Prepared for the Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education
National Resource Center on Paraprofessionals and the University of Minnesota
(COPSSE Document No. IB-3)
Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
CENTER ON PERSONNEL STUDIES IN SPECIAL EDUCATION
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO BOULDER
INSTRUCTIONAL RESEARCH GROUP, LONG BEACH, CA
COPSSE research is focused on the preparation of special education professionals and its
impact on beginning teacher quality and student outcomes. Our research is intended to inform
scholars and policymakers about advantages and disadvantages of preparation alternatives and
the effective use of public funds in addressing personnel shortages.
In addition to our authors and reviewers, many individuals and organizations have contributed
substantially to our efforts, including Drs. Erling Boe of the University of Pennsylvania and
Elaine Carlson of WESTAT. We also have benefited greatly from collaboration with the National
Clearinghouse for the Professions in Special Education, the Policymakers Partnership, and their
parent organizations, the Council for Exceptional Children and the National Association of State
Directors of Special Education.
The Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education, H325Q000002, is a cooperative
agreement between the University of Florida and the Office of Special Education Programs of
the U. S. Department of Education. The contents of this document do not necessarily reflect the
views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of other organizations imply
endorsement by them.
Wallace, T. (2003). Paraprofessionals. (COPSSE Document No. IB-3). Gainesville,
FL: University of Florida, Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education.
U. S. Office of Special
Additional Copies may be obtained from:
P.O. Box 117050
University of Florida
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please credit the source and support of the federal funds when
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Evolution of the Paraprofessional Role 6
A Review of Current Literature 10
A Summary of Current Issues 17
Implications for Research 19
Table 1. Full-Time (FT) and Part-Time (PT) Elementary and Secondary School
Non-Professional Staff, 1993-1994 10
Table 2. Aides and Library Support Staff in the Common Core of Data (CCD) and
Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), 1993-1994 11
The role of paraprofessionals in education has evolved over the past 50 years from assistance
with clerical tasks toward more instructional tasks. The contemporary role reflects changes in
educational practices, evolution of teachers' roles, shifts in legislation and policy, and shortages
of qualified teachers. This paper reviews the history of the paraprofessional position and the
current literature on supply and demand, preparation and training, and certification and licensure.
A summary of the issues is provided, and implications for further research are discussed.
While reliance on paraprofessionals has increased in virtually all settings, advancement
opportunities, systematic training and preparation, and supervision have not (Boomer,
The number of paraeducators reported in the 1999-2000 survey has expanded by a
minimum of 50,000 since results of a similar survey in 1996... [yet] there has been very
little progress in finding viable solutions to the problems connected with the employment,
preparation, and supervision of paraeducators (Pickett, Likins, & Wallace, 2002).
In the past 20 years-from Boomer in 1982 to Pickett et al. in 2002-paraprofessionals have
evolved as important members of instructional teams providing services to students with special
needs; but the infrastructures to support them have not substantially improved. The role of
paraprofessionals in the past 50 years has moved from assistance with clerical tasks toward more
instructional tasks. Their changing role reflects changes in educational practices, evolution of
teachers' roles, shifts in legislation and policy, and shortages of qualified teachers. These
changes require the development of: (a) standards for paraprofessional roles and competencies,
(b) infrastructures to prepare paraprofessionals for their new roles, and (c) administrative
systems to support instructional teams at the school level. The active involvement of many
different constituents-policymakers in federal and state governments, administrators in state
and local education agencies (SEAs and LEAs), personnel developers in two- and four-year
institutions of higher education (IHEs), researchers, professional organizations and others-is
required. Clearly, although solutions are possible, the evolution of the paraprofessional role is
not without its issues. Solutions require that the actions of constituents be aligned and
coordinated. Whereas paraprofessionals (e.g., paraeducator, teacher assistant, instructional
assistant, education technician, transition trainer, job coach, therapy assistant, home visitor) work
in a variety of roles and environments, this paper focuses on their work with students with
disabilities, K-12, in schools and programs across the U. S. Because the title paraprofessional is
given to this work force in legislation, the term will be used, even though Pickett's recent
definition ofparaeducator best defines the group to which this paper refers. Pickett's definition
emphasizes the role of the paraprofessional as one who assists with the delivery of services under
the direction of licensed staff:
Paraeducators are school employees who: (1) work under the supervision of teachers or
other licensed/certificated professionals who have responsibility for (a) identifying
learner needs, (b) developing and implementing programs to meet learners needs, (c)
assessing learner performance, and (d) evaluating the effectiveness of education
programs and related services, and (2) assist with the delivery of instructional and other
direct services as assigned and developed by certified/licensed professional practitioners
(Pickett et al., 2002).
The paper reviews the history of the paraprofessional position; the current literature on supply
and demand, preparation and training, and certification and licensure; a summary of the issues;
and implications for further research.
