Paraeducator State of the Art: Historical Perspective (1950’s-1980’s)

To assist those of you concerned with creating and maintaining policies and systems to more effectively tap the resources of paraeducators, the report starts with an overview of events and trends, including education reform efforts that have caused administrators to employ in growing numbers, paraeducators (teacher aides, paraprofessionals), to support the program and administrative functions of teachers.

In the mid-1950s, a need to alleviate post WW II shortages of licensed teachers and the fledgling efforts of parents to develop community based services for children and adults with disabilities stimulated interest in the employment of teacher aides. During this period, two research projects were undertaken to assess the appropriateness of employing teacher aides as one way to provide teachers with more time to plan and carry out instructional activities. The first, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, took place in the Bay City, Michigan schools. College educated women who were not licensed teachers were recruited and trained to perform clerical, monitoring, and other routine classroom tasks (Fund for the Advancement of Education, 1961). At about the same time, Cruickshank and Haring (1957) documented a project conducted at Syracuse University designed to evaluate the efficacy of utilizing teacher aides/assistants in the special education programs that were beginning to emerge across the country. Although the results of both projects showed promise, it was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that the potential benefits of employing teacher aides to work along side teachers in both general and special education would be more fully tested (Gartner, 1971; Kaplan, 1977).

In the 1960s and 1970s demands from many constituencies for change in economic, social, health care, education and other human services systems led to federal legislation that established and supported instructional and other direct services for learners who came from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of the programs created by Congress to provide these services, including, Title I and Head Start, provided funding for schools and other community organizations to employ and train paraprofessionals. In the mid 1970s parents and other advocates for the rights of children and youth with disabilities achieved one of their major goals with the passage of PL 94-142, the landmark Education for all Handicapped Children Act, now titled the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

At the heart of each of these laws was a recognition of the importance of learner centered instructional services to meet the needs of children and youth with diverse abilities, learning preferences, and other education needs — although only PL 94-142 specifically mandated individualized education plans. As a result of the need to provide teachers in pre-school, general, compensatory and special education with the support they required to provide individualized/ personalized education services for all learners who could benefit from them, the employment of paraprofessionals began to gain momentum and significant changes began to occur in their roles and responsibilities. While they still performed routine monitoring, clerical, and housekeeping tasks, paraprofessionals increasingly reviewed and reinforced lessons and assisted students with other learning activities initiated by teachers (Bowman & Klopf, 1967; Jackson &Acosta, 1971; Pickett, 1989). Paraprofessionals who shared the cultures, traditions, and language backgrounds of learners and their families served as liaisons between schools and homes as one way of reducing an emerging lack of confidence between the two (Gartner & Riessman, 1974).

At the same time that paraprofessional employment was expanding, there was also a growing recognition of the need to reduce obstacles that prevented people from multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual heritages from entering the professional ranks. Then, as now, paraprofessionals were primarily women who were (re) entering the workforce, who lived near the schools where they worked, and who represented the cultural and ethnic populations in their community (Kaplan, 1977; Haselkorn & Fideler, 1996). Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the federal government played a key role in supporting and providing access to teacher education for paraprofessionals and other non-traditional students. In his comprehensive report From Aide to Teacher: The Story of the Career Opportunities Program (COP) George Kaplan (1977) described the results of a seven-year project supported by the U.S. Office of Education. The most significant goal of COP was to a) develop flexible degree programs that would not diminish the quality of teacher preparation programs, and b) would attract and support “teacher aides” in low income urban and rural areas who wanted to enter the professional ranks, but needed to work full time while they earned academic degrees. LEAs recruited talented and committed paraprofessionals and other employees they felt could contribute to improving the quality of their communityís schools. IHEs scheduled under-graduate courses to accommodate worker-student needs, tutored candidates for high school equivalency tests, provided intensive academic counseling to help students navigate college bureaucracies, conducted study groups to help reinforce learning, and offered classes off campus near studentsí homes.

Kaplanís analysis of the various components of COP found that although it proved to be an effective approach for recruiting and preparing more than 20,000 non-traditional students from under-represented racial, cultural and linguistic backgrounds to enter education professions, when the federal funding ended, the majority of these programs also ended. Currently we are seeing a resurgence of interest among teacher educators in the recruitment of paraeducators, and many of the lessons learned through COP are serving as a foundation for contemporary teacher preparation programs (Haselkorn & Fideler, 1996).

