Everything the state of Washington must do to improve K-12 education does not begin and end with the two words “McCleary decision.”
Pioneering legislation under consideration in Olympia – HB 2365 and SB 6129 – would address the needs of an underclass of instructors that makes a huge but largely unrecognized contribution to the progress of almost one-half million Washington students: paraeducators.
Most people would recognize them as teacher assistants. For many students, however, they are in reality the teacher with whom they will spend the most time.
The state’s estimated 24,000 paraeducators put in 18 million hours of instructional time last school year. Most of the students are in schools that qualify for federal assistance under Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
The state has set minimal professional standards for paraeducators: high school diploma plus two years of secondary education, perhaps with an associate’s degree; or some other proof of preparation. But for many, if not most, the education or experience they take into the classroom often has nothing to do with meeting the education requirements of their students.
In testimony before the Senate Committee on Early Learning and K-12 Education, for example, one paraeducator said she was assigned to teach geometry to 11 students pulled from the classroom. She had no education in geometry.
Many entrusted with autistic or other special education students without the training to meet their needs soon resign in frustration, worsening the students’ sense of isolation. Some parents, on the other hand, testified to the progress their children made because of the dedication of paraeducators.
What the paraeducators want is simple: ongoing training, and a career path that, over time, can lead to certification as teachers for those with that aspiration.
The proposed legislation will start that process by authorizing a study by a Professional Educator Standards Board work group of minimum employment standards, training, professional development opportunities, and the training of teachers in how to use paraeducators. Some education majors graduate from college with no idea what a paraeducator is, let alone how they can help.
The suggested appropriation for the group is a mere $150,000.
A report would be due next January, but Washington’s technical and community colleges can begin implementing some recommendations in the meantime.
The timelines are very ambitious, and the proposed work group would omit parents, an oversight that must be corrected. Their testimony was some of the most insightful heard by the Senate committee.
None of the witnesses – paraeducators, parents and professional groups, including the Washington Education Association – spoke against the legislation.
The need is obvious, as is the potential to enhance the education of Washington’s disadvantaged students. How much a structured approach to paraeducator training and promotion would help will be better understood if these bills go forward.
This is the least lawmakers can and should do for education this session.