EVOLUTION OF THE PARAPROFESSIONAL ROLE
The role of paraprofessionals as instructional supports and key members of educational teams
does not have a long history. Although numbering more than 500,000 today (National Center for
Educational Statistics [NCES], 2000), as recently as 1965 there were fewer than 10,000 (Green
& Barnes, 1989). As their numbers have increased, their roles have expanded. In 1997, Pickett
and Gerlach identified several events and trends that have caused policymakers, educators, and
others to reassess the role of the paraprofessional work force, including: continuing efforts to
include youth with disabilities in the general education classroom and their communities
(Blalock, 1991; Hales & Carlson, 1992; Hofmeister, 1993; Morehouse & Albright, 1991; Pickett,
1996); growing need for occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech-language pathology
services for children and youth of all ages (Fenichel & Eggbeer, 1990); increasing numbers of
students from ethnic and language minority heritages in school systems nationwide (Ebenstein &
Gooler, 1993; Haselkorn & Fiedeler, 1996; Office of Special Education Programs and
Rehabilitation Services [OSERS], 1993); continual shortages of teachers and related services
personnel (NCES, 1993; OSERS, 1993); and changing and expanding roles of school
professionals as classroom and program managers (French & Pickett, 1997; Pickett, Vasa, &
Steckelberg, 1993; Putnam, 1993; Snodgrass, 1991).
These developments, which had a significant impact on the emerging role of paraprofessionals in
special education, are relevant today. The most logical framework to describe the evolving
paraprofessional role is to review the past, to give an overview of the present, and finally to
anticipate the future.
1950s and 1960s
Paraprofessionals worked in education and human service programs as far back as the early
1900s. However, it was not until the mid-1950s that their value was recognized. Post-war
shortages of teachers led local school boards to look for alternative service providers.
Paraprofessionals were recruited for clerical functions to free teachers for instruction (Frith,
1982; Lindsey, 1983; Morehouse & Albright, 1991; Pickett, 1996).
The Ford Foundation funded the Bay City Project (Michigan Schools), which recruited and
trained paraprofessionals for clerical and administrative tasks so that teachers could provide
more direct instruction to students in general education programs (Gartner, 1971; Pickett, 1994).
Although paraprofessionals were employed across the country based on this effort, the approach
was not without critics, who were concerned that paraprofessionals would be used as cheap labor
to replace teachers or that their presence would justify increased class sizes.
While the effects of the Bay City Project were being realized in general education, an equally
significant project was implemented in special education. Cruickshank and Haring (1957)
initiated the first demonstration project to investigate the responsibilities of paraprofessionals in
special education. They found that the primary responsibilities of paraprofessionals were the
same regardless of educational settings: (a) a regular kindergarten that included students with
blindness, (b) another classroom that included students labeled gifted, and (c) six different types
of self-contained special education classrooms. The primary responsibilities reported in each of
the settings included noninstructional tasks (e.g., playground supervision, housekeeping tasks in
the classroom, material preparation, and record-keeping). In summary, these authors indicated
that the use of paraprofessionals allowed professionally trained teachers to use other skills. They
concluded that teacher assistants could be effectively utilized to enrich the instructional program.
Many events throughout the 1960s impacted the roles of paraprofessionals in education. The
civil rights movement, efforts to improve equality for women, and early campaigns to secure
entitlements for children and adults with disabilities led to expanded programs across education
and human services (Gartner & Riessman, 1974; Pickett, 1994). In fact, the very nature of
schools began to look different. These social changes brought a new emphasis and increased
societal expectations, placing so many new demands on schools that the status quo was no longer
good enough. Compensatory education for disadvantaged students, individualized education for
students with disabilities, specialized programs for students from various cultural backgrounds,
and an increase in governmental infrastructure to support the delivery of special services
stimulated the employment of paraprofessionals (Green & Barnes, 1989). In addition to clerical
support, teachers now needed instructional assistance.
Similarly, an increase in public attention to the inequities in educational opportunities for
students from minority groups led to a growing lack of confidence by parents and policymakers
in the ability of teachers to meet the needs of students from diverse cultural backgrounds
(Gartner & Reissman, 1974; Pickett, 1994). This led to the employment of paraprofessionals
from the local communities of students and their families to serve as liaisons between home and
school. For the first time, paraprofessionals provided instructional support to students and their
parents (Green & Barnes, 1989).
More theory and position papers about using paraprofessionals in instructional positions were
published (Doyle, 1995). For example, many projects and reports from general education (e.g.,
Headstart and Title I of P.L. 89-10) suggested that a paraprofessional in a classroom could
relieve the teacher of several tasks and facilitate the professional responsibilities of the instructor
(Blessing, 1967). Although Blessing found that paraprofessionals working in Title I programs
performed mostly noninstructional tasks, Esbenson (1966) and Blessing (1967) agreed that,
given appropriate supervision, paraprofessionals could perform instructional activities and that
an increased, expanded use of paraprofessionals could lessen the impact of growing teacher
While paraprofessionals gained momentum, opportunities for people from varied cultural
backgrounds, women, and individuals with disabilities to achieve professional status improved.
