Report wrongly discounts role of support staff in schools

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We don't need a study to show how crucial paraprofessionals can be to schools—and to individual students. Nearly everyone who works in a public school has a story about a child who was struggling until a paraprofessional took the time to sit down at one of those little, child-sized desks, take up a No. 2 pencil and work out the kinks in the learning process. Nearly everyone knows a student who was ready to drop out of school until a para stepped in and became a mentor, reeling her back in until graduation day and sometimes beyond. And who among us can't name a teacher who is eternally grateful for close collaboration with another educator—not to mention the extra eyes, ears and hands in the classroom?

We don't need statistics to show how important this work is—but the statistics are there. A 2009 review from the Educational Support and Inclusion Group cites a myriad of studies showing that targeted literacy support by trained teacher aides has a positive impact on student progress and psychosocial development. Paras also allow teachers to spend more one-on-one time with their students and engage in more creative and effective activities with the entire class.

This is important work. One would think that having more paraprofessionals in our schools would be a good thing.

But a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank that lists the American Legislative Exchange Council and other pro-privatization, anti-union organizations among its partners, suggests otherwise. Showing a dramatic increase in the number of "non-teaching" staff at public schools, it suggests that schools are "adding more hands, but not necessarily more value."

While the report describes a rise in the number of custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other support staff essential to a child's school day, it targets "teacher aides" in particular, claiming that their ranks have grown disproportionately. While the total number of support staff positions has increased by 130 percent from 1970 to 2010, "teacher aides" have gone from 1.7 percent of all district staff in 1970 to 11.8 percent in 2010, the report notes.

These increases are due in large part to federal legislation, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Title IX (for gender equity), the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, and the Gifted and Talented Children's Education Act of 1978. Instead of recognizing that these policies help ensure all students receive a high-quality public education, regardless of ability or gender, the Fordham Institute calls them "federally mandated" and "emanating from Washington," using language that typically riles those who object to government interference in education.

"Prior to the mid-1960s, there were no paraprofessionals in schools," says AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson. "With the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Title I, the Bilingual Education Act and other targeted programs, we saw a much-needed increase of these vital workers. The Fordham report glosses over the importance of these programs in improving the quality of public education for each and every child."

The report also skips over the fact that paraprofessionals are frequently the people closest to their students. They often live in the communities where they teach, and they often both literally and figuratively speak the language of their students. They can reach the child reluctant to attend school, and they can inspire him or her to arrive on time and ready to learn. They pick up on subtle cues indicating that a child needs help coping with homelessness, hunger or family violence before he or she can progress academically.

Suggesting that administrators both "scrutinize" the work support staff perform "to determine whether those functions are essential" and investigate how much freedom they have to regulate staffing (a veiled suggestion to find out whether they can eliminate positions), the Fordham report threatens to thin the ranks of the educators upon which many students rely. One suggestion, to replace "platoons of teacher aides" with one specialist, seems particularly out of touch with classroom realities: Imagine waiting until that one specialist, shared by so many students, becomes available, then stigmatizing the child who is sent out of the classroom for that meeting.

"Support staff are an essential part of our public schools," says Johnson. "They are the backbone of our system. To imply that we should thin their ranks is a direct threat to the public school students who rely on them."

"Value is not always in the bottom line of a school district budget," she adds. "For the child who learned to read because a paraprofessional sat down, one-on-one, and taught her, letter by letter, that paraprofessional is far more than a salary. That paraprofessional is invaluable."

[Virginia Myers]