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Stretched By Paperwork And Budget Restrictions, Schools Turn To Underqualified Paraeducators

Posted on May 9, 2016

Original story on Northwest Public Radio

Ask any special education teacher about the job, and eventually you’ll hear about paperwork: reports and forms for every aspect of instruction. It’s a workload that cuts into time teachers have to plan or teach students directly. All that paperwork is one reason the bulk of teaching in special ed is now done by paraeducators, often with no more training than a high school diploma.

Heidi Weatherly, a special education teacher at Grandview High School, says she’s made a firm choice not to fill out progress reports or tweak her students’ individualized education programs while school’s in session. “I can’t do that because all I think about is, I’m there to serve the kids,” Weatherly says. “You know, the paperwork becomes burdensome, I mean overwhelming, I’ve cried over it lots of times because I just can’t get it done.”

In addition to the 35 hours a week she’s in the classroom, Weatherly estimates she spends about 20 hours a week–sometimes more–doing paperwork after school.

For teachers with children or other obligations after work, that’s not an option. So schools have come to rely more and more on people like Carlotta Lafferty. When Lafferty retired in June after nineteen years as a special education paraeducator in Yakima, she was one of more than a million paraeducators working in American public schools. Back in the 1960s, her mother was one of the first paras hired in the city. “Right down here at Robertson,” she says. “We just volunteered to go down during recess.”

At first, paraeducators made photocopies and took attendance. Today, paras are involved in virtually every aspect of schooling. Working in the classroom, Lafferty says her tasks usually mirrored what the teacher–Marian–did. “What I would do is, Marian would have a group of kids, I’d have a group of kids,” Lafferty says.

Even as paras’ tasks have become more and more like teachers’, though, the job qualifications have stayed the same: a high school diploma and an entrance exam. In special education, the push for more paraeducators has been driven by costly federal requirements that emphasize one-on-one help and work in small groups.

Schools on a tight budget can hire two or three paraeducators for the price of a single teacher. “I quit at $15.96. It took me nineteen years to get to fifteen dollars,” Lafferty says.

In Washington State, paraeducators now provide nearly two thirds of the hours of instruction for students in special education, ostensibly as a team under the supervision of a teacher. Kent Gerlach, who studies paraeducator training and supervision at Pacific Lutheran University, says “You can’t be a team unless you meet: paras arrive when kids arrive and leave when kids leave…leaving no time for teacher interaction.”

Carlotta Lafferty overcame that problem by putting in extra unpaid hours each week to meet with her supervising teacher after school. She says that helped her get to know her students through their files. “It’s important, if we are supposed to know everything about each one of those children in that classroom.”

But in many districts, paras don’t have access to those documents–the ones that outline a student’s disabilities and learning goals. That lack of information is compounded by the fact that paras often come to the job with little to no training.

Doug Nelson says you might show up for your first day of work, and the principal will say, “‘Ok, here’s six autistic students. Instruct them.’ It happens all the time.” Nelson represents paraeducators at the Public School Employees Union.

With paraeducators in special education, he says schools suffer from “warm body syndrome,” where the students with the highest needs receive most instruction from the least qualified employees. “Here’s the point I often make to legislatures: what type of results do you expect, how are you going to close the opportunity gap?”

In January, legislators are poised to take another look at those results as they consider a bill that would strengthen training and education standards for Washington’s 25,000 plus paraeducators.