In 1965, New Careers for the Poor described IHE programs that would encourage
paraprofessionals to enter the professional ranks (Pickett, 1986). This book also served as a
catalyst by naming the expanding movement-New Careers. This evolution in the preparation
of paraprofessionals reflected the current political and social climate, which promoted more
opportunities for more people.
1970s and 1980s
The federal government played an active role in the New Careers movement through legislative
actions, funding, and administrative guidelines (Pickett, 1986). For example, the U. S.
Department of Education (USDOE) supported the Career Opportunities Program (COP) that
trained 20,000 individuals in career advancement programs in 1971 (Pickett, 1986). COP
programs were developed jointly by school districts and teacher education programs to support
paraprofessionals who wanted to become teachers.
At the same time that IHEs were recruiting paraprofessionals into teacher education programs,
states were developing certification procedures, identifying duties of paraprofessionals,
mandating the use of paraprofessionals in some programs, and addressing training and career
mobility for paraprofessionals wanting to remain in their current roles. Although COP ended
with positive reactions from all involved in 1977, few LEAs or IHEs that originally participated
in COP continued to offer opportunities for career development based on the COP model. As
federal funding for all education programs decreased during the 1980s, interest in improving the
performance of paraprofessionals waned as their use increased (Pickett, 1994). Lindsey (1983)
reported that double-digit inflation, shrinking tax bases, and other economic factors were
responsible for reducing funds for education. SEAs and LEAs provided services in a cost-
effective way by hiring and integrating paraprofessionals into existing organizational and
administrative structures, while practices associated with deploying, managing, and training
paraprofessionals became unstructured and often non-existent.
1990s, 2000, and 2001
These years brought changes in federal legislation for preparation of paraprofessionals, changes
in teacher roles, need for clarifying appropriate roles for paraprofessionals, and new attention to
educational reform and accountability.
The role of paraprofessionals has continued to evolve. Educational reform efforts are promoting
new roles for teachers as managers and instructional team leaders. Specifically, teachers have
greater responsibilities for program and classroom management, participation in school site
decision making, and implementation of accountability systems and measures. Changes in
teachers' roles have implications for the roles of paraprofessionals (Pickett, 2000; Pickett et al.,
2002). In addition, provisions in federal legislation require that all personnel be adequately
prepared for their roles and responsibilities. This legislation includes 1997 Amendments to the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002
The amendments to IDEA (P.L. 105-17) and NCLB (P.L. 107-110) have important implications
for the role and preparation of paraprofessionals. Both of the laws refer to preparation and
supervision requirements needed for paraprofessionals to provide specific services. The 1997
Amendments to IDEA require training and supervision of paraprofessionals who assist in the
provision of special education services:
A State may allow paraprofessionals and assistants who are appropriately trained and
supervised, in accordance with State law, regulations, or written policy, in meeting the
requirements of this part to be used to assist in the provision of special education and
related services to children with disabilities under Part B of the Act. [34 CFR
In addition, NCLB established paraprofessional training requirements for new paraprofessionals
(anyone hired on or after January 8, 2002). NCLB also sets a deadline 4 years from enactment
(January 8, 2006) for currently employed paraprofessionals to meet one of the following
requirements: (a) complete at least 2 years of study at an IHE; (b) obtain an associate (or higher)
degree; or (c) meet a rigorous standard of quality and demonstrate, through a formal state or
local academic assessment, knowledge of and the ability to assist in instructing, reading, writing,
and mathematics; or knowledge of and the ability to assist in instructing, reading readiness,
writing readiness, and mathematics readiness, as appropriate [Title I, Section 1119/b]. These
requirements apply to any paraprofessional whose position is directly funded by Title I and who
provides instructional support services. In a Title I school-wide program, any paraprofessional
providing instructional support services will have to meet these requirements, including
paraprofessionals providing special education services that are instructional in nature. In
addition, the regulations state that a paraprofessional must work under the direct supervision of a
teacher. The teacher plans the paraprofessional's instructional activities and evaluates the
students with whom the paraprofessional works. In addition, the paraprofessional must work in
close proximity to the teacher. Assistants without instructional duties are not included in the
definition ofparaprofessional in this law.
These requirements have prompted a renewed interest in competencies and standards,
credentialing systems, and infrastructures to support preparation and ongoing development.
More research on the training needs, supervision, appropriate use, and efficacy of
paraprofessionals provides the basis for the results and recommendations of this paper.
A REVIEW OF CURRENT LITERATURE
Supply and Demand
Constituents need information for decision making about the paraprofessional work force and yet
simply determining the number of paraprofessionals working in schools across the nation is a
huge challenge. Some data collected by federal agencies based on information reported by SEAs
or self-reported by individuals are at best incomplete and may provide an inadequate picture of
paraprofessional employment. In addition, data are often not reported in a timely fashion, which
delays an understanding of the current employment situation.
