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Unleash the Mighty Paraprofessional

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In a recent blog I discussed six free and low-cost things that could be done in American education to produce substantial gains at little or no cost. One of these is particularly easy, perhaps shockingly easy in light of how effective it could be: Make better use of paraprofessionals.

Paraprofessionals, of course, are people without teaching certificates (usually) who work in schools. They are poorly paid and don't get the respect they deserve, but schools spend an enormous amount on them. About 80 percent of Title I funds are spent on salaries and benefits, and much of this is for paraprofessionals. Non-Title I schools also hire a lot of paraprofessionals. Paraprofessionals do a lot of useful things in schools, such as helping teachers with discipline problems, materials, clean-up, and playground duty. They often circulate in classrooms and help out students having difficulties, and they may sit with students with special needs who need ongoing assistance.

The problem is that several studies in the U.S. and the U.K. have found no achievement benefits for paraprofessionals as they are used today. The famous Tennessee Class Size study compared class sizes of 25 to those of 15 and found that children in the early grades learned more in the smaller classes. Less famous are the results of another comparison in that same study, which found that adding a paraprofessional to a class of 25 added nothing to student learning. Teachers and principals argue that paraprofessionals at least make their jobs easier, and they certainly do. It would be wasteful to have certified teachers spending a lot of their time on bus or cafeteria duty. Yet paraprofessionals could be doing a lot more than freeing up teachers.

In contrast to research on ordinary uses of paraprofessionals, there is a great deal of research on one-to-one and one-to-small-group tutoring models, especially in reading, but also in math. Many of these successful models use paraprofessionals as tutors. The reading models that work are structured and phonetic, and require training and supervising the paraprofessionals, but they can be very effective for struggling readers. Our own research has developed computer-assisted tutoring models in reading that involve students working with each other in pairs. These programs are delivered to groups of 6-8 students at a time by ordinary paraprofessionals (with good training). They can produce particularly strong outcomes.

Paraprofessionals trained and equipped to provide high-quality small-group tutoring can also continue to help out in traditional ways, such as playground, lunch, and bus duty. Times such as the beginning and end of the day and lunchtime are not conducive to tutoring anyway. But paraprofessionals can make a powerful difference tutoring students who are behind in reading and math during appropriate parts of the day.

I've written before about paraprofessionals, reporting on two recent U.K. studies once again showing positive effects of tutoring models led by paraprofessionals in reading and math. I bring up this topic again because I think making effective use of paraprofessionals is an outstanding example of how American education could greatly improve outcomes for children at little cost, using the findings of research and development and taking advantage of resources already in the system.

Paraprofessionals are usually capable and motivated individuals who want to make a difference with children. Many of them have college degrees and some even have teaching certificates (for example, their certifications may be from another state). Some paraprofessionals have more qualifications and skills than others, and these would be particularly suited to roles as tutors.

Paraprofessionals in schools serving many minority students are much more likely than teachers to share their students' ethnicity and language, and are more likely to live in the neighborhood. Given training in proven tutoring models, software, materials, and respect, paraprofessionals can be a mighty force for good in our schools.