Set standards for paraeducators in public schools

The OlympianJanuary 5, 2014 

The dome of the Legislative Building at the Capitol in Olympia.

AP PHOTO/TED S. WARREN

We can debate whether the Legislature is doing enough to meet the state Supreme Court’s directive to fully fund K-12 education. But the real challenge in a recovering economy is how to wring the most out of every additional dollar the Legislature does provide. And that requires public schools to embrace innovation, if student performance is going to improve.

To move that needle, legislators and educators should ask themselves this question: Is it a priority to have fully trained educators in front of the system’s most at-risk students?

If the answer is yes, and it should be, then the Legislature should waste no time in passing HB 2917. It would start the process of setting state standards for the increasingly important role of paraeducators.

Twenty years ago, paraeducators were mostly parent volunteers who supported teachers by assuming non-education duties, such as playground supervision. That’s no longer the case.

Today, paraeducators provide more than half of all instructional hours in Washington’s public schools to the students who need the most specialized help. Yet they are the least trained instructors in the system, and there are virtually no standards for the job.

Unlike the federal standards for Head Start and the state standards for Early Childhood Education Assistance Program, there is no requirement that any of a paraeducator’s college experience involve education or instruction. That’s shocking and must be corrected.

The legislation proposed by the Public School Employees of Washington, which represents paraeducators, would create a workgroup of education professionals to make recommendations regarding paraeducator standards, training to meet those standards, a career ladder and a pathway to teacher certification.

The workgroup would also consider training for teachers in how to manage and utilize paraeducators. The bill requires the group to report back to the Legislature in 2015.

The measure already has the support of Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn and the Education Opportunity Gap, Oversight and Accountability Committee. Stacy Gillett, the director of the governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds, also has endorsed the bill.

Gillett says “Many of the teachers and support staff serving these students have no background in special education, receive little or no training in understanding disabilities and have no experience implementing accommodations or specially designed instruction.”

What better way to close the opportunity gap in education than to provide the most difficult students with fully qualified teachers and instructors?

In fact, paraeducators, who overwhelmingly support the proposed bill, more accurately reflect the cultural and linguistic makeup of public school student populations. That not only enables them to serve as ambassadors to these communities, but positions them to better understand the unique challenges of new immigrant and refugee students and their families.

Paraprofessionals are playing new roles in the medical and legal systems. Because of the standards and certifications required in those professions, consumers have confidence they are receiving quality service.

It’s time for the education profession to adopt a more structured approach to paraeducators.

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