Given these issues, information about the paraprofessional work force reported here comes from
three sources. No one source includes the entire paraprofessional work force, and the data
cannot be aggregated. The Occupational Outlook Handbook (2000-2001) reported
approximately 1.2 million teaching aides/assistants employed in public/private schools and early
childhood/daycare centers. Although the Handbook suggests that many of these individuals
work in special education, no breakdown is given. Since 1987-1988, the Schools and Staffing
Survey (SASS) of the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) has gathered data on
nonprofessional staff, first published in the 2000 report. Although the SASS figures are based
on a sample of schools, each year the NCES Common Core of Data (CCD) program gathers
staffing information from all LEAs in the U. S. Table 1 shows the number of full-time and part-
time, public and private non-professional staff-categorized as library/media aides, teacher
aides, and Chapter I aides-from the 1993-1994 SASS results (NCES, 2000).
Table 1. Full-Time (FT) and Part-Time (PT) Elementary and Secondary School
Non-Professional Staff, 1993-1994
Library/media aides Teacher aides Chapter I
FT PT FT PT Combined*
Public 31,998 23,271 318,873 151,372 96,692
Private 1,952 5,446 25,282 25,865 1,681
Total 33,950 28,717 344,155 177,237 98,373
*May include teacher aides or other employees counted elsewhere in this report.
[NCES, 2000. (Schools and Staffing Survey: 1993-1994 (Public and Private School Questionnaires)]
Table 2 reports non-professional staff in two categories (aides and library support staff) for
CCD and SASS data sources. These estimates provide a general idea of the number of
elementary and secondary school paraprofessionals in these categories.
Pickett et al. (2002) states that there are approximately 550,000 paraprofessionals currently
employed in full-time equivalent (FTE) positions in the U.S. The number was generated from a
1999-2000 survey of chief state school officers in the 50 states, the territories of the U. S., the
District of Columbia, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Department of Defense conducted by
Table 2. Aides and Library Support Staff in the Common Core of Data (CCD) and
Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) 1993-1994*
Aides 450,359 470,245
Library support 898 55,269
*Not all relevant paraprofessionals are included in the two reported categories due to the confusion of
survey item labeling.
[NCES, 2000. (Schools and Staffing Survey: 1993-1994 (Public and Private School Questionnaires)]
the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals (NRCP). This number represents an increase
of 50,000 paraprofessionals (10%) since a similar NRCP survey in 1996. Of the 550,000
paraprofessionals, approximately 290,000 work with children and youth with disabilities, and
130,000 or more work with multilingual learners, Title I, and other remedial education programs.
About 130,000 work as library/media paraeducators, computer assistants, etc. In addition to the
increase in paraprofessionals, the NCES reported a 48% increase in instructional
paraprofessional employment compared to a 13% increase in student enrollment and an 18%
increase in teacher employment from 1990 to 1998 (NCES, 2000)-noteworthy differences in
growth that should be analyzed. Gerber, Finn, Achilles, and Boyd-Zaharias (2001) suggests that
the rapid increase in the number of paraprofessionals reflects: (a) the expansion of special
education and Title I programs, (b) the perception that the use of paraprofessionals is a low-cost
alternative to small classes, and (c) the perceived success of paraprofessionals in affecting
student engagement, achievement, and other positive classroom contributions.
Pickett (1994) stated that the largest recorded use of paraprofessionals in schools was due to
federal legislation, e.g., Chapter I of the Improving America's Schools Act (IASA) and the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed in 1990. The legislation emphasized
the inclusion of students with disabilities into the general education and community
environments and increased the need for and use of paraprofessionals. Similar to changes in the
1990s, more demands on teachers to address the individual needs of students increased reliance
on the paraprofessional work force.
Clearly, as the number of paraprofessionals continues to increase, recruitment strategies must
improve. Most of the literature addresses the recruitment of paraprofessionals into the teaching
profession. Paraprofessional-to-teacher programs (Blalock, Rivera, Anderson, & Kottler, 1992;
Epanchin & Wooley-Brown, 1993) are often used to increase the teaching work force, e.g., for
bilingual certified teachers, for teachers who understand unique cultural differences (Genzuk,
1997; Miramontes, 1990; Villegas & Clewell, 1998). Literature also supports the need to recruit
and retain paraprofessionals in rural areas, transition programs, schools serving linguistically
diverse students, and programs for students who are autistic or who need positive behavioral
supports (Boomer, 1994; Harper, 1994; Miramontes, 1990; Morehouse & Albright, 1991; Nittoli
& Giloth, 1997; NCPSE, 2000; Palma, 1994; Rogan & Held, 1999; Rueda & DeNeve, 1999).
