Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

The Paraeducator Paradox. (Education 2002)

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

The Paraeducator Paradox. (Education 2002)

Article excerpt

Somewhere along the line something went wrong. Special education has become 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 paraeducators 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 clear job

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 If they do, most are out-of-date and no longer reflect the current role of the paraeducator.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 are evaluated infrequently and that, on those rare occasions, the evaluations are often conducted by administrators who are unfamiliar with the paraeducators' work, thus making the reviews irrelevant.

Lack of respect as an 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. In the school where I work, paras are still thought of as house-wives with part time jobs ... We never know what is going on, but are expected to implement decisions that we are never a 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. …

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