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In NY City, Views Differ About Aides in Classrooms
Comment: This is a disturbing story--mostly for how it reveals a good idea run amok with lack of training. Obviously, teachers as well as aides need to be trained to make the partnership work. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have aides in our classrooms know that it can work very well.
When the New York City teachers' union sued the Bloomberg administration this month to halt the layoffs of 864 classroom aides, emotional union leaders described aides as integral to the education of children and the sanity of teachers.
Yet some education experts and children's advocates say classroom aides are not as crucial as the union, the United Federation of Teachers, would have it seem. They say that the $568 million spent on their salaries and benefits each year supports what is primarily a jobs program for residents of poor neighborhoods that New York can no longer afford.
Almost four decades after the school system began hiring classroom aides, the city's nearly 17,000 aides have formed a distinct subculture — below teachers in the hierarchical chain, but with advantages that most teachers lack. The aides — also called paraprofessionals — are not in charge of classrooms and are not formally evaluated, so they do not face nearly the same pressures that teachers do.
Supporters say one reason aides are valuable is that many live in the neighborhoods where they work, so they know the local culture and residents better than teachers, who tend to commute to their schools from other areas. That is one reason why Congress began allotting school districts money to hire aides as part of the War on Poverty in the 1960's.
But New York principals and teachers say that the academic contributions of classroom aides vary widely in a system where they are not formally trained, are often poorly educated and have few contractual duties. Many are godsends, teachers say — especially in overcrowded classrooms or among children with chronic behavior problems. Others, they say, are an annoyance or worse.
"You have some who will just sit there unless you tell them what to do, then after they do it, they just go back and sit again," said one veteran teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. "They're not paid very well, so there's not a lot of motivation."
New York is not alone in hiring classroom aides in large numbers. There are more than 10 times as many nationwide as there were 30 years ago: 642,294 in 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, compared with 57,418 in 1970. Most work in urban schools with large numbers of poor children, partly because those schools receive federal Title I funds that help pay the aides' salaries.
Research suggests that classroom aides make little difference in student achievement, even though one of their chief roles is to work with children who are lagging behind. The main reason, according to the research, is because most aides are poorly educated — only about 20 percent of those paid for with federal Title I funds have bachelor's degrees, according to a United States Department of Education study released in 2000. The study found that in the poorest schools, the number is even lower: about 10 percent.
In New York, 11,800 classroom aides — about 70 percent of the total — work with disabled students, who are required by the courts to have full-time aides. An additional 4,000 work in elementary school classrooms, either assigned to a small group of low-performing students or helping the teacher supervise the entire class.
The remaining 900 are high school paraprofessionals, who are supposed to work with special-education or low-performing students but who often end up doing office work, teachers say.
"The dirty little secret is that there are many paraprofessionals who work in school offices, mainly doing secretarial-type work," said one veteran teacher at a Brooklyn high school. "This is definitely outside their job description."
Classroom aides are separate from school aides, who monitor lunchrooms, hallways and playgrounds and do office work. The city's 13,000 school aides belong to a different union, District Council 37, and many work part time. The city intends to lay off about 1,300 school aides, but that plan has provoked less outcry.
The latest teachers' contract requires aides to have at least six credits toward a college degree by the end of their first year on the job, and guarantees raises for those who keep earning credits. But only 2,000 at most are enrolled in college classes now, a union spokesman estimated. Many have weak English skills and poor grammar, teachers and principals say.
"The children who have the greatest instructional needs get help from paras with the least preparation," said Noreen Connell, executive director of the Education Priorities Panel, which monitors schools. "A school that relies on a lot of educational services by paraprofessionals is not going to do very well by its students."
Stanley S. Litow, a former deputy schools chancellor, looked for a correlation between the number of classroom aides in each of the community school districts and overall student performance in the early 1990's.
"We uncovered that the districts with the highest spending on paras had lowest achievement levels," Mr. Litow said. "Those who spent their discretionary dollars on extra teachers and professional development did better, regardless of socioeconomics."
Yet many teachers say the mere presence of aides is invaluable in overcrowded classrooms, or any classroom with disruptive students. Many city classrooms have more than 30 students, which teachers say is too many for one adult to handle.
"At some point it becomes an exercise in herding cats," said one kindergarten teacher in Brooklyn who has an aide for two hours a day to help with 28 students.
In flusher economic times, many more early-childhood classrooms had aides. But as cuts have chipped away at school budgets, most of those classrooms have lost them.
The planned layoff of the 864 classroom aides, due to take place at the end of June, would save the city $22 million a year, the Education Department said.
Some teachers consider themselves better off without aides. The class, race and cultural divides that are common between teachers and aides sometimes create tensions that make it difficult for them to work together. Unlike teachers, the majority of aides are black or Hispanic and poor — they earn an average of $23,000 a year, compared with a national average of $18,000 for classroom aides — and many are single mothers whose families depend on their incomes.
A Brooklyn teacher infuriated her aide by calling her an aide — the correct title is "educational assistant," according to the union contract — and many aides consider the term derogatory. The two barely spoke for months.
Other problems arise when aides are not given specific, consistent duties. One teacher recalled how her aide used to talk on her cellphone during class, while another said her aide would fall asleep during lessons. Yet another teacher watched an aide peruse a catalog for two hours.
Principals have little say in the hiring of aides, and usually cannot even interview them. They are hired and assigned by the community school district offices, and since they are unionized, those with seniority can transfer into desirable schools, regardless of their qualifications.
A Queens principal said he recently lost an aide and wanted to replace her, but "the one on deck from the district office is supposed to be bad, so I'd rather keep the slot empty."
The new federal education law, No Child Left Behind, recognizes that many classroom aides lack sufficient training. In schools that receive federal Title I funds — including most of New York City's 1,200 — all classroom aides will have to complete at least two years of college or pass a qualifying exam by 2006.
In the city, the Education Department already pays for any classroom aide lacking a bachelor's degree to take college classes. Under the union contract, aides taking at least five credits per semester can get two and a half hours off from work every week to attend classes, which can get them a higher salary — up to $27,000 a year, depending on seniority — and help them eventually become teachers.
The Education Department could not provide the program's cost. About 7,000 aides have become teachers through the program since its inception in 1970, according to the department.
Yet there are signs that many aides are ill-equipped to become teachers. The New York City Teaching Fellows program, which provides fast-track training for people with no teaching experience and has them teach while they pursue a master's degree, accepts classroom aides. But so many of them fail the state certification exam and do poorly on a writing sample, both prerequisites for the program, that few have been accepted, one person familiar with the statistics said.
Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a Washington group that works as an advocate for poor children, said that while aides do bring more diversity to school staffs and provide a link between schools and neighborhoods, they are expendable in times of budget crisis.
"It always feels like a really heartless thing to lay off paras," Ms. Haycock said, "but if you ask the question, `Are these folks making a major contribution to student achievement?' the research in general on that says no."
But Daria Rigney, principal of Public School 126 in Chinatown, said that aides need only be well-trained to make a powerful difference in classrooms. Her school's nine classroom aides work with small groups of students on carefully planned lessons and attend training workshops along with teachers.
"They really are working every minute because they, like our teachers, know there is not a moment to waste," Ms. Rigney said. "The culture of the paras needs to be very much the culture of the whole school."
Views Differ About Aides in Classrooms
May 19, 2003
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