For example, Passaro, Pickett, Latham, and HongBo (1994) reported a shortage of
paraprofessionals in the three rural states they studied. Respondents reported these reasons for
attrition: (a) lack of opportunity to advance, (b) poor salary, (c) lack of administrative support,
and (d) lack of respect. These experiences, which are somewhat characteristic of the
paraprofessional work force, have been reported by many authors, as summarized by Jones and
Not surprisingly, Riggs and Mueller (2001) found that the retention of paraprofessionals was
most often threatened by other positions that offered higher salaries or greater career
advancement. In addition, they found that paraprofessionals reported that the following factors
positively affected their self-esteem: (a) invitations to team meetings centered on the students
with whom they work, (b) adequate break time, (c) adequate substitute coverage, and (d)
perception as a "team member" working "along side of' the teacher. In a study of general
educators, special educators, paraprofessionals, and administrators, Giangreco, Edelman, and
Broer (2001) uncovered six major themes associated with respect, appreciation, and
acknowledgement of paraprofessionals, including: (a) nonmonetary signs and symbols of
appreciation, (b) compensation, (c) important responsibilities, (d) noninstructional
responsibilities, (e) desire to be listened to, and (f) orientation and support. To address the need
for hiring paraprofessionals who can best serve individuals with disabilities, Blalock (1991)
recommends strategies, including: (a) a hiring process, (b) vocational assessments, and (c)
interview questions. Clearly, schools must review and create meaningful ways to support their
strategies to recruit and hire paraprofessionals. In addition, state and federal agencies must
implement efficient, accurate methods of determining the number of paraprofessionals working
in K-12 education and identify the program funds used to support their positions.
Preparation and Training of Paraprofessionals
According to Guskey and Huberman (1995), professional development is a crucial component of
educational improvement. Many have likened the paraprofessional or paraeducator to a
paralegal or paramedic. Although the para-role may be similar in these professions, the
requirements for preservice preparation and ongoing development are very different.
In 1974, after reviewing the literature, Reid and Reid classified the duties of paraprofessionals
working in special education classrooms with students with mild disabilities as: (a) clerical, (b)
housekeeping, (c) noninstructional, and (d) instructional. May and Marozas (1981) stated that
"the implications of the tasks delineated under these categories are that the teachers teach and
paraprofessionals prepare materials and manage the behavior of children" (p. 228). The Study of
Personnel Needs in Special Education (SPeNSE, 2001) found that there were differences by
region and district in the types of services paraprofessionals provided, and the majority of special
education paraprofessionals nationwide spend at least 10% of their time on each of the following
activities: (a) providing instructional support in small groups, (b) providing one-on-one
instruction, (c) modifying materials, (d) implementing behavior management plans, (e)
monitoring hallways/study hall/other, (f) meeting with teachers, (g) collecting student data, and
(h) providing personal care assistance (SPeNSE, 2001).
Other studies found similar results (Downing, Ryndack, & Clark, 2000; French, 1998; Lamont &
Hill, 1991; Minondo, Meyer, & Xin, 2001; Pickett & Gerlach, 1997; Pickett et al., 2002;
Wallace, Stahl, & MacMillan, 2000). In some studies, paraprofessionals reported being
responsible for a student's instructional program when that is the responsibility of the teacher
(Giangreco, Edelman, Luiselli, & MacFarland, 1997; Marks, Schrader, & Levine, 1999; Wallace,
et al., 2000). Downing et al. (2000) found that paraprofessionals reported a high level of
responsibility in their jobs and that they made decisions regarding adaptations, provided
behavioral support, and interacted with team members, including parents. This is a huge concern
that points to a need for training and preparation, not only of paraprofessionals but also of those
who direct and supervise their work. Katsiyannis, Hodge, and Lanford (2000) reviewed due-
process hearings, Office of Civil Rights (OCR) rulings, OSEP memoranda, and court rulings
from 1990-1999 for relevant legal parameters. Four important findings are:
(1) Public schools must supply services provided by paraprofessionals if these services
are necessary for a student to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
(2) Paraprofessionals must be qualified to perform assigned services as indicated in the
IEP, and public schools have broad discretionary power regarding personnel.
(3) Paraprofessionals who lack appropriate training may not directly provide special
education services in either pubic or private schools.
(4) Appropriately trained paraprofessionals may assist in the provision of special
education services only if certified special education personnel supervise them.
Both amendments to IDEA and NCLB require that paraprofessionals must be supervised by
licensed staff to provide instructional support and special education services. This supervision
appears critical for a number of reasons. For example, many studies have found that
paraprofessionals often report having no job descriptions, formal orientations, or annual
performance reviews (Gerber et al., 2001; Wallace et al., 2000). In addition, Wallace et al.
