Markey bill includes funds for paraprofessional hires, training

Massachusetts Statehouse. Photo Courtesy of Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service.

By Tanisha Bhat

Boston University News Service

The region’s paraeducators could receive additional support from the federal government when it comes to recruitment, training and retention as part of a bill proposed in Congress by Sen. Ed Markey.

The bill — called the Preparing and Retaining All (PARA) Educators Act, the text of which can be viewed at — would create a grant program within the Department of Education to provide funding to states and districts to recruit and retain paraprofessionals as well as provide high-quality professional development programs. It would also prioritize rural and urban areas to make sure these school districts are given equitable resources.

“Instructional assistants, teachers’ aides, special education aides and other educators who provide support in the classroom are the backbone of our education system,” Markey said in a statement. “They keep schools running and students thriving — often with little recognition and low pay.” 

Paraeducators are additional teachers in classrooms that can provide instructional, administrative or behavioral support. Tasks often include helping students with special needs, assisting teachers with classroom preparation, and managing and keeping administrative records of students. Sometimes they work with a smaller number of students in a classroom setting to help them understand lessons taught by the teacher.

In Massachusetts, paraeducators need a high school diploma or to pass their equivalency test, a passing score on the state certification assessment, and at least an associate’s degree or have at least two years of post-secondary education equivalent to at least 48 credit hours from a higher education institution.

Paraeducators are often referred to as the “backbone” of school districts, however, many face hardships when it comes to receiving proper training, sufficient wages and incentives to remain in the career for a long period of time.

“Paraeducators are a part of the whole educational system,” said Elizabeth Teahan-Zielinski, superintendent of the Ralph C. Mahar and Union 73 school districts. “They provide services to some of our most significantly needy students under the direction of a teacher.” 

Paraeducation is also a pathway for those looking to get a teaching license and become a classroom teacher.

Pema Latshang is the founding executive director of Teach Western Mass, an organization that provides alternative pathways to careers and opportunities in education. She said paraeducators are especially important in western Massachusetts because they are more likely to live in or come from the same communities as the students.

“There’s a bunch of reports that just came out in Massachusetts talking about the shifts in the demographics of the student body and the teacher workforce,” she said. “The paraprofessional workforce tends to have a higher percentage of diverse staff than the teacher workforce, which tends to be overwhelmingly white in most districts. … Supporting our paraeducators who want to become teachers is an important part of a teacher diversity workforce strategy.” 

Teahan-Zielinski added that paraeducators should have professional development tailored to their specific position, since there is a wide range of responsibilities.

“If you have a paraeducator who is supporting a child on the autistic spectrum, they may need to have some understanding of things like discrete trials or how to implement a behavioral plan,” she said. “You may have another paraeducator who is assisting in a general education classroom and is providing support to students in small group settings, so they need to have an understanding and training in how to run a particular small group for a targeted group of students.”

However, attracting new educators to the field has been difficult. Latshang said schools with lower enrollment typically have a smaller budget that cannot provide adequate support for paraeducators.

Teahan-Zielinski added that since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a problem recruiting and retaining positions in education overall, from administrators to teachers and paraeducators.

“In our area in western Mass. it is even more difficult to find individuals who want to come to work within the school setting,” she said. “We would love to have paraprofessionals who come in with an associate’s (degree) who want to work toward gaining certification as a teacher. It’s a great foundation for them, but the colleges are just not finding people who have that interest in working in schools.”

This story originally appeared in the Greenfield Reporter.

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