02/27/2014 08:06 am ET | Updated Apr 29, 2014

Making Effective Use of Paraprofessionals


The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in England has just released its first six reports of studies evaluating various interventions. In each case, rigorous, randomized evaluations were done by third parties. As is typical in such studies, most found that treatments did not have significant positive outcomes, but two of them did. Both evaluated different uses of paraprofessionals. In England, as in the U.S., paraprofessionals usually assist teachers in classrooms, helping individual students with problems, helping the teacher with classroom management, and "other duties as assigned." As in the U.S., teachers, parents, and politicians like paraprofessionals, because they are usually nice, helpful people from the community who free teachers from mundane tasks so the teachers can do what they do best. Unfortunately, research in both countries finds that paraprofessionals make no difference in student learning. The famous Tennessee Class Size study, for example, compared larger and smaller classes, but also had a large-class-with-paraprofessional condition, in which student achievement was precisely the same as it was in the large classes without paraprofessionals.

In one of the recent EEF-funded evaluations, teaching assistants taught struggling secondary readers one-to-one 20 minutes a day for 10 weeks. The study involved 308 middle schoolers randomly assigned to tutoring or ordinary teaching in 19 schools. The tutored students gained significantly more in reading than did controls. Similarly, a study in which 324 elementary students in 54 schools were randomly assigned to one-to-one tutoring in math or to regular teaching found that the tutored students gained significantly more.

The EEF reports add to a considerable body of research in the U.S. showing that well-trained paraprofessionals can obtain substantial gains with struggling readers in one-to-one and small-group tutoring.

What these findings tell us is crystal clear. Already in our schools we have a powerful but underutilized resource, paraprofessionals who, with training and assistance, could be making a substantial difference in the lives of struggling students. This resource is costing us a lot. Most of the $15 billion we spend on Title I every year is spent on paraprofessionals, as is a lot of state and local funding. From personal experience, paraprofessionals are caring and capable people who want to make a difference. Why not use the evidence to help them do just that?