(2000) reported that 58% of the nearly 3,600 paraprofessionals surveyed did not have planning
time with the teachers who directed their work. Coupled with findings that paraprofessionals
are reporting more responsibility than appropriate for their roles, these findings suggest that
paraprofessionals may not be receiving adequate guidance or preparation. It becomes critical that
teachers and others ensure that paraprofessionals know what their roles are and how to perform
There is agreement in the literature that teachers should assign tasks, design instructional plans,
provide on-the-job training, conduct planning sessions, and monitor the paraprofessional's day-
to-day activities (Doyle, 1997; French, 2001; Morgan & Ashbaker, 2000; National Joint
Committee on Learning Disabilities [NJCLD], 1999; Pickett & Gerlach, 1997; Wallace et al,
2001). There is also agreement that teachers are unlikely to receive the knowledge and skills
required for paraprofessional supervision during either their preservice teacher preparation or
later during professional development opportunities. Although paraprofessional supervision is
an issue related to teachers, it has a fundamental influence on the success of paraprofessional and
Paraprofessionals who report receiving more inservice training or preservice preparation feel
better prepared to fulfill their job responsibilities (SPeNSE, 2001; Wallace et al., 2000). The
SPeNSE project reported that, "Paraprofessionals who receive more professional development in
a specific work-related task feel consistently more skillful in that area. . The project also
reports, "As a group, more educated paraprofessionals spend far more time in professional
development, which may increase differences in levels of skill" (p. 2). Numerous recent studies
and opinion pieces indicate that there is a lack of training for paraprofessionals (Idea
Partnerships, 2001; Downing, et al., 2000; French & Chopra, 1999; Hilton & Gerlach, 1997;
French & Pickett, 1997; Pickett et al., 2002; Wallace, et al., 2000). In the 2002 State of the Art
Report published by the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals in Education and
Related Services (NRCP), Pickett et al. report little progress in finding solutions to the problems
associated with the employment, preparation, and supervision of paraprofessionals:
With rare exceptions, policies, standards, and systems for improving the performance and
productivity of teacher and paraprofessional teams are almost non-existent.
Paraprofessional training, when it is available, is usually highly parochial and sporadic,
does not recognize the similarities in the core skills required by the vast majority of
paraprofessionals, nor is it competency based, or linked to systematic opportunities for
their career development. State education agencies and/or other state agencies
responsible for developing and administering teacher credentialing systems have not
joined forces with institutions of higher education to establish standards for licensure to
ensure that teachers have the knowledge and skills they require to supervise
paraprofessionals. Moreover, paraprofessional issues have yet to be addressed by various
reform initiatives concerned with empowering teachers and increasing the accountability
and effectiveness of education systems and practices. (Pickett et al., 2001)
As responsibilities increase and the preparation and ongoing development of paraprofessionals
remain minimal, several topics relevant to paraprofessional training needs have emerged in the
literature since 1996: positive behavioral supports (Downing, et al., 2000; French, 1998;
Hansen, 1997; Wadsworth & Knight, 1996; Whitaker, 2000); specifics about disabilities
(Downing, et al., 2000; Hansen, 1997; Kotkin, 1995; Miramontes, 1990; Radazewski-Byrne,
1997; Whitaker, 2000); teaching strategies (Downing, et al., 2000; French, 1998; Wadsworth &
Knight, 1996); communication and problem-solving strategies (Downing, Ryndak, & Clark,
2000; French, 1998; Wadsworth & Knight, 1996); transition-related information and job
coaching (Rogan & Held, 1999; Whitaker, 2000); early childhood special education and child
development (French, 1998; Hadadian & Yssel, 1998); special education law, confidentiality
(French, 1998; Hansen, 1997); use of computers and accommodations (Hansen, 1997);
inclusion (Hansen, 1997; Minondo, et al., 2001; Wadsworth & Knight, 1996; Riggs & Mueller,
2001); health and safety (French, 1998; Hansen, 1997); development of independence and
mobility (Wadsworth & Knight, 1996); and observation and data collection strategies
(Wadsworth & Knight, 1996).
Teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators have different perceptions about the need for
paraprofessional training. A study by Wallace, Shin, Bartholomay, and Stahl (2001) found a
statistically significant difference with paraprofessionals reporting the greatest need. Even where
training exists, paraprofessionals report needing more or different training opportunities.
Whitaker (2000) found that half of the school districts surveyed (43) employed paraprofessionals
to work with students with disabilities in occupational education classes. Although 33% of the
districts that employed paraprofessionals provided training, 94% of the coordinators and 93% of
the paraprofessionals reported that more training was still needed. The coordinators and
paraprofessionals rated highly the need for training in job coaching, behavior management, and
knowledge of students with disabilities. Districts may offer training, but it may not be the
training needed by paraprofessionals. Authentic professional development opportunities will be
specific to their jobs and their students.