At the same time that LEAs and IHEs nationwide were actively engaged in developing the COP models, a few SEAs began to develop credentialing procedures that established criteria for paraprofessional employment and preparation. The states that developed paraprofessional credentialing systems in the late 1960s and 1970s were Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Vermont, and Wisconsin. With the exception of Kansas, these credentialing systems were more administrative than regulatory in nature. As a result, they were not mandatory and, therefore LEAs were not required to train paraeducators or employ individuals who could meet the criteria set by the SEA. They did, however, provide standards for LEAs to voluntarily follow if they decided to create opportunities for career advancement through different levels of paraprofessional positions. Rather than develop credentialing systems, the remaining states chose to establish guidelines that outlined duties for paraprofessionals and placed the responsibility of setting standards for paraprofessional employment, roles, training and supervision with LEAs. Moreover, with the exception of Kansas, no states provided technical assistance or financial resources to support the development of systematic training for paraprofessionals (Fafard, 1974; Pickett, 1989.)

In addition, despite the increased participation of paraprofessionals in all phases of the instructional process, only minimal references were made to teacher supervisory roles in state policies, regulatory procedures, and standards e.g. “teacher aides work under the direction of licensed/certificated teachers”. Of even greater significance was the practice established by an overwhelming majority of LEAs of designating principals as the supervisors of paraprofessionals; indeed this practice is still part of most contractual agreements or administrative guidelines in todayís schools. As a result the roles of teachers as planners, directors, and monitors of the day-to-day activities of paraprofessionals were not recognized and they were not prepared for these supervisory responsibilities–a practice that continues today (Pickett, 2003).

The decade of the 1980s was a time of vigorous debate about how to end a perceived decline in the quality of education services throughout the United States. Reports issued by governmental agencies, IHEs, and other stakeholders in the private and public sectors were concerned with the need for significant reform in education policies and practices. Initially these concerns centered on two issues: 1) the need for higher standards for learner performance and increased teacher accountability for learning outcomes, and 2) the need to attract and prepare a highly competent teaching force (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). Later in the decade advocates for better schools added other items to the reform agenda. They were connected to a growing realization that by enabling school staff and parents to participate in identifying the learning needs of the children and youth in “their schools” and deciding which programs would best meet identified learner needs the performance and the quality of education could be improved. As a result, leaders in education reform movements began to reassess the practice of governing schools from central offices, and the concept of creating opportunities for site based management began to take shape (Bauch and Goldring, 1998; Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, 1987; Pipho, 2000). The efforts that began in the 1980s laid the groundwork for contemporary activities to strengthen the team leadership and program development roles of teachers. For the most part however the need for differentiated staffing arrangements to support and enable teachers to carry out new, more complex program and administrative functions has been ignored. The failure of these initiatives to recognize the growing reliance on paraeducators has contributed to a lack of understanding of the need to prepare teachers for their expanding roles as supervisors of paraeducators. In fact, throughout the 1980ís, only the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals (NRCP), a collaborative effort between the Nebraska Department of Education and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and to a limited extent the Council for Exceptional Children were urging SEAs, LEAs, and IHEs to establish standards and develop curriculum content to prepare teachers to plan for, direct, and monitor the day to day activities of paraeducators. Initially these efforts focused on special education programs, and did not recognize the need to prepare teachers in Title I or other programs and disciplines for their supervisory roles (Heller & Pickett, 1981; Pickett, 1981; Pickett, 1986; Vasa & Steckleberg, 1987.) It was not until the early 1990s that a few more IHEs began to follow the lead of the Department of Education and Communication Disorders at the University of Nebraska, and added curriculum content to their programs to prepare teachers to supervise paraeducators. (Lindemann & Beegle, 1988; Salzberg & Morgan, 1995; Pickett, Vasa & Steckelberg, 1993).

Moreover, limited federal support for paraprofessional preparation during the 1980s, was another factor that led to a decline in interest in the broad range of issues that influenced the performance of teacher and paraprofessional teams in the delivery of instructional and other direct services. Thus career development programs for paraeducators that began in the 1970s had all but disappeared or had not been changed to reflect the evolving roles of both teachers and paraeducators. So by the close of the decade of the ë80s, paraeducators had become the “forgotten members of education teams” (Pickett, 1994, p. 2).