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Washington State Taps Paraeducators to Fill Special Education Teacher Shortage

paraprofessional_file.jpgA new law passed in July aims to shrink the special education teacher shortage in Washington state by providing an easier path to teaching certification for paraeducators, also known as instructional aides or teacher assistants.

The Seattle Times reports that nearly two-thirds of principals said that special education slots were the hardest ones to fill, according to a 2016 survey on school staffing

From the article

About 27,000 paraeducators work in schools across the Evergreen State, according to the Public School Employees of Washington (PSE) union. And paraeducators cover a wide variety of essential classroom duties: instructional assistants, teacher's aides, library technicians, preschool caregivers and more.

They also provide the bulk of instruction—62 percent, the PSE estimates—in programs that serve some of the neediest students, including children with special needs and those who are learning English or live in low-income households. The new law, in fact, explicitly states that "paraeducators provide the majority of instruction in programs designed by the Legislature to reduce the opportunity gap."

The Seattle Times also notes that starting in the 2018-19 school year, districts can compete for $250,000 in grant funds to pilot new paraeducator training courses. 

The Washington law is just one of several efforts intended to boost the academic credentials of paraprofessionals, whose percentage of the workforce is growing faster than the overall student population. But others worry that paraprofessionals are being used to shore up inclusion efforts in schools, rather than schools making more systemic efforts to promote inclusion in general education.

"Problematically, teacher assistants have become almost exclusively the way, rather than a way, to support students with disabilities in general education classrooms, especially those with severe ... disabilities," said Michael Giangreco, the director of Project EVOLVE Plus at the University of Vermont, which works with schools and districts on inclusion issues. 

File Photo: Paraprofessional Stefanie Trotter uses flashcards of words and objects with 7th grader Jack Robinson, 13, at Siloam Springs Middle School in Siloam Springs, Ark. in 2015.—Shane Bevel for Education Week

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