From guest columnist Kim Wilson:
Education is changing. Our schools are turning to para-educators to supplement instruction, especially in programs that serve at risk students.
Para-educators are education’s equivalent to paralegals, paramedics and physician assistants. However, unlike paramedics and paralegals, para-educators in Washington state have inadequate standards and insufficient support to effectively serve their students.
Most para-educators receive little training before being sent into our classrooms, often to provide instruction to our most vulnerable students.
Public School Employees of Washington is asking lawmakers to change this by introducing legislation that would create professional standards and training programs for para-educators. The proposed bill directs the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to develop a long overdue specific new training program for para-educators.
The use of para-educators is a trend that makes sense. Using para-educators puts more educators in the classroom in a cost efficient manner. It is para-educators, not teachers, who provide more than half of all the instruction time to students who are struggling in Washington.
These educators need proper training. The opportunity gap is a real problem in Washington state. There is a significant gap in achievement between different racial groups, and 20 percent of Washington state students drop out.
Well-trained para-educators can help close this gap. A recent report from the University of London suggests placing a para-educator in every classroom increased student performance, in particular students who were behind.
School districts in Washington have become dependent on para-educators. They are used in all facets of education and are especially critical in programs designed to close the achievement gap. Para-educators work with many different kinds of students: some who just struggle in basic curriculum, some new to the country, or students who have learning disabilities.
The unfortunate reality is that many paras are inexperienced, usually with fewer than five years on the job and are provided no support to improve. Many para-educators have been forced to seek training elsewhere, sometimes paying for it right out of their own pocket.
Para-educators working under the supervision of teachers are a smart option to reduce class size by putting more educators in the classroom. Highly trained para-educators would become a critical asset to all students.
Washington state’s most vulnerable students should be taught by highly trained para-educators. At-risk kids deserve our best. If we don’t upgrade instruction through increased training, we will never close the opportunity gap and lower the dropout rate.
Kim Wilson is the president of Public School Employees of Washington.
Correction: Information in this blog post, originally published at 2:58 p.m. on Jan. 7, 2014, was corrected at 4:59 p.m. on Jan. 7, 2014. In an earlier version, guest columnist Kim Wilson was incorrectly identified as director of Public School Employees of Washington. She is the president.