Paraeducators (also referred to as one-on-one aides, paraprofessionals, or educational assistants) are vital members of educational teams for children with disabilities. Despite their important role, Michigan currently has few policies or guidelines to help support the success of paraeducators. The lack of clear state policies related to paraeducators along with the increasing numbers of paraeducators in educational settings places the burden on local educational agencies to develop policies. School administrators across the state have suggested a need for formal paraeducator training and evaluation, and believe teachers need to be provided with skills for paraeducator supervision.
The roles of paraeducators have been expanding dramatically in recent years to include not just the support of instruction but many other duties such as behavioral management and home communication. Paraeducators work under the direction of special education teachers in many roles to support children with disabilities but receive limited training to know how to best implement the support, and their teacher supervisors often have limited training on effective supervision. It is vital paraeducators are “appropriately trained and supervised…to assist in the provision of special education and related services…to children with disabilities” as specified in the Individual Disabilities Education Act, a federal law related to the education of children with disabilities.
To help understand the specific needs of school districts across Michigan and the policies needed statewide to ensure quality paraeducators, we conducted a survey of administrators, teachers, and paraeducators across Michigan.
Our initial findings from administrator responses suggest that a number of steps might be taken to improve paraeducator supports for children with disabilities across Michigan. Here are the top priorities identified by administrators:
- Michigan needs policies in place to support the recruitment and retention of paraeducators. Administrators across the state noted challenges recruiting and retaining highly qualified paraeducators, which could be supported by state level policies. Administrators recommended state level certification for paraeducators, monetary bonuses provided to districts to improve the salary schedule to hire certified paraeducators, and appropriate state funding to support the hiring of quality paraeducators.
- Michigan needs systematic training of paraeducators statewide. The current training mechanisms in schools and districts is nonsystematic and varies widely. The most common form of training involves on-the-job instruction from supervising teachers or brief training before the school year begins, which is often voluntary in nature as paraeducators are often not paid for the training. Michigan would benefit from a systematic training program for paraeducators that could be accessed using interactive online formats so that even rural communities could provide high quality training to paraeducators throughout the school year.
- Michigan needs a formal evaluation process for paraeducators statewide. From our work we discovered that the formal evaluation process for paraeducators varies widely from district to district. While some district have a robust evaluation system with evaluations occurring more than once a year, other districts have only an end of year evaluation that often utilizes the same evaluation tools as teacher evaluations. There is a need for evaluation tools that are specific to paraeducators and policies that stipulate the evaluation process for paraeducators that includes input from supervising teachers as well as administrators.
- Michigan needs improved training for teachers to support their supervisory roles with paraeducators. Administrators identified limitations in teacher supervisor skills as a major challenge for improvement of paraeducator quality on the job. Policies are needed to improve pre-service preparation and in-service training of teachers for their supervisory roles. Additionally, teacher evaluations should include feedback of their supervisory skills with paraeducators as necessary.
Some other states such as Washington and Connecticut have established laws at the state level to clarify paraeducator qualifications, training, and supervision, and to establish advisory boards for paraeducator-related policy. Michigan lags behind these states, and administrators indicated a need for policies that will support paraeducator quality, which in turn will improve the education students with disabilities receive statewide.
Sarah N. Douglas is an assistant professor, and Ryan Bowles is an associate professor, in Michigan State University's Department of Human Development and Family Studies. Their research was supported by a grant from the Michigan Applied Public Policy Research (MAPPR) program, with the mission of delivering research-based information on timely topics of legislative debate.