To improve educational procedures and outcomes, states frequently change or enact new regulations for educators. Washington's Professional Educator Standards Board, for instance, requires paraeducators to obtain additional credentials and education in order to remain in the classroom. The policy, which went into effect at the start of the 2019–2020 school year, endeavors to make sure that paraeducators receive more training—and (hopefully) spurs them into teaching full-time.
Paraeducators already play a critical role in Washington's education system, and these new requirements are designed to further promote their role.
Why Washington's paraeducators are important.
Paraeducators—or "paras," as they're commonly called in schools—are school employees who work in K–12 schools under the supervision of a certified or licensed staff member. Paras outnumber teachers: According to the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state employs about 25,500 paraeducators, more than twice the number of fully certified teachers in the state. And they spend a significant amount of time teaching high-need students: According to the Public School Employees of Washington labor union, paraeducators provided almost two-thirds of the instructional time to students in special education classrooms, programs for English language learners, and classrooms serving low-income children, during the 2017–2018 school year. Paraeducators provide active care to the students who need it most, working in tandem with teachers to give students the best educational opportunities possible.
Even though they're in the classroom with some of the state's most vulnerable students, paraeducators previously had minimal instructional training. In 2018, state legislators moved to change that and passed a law that requires paraeducators to receive more education. This may incentivize more paraeducators to become fully certified teachers.
Washington's new requirements.
Senate Bill 6388, which became law in March 2018, changes the minimum employment requirements for paraeducators in Washington. Under the new policy, paraeducators must be at least 18 years old and hold a high school diploma or its equivalent.
They must also meet one or more of the following requirements, per the state's Professional Educator Standards Board:
- They received a qualifying score of 461 or higher on the Education Testing Service ParaPro Assessment.
- They hold an associate's degree or higher from an accredited college or university.
- They have earned 72 quarter credits or 48 semester credits at or above the 100 level from an accredited college or university.
- They have completed an apprenticeship as a paraeducator in a program registered with the Washington State Apprenticeship and Training Council.
Paras are also required to participate in a fundamental course of study class, which teaches classroom management and other skills, through the district that employs them. These requirements are significantly more stringent than the requirements established by previous policies, which only required paraeducators to complete at least two years of higher education.
How to meet the new requirements.
The changes are designed to improve educational outcomes and help paraeducators prepare for the classroom. Here are a few ways that paraeducators can ensure that they're in compliance with the new requirements.
The Education Testing ParaPro Assessment is a two-and-a-half-hour test administered in designated test centers around the state. The test's 90 questions measure skills in reading, writing, and math and assess how prospective and practicing paraprofessionals apply those skills in the classroom. Every state requires practicing paraeducators to achieve a specific score; Washington requires a score of at least 461. It costs $55 to take the test. The test is also helpful because it lets paras who might not have the time or the money to complete a degree remain in the classroom.
With the new policy in place, paraeducators are encouraged to seek out some education beyond a high school diploma. While it's not required, some people may find receiving an associate's degree or higher more fulfilling than simply taking a test. A degree in special education can be especially helpful for emerging paraeducators, as the program trains you in legal practices for special ed, behavioral support strategies, collaboration strategies, and other necessary skills for the job.
For those not interested in a traditional degree, paraeducators can opt for obtaining on-the-job apprenticeship hours. Programs such as the Washington State Apprenticeship and Training Council program allow paraeducators in participating districts to work while earning an associate's degree.
According to the Seattle Times, Washington legislators hope that a large portion of the state's vast paraeducator workforce will consider becoming full-time teachers. Paraeducators, they reason, are already doing the work of teaching children. Further, hiring paraeducators as teachers would improve diversity—as a group, the state's paraeducators exhibit more racial diversity than Washington's teachers—and provide students with more teachers who look like them. That's why some districts are starting programs to help paras become teachers, the Seattle Times reports.
Because this is a district-by-district initiative, however, the surest way for a paraeducator to become a teacher is to obtain a bachelor's degree in education. Many paraeducators who hold an associate's degree might only be a few credit hours away from a bachelor's degree.
The changes outlined in Washington's new policy might seem drastic, but they're intended to meet the needs of vulnerable students who need supplementary classroom support. In time, the paraeducator workforce in Washington will be better educated and more equipped to provide the best educational care possible.