helped stop school districts from hiring paraprofessionals with little experience in education and providing no professional training for them. Before those requirements became law, paraprofessionals often were assigned classroom tasks for which, through no fault of their own, they were neither well-prepared nor equipped.
Today, paraprofessionals are qualified to provide much-needed instructional support. School systems such as Albuquerque, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are among the many examples of places where higher qualifications are contributing to better student outcomes.
Despite this progress, House and Senate Republican proposals would turn back the clock. They would roll back the qualification requirements for paraprofessionals working in high-poverty schools and leave it to states to determine certification and licensure requirements. Only 11 states have qualification requirements on the books; if enacted, 39 states could go back to low or no requirements under this law.
What’s more, these proposals would actually drive further inequities by moving money meant to go to public schools that teach poor kids and giving it to better-off schools. Nationwide, high-poverty districts could lose about $85 per student, while more-affluent districts could gain $290 per student, according to a report from the Center for American Progress.
With half of public school students living in poverty and more than 30 states funding public education at pre-recession levels, we need to level the playing field for all kids. We need a law that helps give kids the resources they need, including computers, lower class sizes and highly qualified support staff, even when their communities can’t afford them.
There’s so much at stake with the reauthorization of ESEA. It’s up to all of us to let our elected officials know what kids need, and that starts with equal resources and highly qualified educators in every classroom.