Paraeducator Demographics and Deployment

Determining the number of paraeducators employed by LEAs and the programs they are assigned to is not an exact science. Federal and state agencies concerned with the delivery of education services in different program areas use different approaches to data collection. Thus the data collected does not always provide a clear picture of how many full time equivalency (FTE) positions for paraeducator exist in our nationís schools or the programs they are assigned to (general and special education, Title I and other compensatory or remedial programs, multi lingual and ESL programs, early childhood and transition services programs). A report published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in 2000 Non-professional Staff in the Schools and Staffing Survey(SASS)and Common Core of Data (CCD,Working Paper No. 2000-13 acknowledges that limited information is available on education support staff (teacher, library, computer laboratory aides or assistants, secretaries, bus drives, custodians).

Depending on the mission of a federal agency and its reporting mechanisms there may be a lag time of six to eight years before relevant data is available to stakeholders who can benefit from them. Moreover no single federal agency gathers and maintains data about paraeducators who assist teachers in the broad range of programs that provide instructional and other direct services for learners or their families. The following are examples of how data is collected and reported by different federal agencies.

Information published in the NCES Working Paper 2000-13 provided a comparison of data collected during the 1993-94 school year about teacher aides employed in programs including Chapter I, other instructional programs that were not specified, and library and media centers. In 1993-94 there were approximately 319,000 full time and 151,000 part time teacher aides other than Chapter I aides working in the nationís schools, and 96,000 Chapter I aides. (Although the NCES survey intended to count the Chapter I aides as a separate category, the paper indicates that it is possible that some or all of the Chapter I aides were also counted in the teacher aides category.) There were an additional 32,000 full time and 23,000 part time library and media center aides. These data did not identify the number of paraeducators employed in multi-lingual or special education programs. In 1999 another agency, the USDE Planning and Evaluation Service, reported that there were approximately 76,900 fulltime Title I paraeducators, however there was no indication of the number of paraeducators assigned to special education, multi-lingual and other compensatory programs.

The Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2000-01 published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an operating office of the U.S. Department of Labor, presents another picture of the number of paraeducators working in public and private schools, and early childhood education. According to self-reported data there are about 1.2 million teacher aides and assistants employed in these three settings. The paraeducators who provided the data reported that they are employed primarily in elementary and early childhood programs including day care centers. The Handbook also reports that a “significant number” of the paraeducators are assigned to special education (beyond that these data do not identify specific program areas where paraeducators work).

In some cases, the instruments used by the Federal agencies to collect the data can add to an already confusing state of affairs. For example, data collected by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS), U.S.D.E. asks states for information on the number of “teacher aides” who are either certified or uncertified. Respondents to this question overwhelmingly report that the majority of “teacher aides” in their state are certified, even though the vast majority of the states do not have certification/licensure systems for paraeducators, teacher aides/assistants, transitional or early childhood assistants.

Although paraeducators are employed in different categorical areas of special education OSERS does not collect data on the number of aides or assistants who are assigned to work one-to-one with individual learners in self contained classrooms or to facilitate inclusion into general education programs, those who are assigned to transition services programs, those who work in self-contained or resource classrooms, and those who are assigned to early childhood programs. Currently the total number of teacher aides reported by OSERS to be providing services to children and youth with disabilities or other special needs, ages 3-21 totals approximately 250,000. Paraprofessionals assigned to early intervention programs serving infants, toddlers and their parents/caregivers are the only category reported separately, and that number is approximately 3500 (Annual Report to Congress, 2000).

In an effort to gain a more accurate picture of the programs and working environments where paraeducators are assigned, as well as SEA policies and regulatory procedures that impact on their roles, supervision and preparation, the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals in Education and related Services (NRCP) periodically conducts surveys of Chief State School Officers (CSSOs) in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Territories, the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

On the surface it would appear that this should be a fairly easy task to accomplish. In reality it is not. First, most states collect data only about paraeducators assigned to programs receiving federal funds and keep the information in separate data bases rather than maintaining a central data bank about the numbers of paraeducators employed in all programs administered by LEAs; many states do not gather information on paraeducators who provide instructional services or work in libraries and media centers who are usually supported by local tax levy funds (in some cases they provided estimated numbers). Second, finding a single individual in an SEA who can provide data on the numbers of paraeducators employed in the state and who is also aware of state laws, written policies, and regulatory procedures can be a daunting chore. Indeed over the last three decades, in many cases, the person completing the survey has reported that the state does not have policies, guidelines or a credentialing system for paraeducators, even though the authors know that they exist.

The research questions in the most recent survey conducted by the NRCP were designed to gather the following information:

  1. The total number of full time equivalency (FTE) paraeducator positions in general, special and compensatory/remedial education and related services. (Although we are aware that many paraeducators work part-time, we chose to gather information on FTE positions in order to provide a better understanding of the number of paraeducators LEAs require to assist teachers with the delivery of instructional and other direct services to all learners who can benefit from individualized programs or personalized attention.)
  2. The number of paraeducators deployed in different instructional programs: Title I, multi-lingual, inclusive general and special education programs, libraries, computer laboratories and other education settings.
  3. Current written policies, standards and systems required by state law, administrative guidelines, or regulatory procedures in the following areas: a) paraeducator employment and roles, b) similarities and differences in the knowledge and skill competencies required by paraeducators working in different programs or position levels, c) standards for paraeducator pre- and in-service preparation and career development, d) credentialing systems for paraeducators, e) standards for paraeducator supervision, and f) standards for preparing teachers for their supervisory roles.

All fifty states, the District of Columbia, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Guam, American Samoa, and the Department of Defense responded to the NRCP survey. The survey was initiated in the 1999-2000 school year and was completed in 2001using follow up phone calls or re-sending surveys to individuals we had identified in a state who could provide more complete information. Even so the information provided by many states is not complete and thus is only approximate.

The results of the survey with regard to paraeducator employment contained the following information. There are more than 525,000 paraeducators currently employed in FTE positions nationwide. Of that number approximately 290,000 are employed in inclusive general and special education programs, self-contained and resource rooms, transition services and early childhood settings serving children and youth with disabilities. (One critical piece of information that is very difficult to obtain are the number of paraeducators who are assigned to work one-to-one with individual learners). Approximately 130,000 paraeducators are assigned to multi-lingual, Title I or other compensatory programs. The remainder work in pre-school and elementary classrooms and other learning environments including libraries, media centers, and computer laboratories. Again it is important to stress that all of these numbers are only approximate, because most states do not maintain central data bases, some gather only data required by federal programs, and some states report that the data are not available by program areas.

While the data gathered by the NRCP provide an incomplete picture of paraeducator employment across the country, they do help to identify the gaps in information that make it difficult for federal policy makers and administrative agencies, SEAs, LEAs, IHEs, and other stakeholders to identify and set appropriate standards for paraeducator employment, roles, supervision, and of critical importance, to create viable systems for the preparation of a well trained and appropriately supervised paraeducator workforce. To facilitate the development of standards and systems and build on the resources of different stakeholders, SEAs need to systematically gather and maintain information about the number of paraeducators employed in all education and related services agencies as well as the program areas and grade levels where they are assigned. In addition Federal agencies and law makers should encourage and provide incentives to states to gather this information.

Without the availability of accurate, up-to-date information, state and local needs cannot be determined, priorities cannot be established and systems cannot be developed; and in far too many cases, legislative and administrative actions are taken without complete knowledge and understanding of the needs and issues that impact on the performance of teacher and paraeducator teams.