Some states have established career ladders for paraprofessionals' recruitment, preparation, and
ongoing development. High school students are recruited into 2-year programs leading to
paraprofessional preparation and/or continued development leading to a teaching certificate. A
person might work on a certificate of competence, a specified diploma, and a 2-year degree, and
then move to a 4-year program and pursue a teaching certificate. Recruiting paraprofessionals
into teaching might alleviate current and future teaching shortages, but strategies for recruiting
paraprofessionals are important in their own right and must be identified. The paraprofessional
work force is a legitimate educational employee group that must be prepared for its changing and
growing responsibilities. The career ladder model is a potentially sustainable infrastructure for
Several guiding principles may be used in designing preservice and inservice training for
paraprofessionals: (a) training should be aligned with a set of competencies and standards of
performance; (b) specific training formats are best for teaching certain skills, e.g., an overview of
the school-wide behavioral plan might take place in a large group, but what that means for a
specific student with an IEP might require on-the-job training and modeling by a teacher; (c)
training should be comprehensive and include varied opportunities and specific instruction on the
needs of specific students; (d) training opportunities should be organized for ongoing
paraprofessional development; (e) an initial orientation to the school's procedures and programs
must be followed by opportunities for ongoing, targeted training and supervision; (f)
teacher/paraprofessional teams can discuss new strategies, appropriate implementation roles, and
learn the same content at the same time; (g) when paraprofessionals receive specific-skill
training, it is important to follow up and ensure that they implement the skill correctly; positive
feedback is important to encourage appropriate use of the skill; (h) finally, training and
preparation must be aligned with appropriate role expectations and day-to-day supervision.
Certification and Licensure
There is substantial agreement that paraprofessionals play an important role in educating students
with disabilities (French & Pickett, 1997; Giangreco, Edelman, & Broer, 2001; Hilton &
Gerlach, 1997; Jones & Bender, 1993; National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1999;
Pickett, 2000; Pickett & Gerlach, 1997; Wadsworth & Knight, 1996; Wallace, et al., 2001).
Regardless of paraprofessionals' backgrounds and roles, training is a critical element in effective
employment and retention (Frith & Lindsey, 1982; Pickett, 2000; Pickett, et al., 1993; Riggs &
Mueller, 2001; Wallace, et al., 2000). Despite agreement on the need for paraprofessional
training, many local and state education agencies do not provide significant preservice or
inservice training (Blalock, 1991; Pickett, 2000; Rubin & Long, 1994; Riggs & Mueller, 2001;
Wallace, et al., 2000). Since the 1997 Amendments to IDEA, a renewed interest in developing
standards and certification has emerged. Several associations [Council for Exceptional Children
(CEC), the American Speech, Language and Hearing Association (ASHA), American Physical
Therapy Association (APTA), and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)]
have established knowledge and skill competencies. CEC has set paraprofessional competencies,
and some states also have paraprofessional competencies or standards. Mullins, Morris, and
Reinoehl (1997) report that six states have procedures for using paraprofessionals.
Currently, ASHA, APTA, and AOTA require community college AA degrees for certified
therapy assistants. Nationwide, 249 community colleges offer AA degrees to OT assistants and
PT assistants. In 1997, ASHA recognized an AA degree for SLP assistants, and there are already
10 accredited programs, 50 near completion, and others in development. NRCP records indicate
that there are 198 community colleges offering either 2-year AA degrees or 1-year certificate
programs to paraprofessionals working in inclusive special and general education, bilingual/ESL,
Title I, and early childhood programs. However, fewer than half of the states, the District of
Columbia, the Territories, The Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Department of Defense have
established standards and/or regulatory procedures for paraprofessional roles and responsibilities,
preparation, and supervision (Pickett et al., 2002). Thirteen (13) states have credentialing
systems-ranging from multilevel licensure/certification credentials that define roles, training,
and career advancement criteria to one-dimensional systems that do not specify role or training
requirements; 11 have chosen to establish standards for paraprofessional roles (Pickett et al.,
New legislative requirements will have an impact on certification and licensure across our
nation. It is critical that constituents, including federal and state policymakers, SEA and LEA
administrators, personnel developers in 2- and 4-year IHEs, researchers, professional
organizations, and others align their efforts for an efficient, effective system of preparation.
A SUMMARY OF CURRENT ISSUES
There has been increasing attention paid to the impact of paraprofessionals on student
achievement. The highly publicized STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) study
concluded that paraprofessionals did not contribute to the students' academic achievement in the
classroom. However, Finn (1998) reported that the duties of the paraprofessionals were left to
the discretion of a teacher who had received no special instructions. Like many studies, STAR
did not isolate and control training and supervision variables. Gerber et al. (2001) used the
STAR data to examine the role of paraprofessionals-they use the term teacher aides-and their
impact on student achievement, finding consistent achievement advantages for small classes
compared to regular-size classes with a paraprofessional. Because paraprofessionals often work
with individuals or small groups, the authors state the possibility that paraprofessionals may
provide important attention and support to specific students, which could be reflected in their
achievement data, but the effect is lost when aggregated with the rest of the class. In addition,
many paraprofessionals reported not having job descriptions, orientation, or training. There are
many variables involved with the appropriate use and supervision of paraprofessionals, which
makes general statements about efficacy difficult.
