As anyone who works in a school knows, paraprofessionals are often the cement that helps hold a school together: filling in the cracks and playing many roles to ensure the school day goes smoothly. Paraprofessionals (or paraeducators, aides, teaching assistants—terms often used interchangeably) do everything from supporting individual students with disabilities to clerical work.
Yet little is known about paraprofessionals. Despite comprising a growing share of the K-12 staff workforce, no research had comprehensively explored paraprofessionals' demographics, compensation, or staffing and attrition patterns.
To fill this gap, Roddy Theobald, Lindsey Kaler, Elizabeth Bettini, and Nathan Jones at CALDER studied twenty five years of state workforce data from the state of Washington. They limited analysis to paraprofessionals (the study uses the term paraeducator) who assisted in special education, which may leave out paras working in other roles. Researchers found that paraprofessionals in Washington were:
More diverse and less experienced:
When compared to licensed special education teachers, paraprofessionals were more diverse (20% of paras were people of color compared to 10% of special educators), and the proportion of paras of color has increased steadily since the 1990s. They were also more likely to be new to the role (with less than five years experience).
Less likely to work in schools serving more students of color:
Evidence shows that when students have greater access to paraprofessionals in their schools, math and reading achievement increases, with effects even more pronounced in districts serving large numbers of students of color and students living in poverty. Yet staffing ratios were starkly inequitable: staffing ratios of paras to students in schools predominantly serving students of color were 90:1, while ratios in schools serving mostly white students were 73:1.
Leaving the profession at higher rates:
Paraprofessionals' attrition rates have increased over time. The attrition rate for paras in the 2021-22 school year was 23%, up sharply from 8% in the 2008-09 school year. A small share (less than 3% per year) of this attrition has been increasingly driven by paraprofessionals becoming licensed teachers, perhaps attributable to growing efforts to help paras become certified via Grow Your Own programs.
Filling these vacancies isn't easy: a recent study of Washington state job postings found that districts posted more paraprofessional jobs than teacher jobs and many remained open over time. At least two studies have found that when paraprofessional roles go unfilled, special education teachers take on additional labor and take a 'triage' approach to their instructional responsibilities while dealing with pressing student safety concerns.
High attrition rates for paras likely directly impact student learning, safety, and overall functioning of the classroom. These impacts, in turn, place additional obligations on special education teachers, which could in turn increase their rates of attrition.
While wages have risen over time (up from $12,000 in 1996), paraprofessionals currently earn full-time salaries just under $30,000, about half of Washington state's average salary for special education teachers. In communities like Seattle, a skyrocketing cost of living and rent for a one-bedroom apartment would eat up about 70% of paraprofessionals' salary.
These findings point to key questions for policymakers and researchers alike, including:
- How are paraprofessional attrition rates and staffing ratios impacting students, particularly learners who need the most support?
- How can districts provide the benefits (particularly pay increases) and working conditions to attract and retain talented professionals to the job?
- How can districts working to diversify their teacher workforce support paraprofessionals to become licensed teachers? (And given the rate of unfilled paraprofessional jobs, how can policymakers help to ensure that there is a pipeline to fill these roles when paraprofessionals become certified teachers?)