It is critical to consider studies of paraprofessionals' effectiveness carefully. The questions
guiding such studies must be analyzed. Satisfaction studies exist, but there are no well-designed
studies examining the relationship between the role of paraprofessionals and student
achievement (Jones & Bender, 1993; Rubin & Long, 1994). After reviewing the literature,
Giangreco, Edelman, Broer, and Doyle (2001) concluded that little is known about the impact of
paraprofessional services on students with disabilities, at least in part because more work is
needed on the identification of service-delivery models (e.g., program-based supports and one-
on-one support) that meet students' needs. Furthermore, extant research results are often
contradictory. For example, in a qualitative study of one-paraprofessional-to-one-child service
delivery, Giangreco et al. (1997) found that the paraprofessional's continuous proximity to the
child sometimes diminished the benefits of one-to-one attention. The authors suggested that
attention be given to the design and development of models of service delivery that do not focus
solely on matching a student with a paraprofessional. On the other hand, Werts, Zigmond, and
Leeper (2001) found that paraprofessionals' proximity had a positive impact on the academic
engagement of primary-aged students in inclusive settings.
Associated with issues of paraprofessionals' efficacy and appropriateness of service delivery is
the issue of supervision. Wallace et al. (2001) found that paraprofessionals most often reported a
difference between the person responsible for hiring and evaluating their performance (an
administrator) and the person directing their day-to-day work with students (an educator).
Confusion in many schools leads to inappropriate expectations and assignments, lack of
communication, and little planning between educators and paraprofessionals. Several studies
and opinion pieces have addressed the importance of supervision as early as Esbenson (1966)
and Blessing (1967), who agreed that, given appropriate supervision, paraprofessionals can
perform instructional activities. Currently, legislation supports the need for supervision, and
now teachers must learn strategies for supervising paraprofessionals beginning in their teacher
preparation programs (Drecktrah, 2000; French, 2001; French & Pickett, 1997; Salzberg &
Morgan, 1995; Wallace, et al., 2001). In addition, administrators must promote effective
instructional supervisory relationships and create infrastructures that reward teams.
The key issues were summarized in a report to the Office of Special Education Programs
(OSEP), the IDEA Partnerships Paraprofessional Initiative (2001). Six overarching themes were
identified by a cross-partnership (IDEA Partnerships, including ASPIIRE, FAPE, ILIAD, and
PMP) forum-35 representatives of professional associations; higher education; federal, state,
and local agencies; special projects; individual professional practitioners; paraprofessionals/
assistants; and families. Broad issues associated with the roles, supervision, and preparation of
instructional/service teams in relation to the 1997 Amendments to IDEA were identified.
Because this paper targets teachers and paraprofessionals, the following concepts are worded
specifically for educational settings. However, the work of the Forum participants originally
included related service teams as well.
The six issues included: (1) confusion and misunderstanding about roles, responsibilities, and
supervision of paraprofessionals by teachers, administrators, and families; (2) lack of clear
federal, state, and local policies and standards; (3) need for consensus about who
paraprofessionals are and what a paraprofessional does; (4) inadequate training for
administrators, teachers, and paraprofessionals about appropriate roles, responsibilities, and
supervision; (5) inadequate opportunities for instructional teams to plan, collaborate, and support
one another's efforts; and (6) need for systematic infrastructures and administrative support for
training, team collaboration/planning, and utilization of appropriate practice. These six broad
issues, coupled with the need for identifying the efficacy of the paraprofessional role, are also the
key paraprofessional issues supported by the literature.
IMPLICATIONS FOR RESEARCH
The following research will facilitate improvements: (a) efficient and accurate systems to
identify information about the paraprofessional work force; (b) the relationship between
paraprofessional behaviors and the academic engagement and achievement of students; (c)
models of paraprofessional support that demonstrate alignment among standards for roles,
preparation, and supervision; (d) factors associated with successful collaboration/coordination
among general educators, special educators, and paraprofessionals in the support of students in
inclusive educational settings; (e) recruitment/retention strategies that lead to successful
paraprofessionals; (f) factors (training, supervision, duties, planning time) associated with the
successful use of paraprofessionals; (g) how teachers work with paraprofessionals on
administrative, instructional, and noninstructional tasks; (h) infrastructures to support the
preparation and ongoing development of paraprofessionals (e.g., preservice and inservice
training, career ladders); (i) knowledge/skill competencies and corresponding training
approaches; and (j) models for preparing administrators and teachers to supervise and direct the
work of paraprofessionals effectively. The importance of the paraprofessional work force, the
issues surrounding this group, and the research/development activities needed to develop
solutions are best summarized by Daniels and McBride (2001):
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