Staffing shortages continue to impact schools across the U.S., and vacancies are an increasingly common occurrence. Parents’ minds often jump first to teacher shortages, with significant numbers of teachers leaving schools in 2022 in search of less stressful work. But another essential role in schools is facing an equally urgent staffing crisis: paraprofessionals.
Paraprofessionals, also referred to as classroom aides or a primary support person (PSP), are the glue in the school day, supporting teachers in monitoring classroom activities and ensuring that all students are where they need to be. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are greater than a million aides working in K-12 schools nationwide, with a meaningful subset focused on supporting special education delivery.
Paraprofessionals are particularly essential in special education. They’re an integral part of a team, working closely with clinicians—speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, school psychologists—and students, both one-on-one and in small groups. They play a critical role in assisting the evaluation process on the student side, they document student behavior, and support assistive devices. In some circumstances, they may act as an extension of the hands of the clinician, helping to guide the student in various tasks.
With an increasing number of schools using teletherapy as part of their special education service delivery, the need for paraprofessionals is growing. Interactive online therapy generally relies on having a responsible adult onsite with the child to provide the appropriate level of support ranging from line-of-site supervision to 1:1 facilitation.
Critical shortage of paraprofessionals
Even as online student services continue to grow in most states, paraprofessionals available to help support the work are in very short supply. A Frontline Education survey in April 2021 cited 35 percent of districts found paraprofessionals among the hardest vacancies to fill.
“We have growing shortages in paraprofessionals, who we rely on to cover essential work throughout the day. Without them, the rest of our staff is strained to cover the gaps. This is very real in our area. We have had shortages start a few years ago but it was greatly impacted with COVID and also the raising of pay by outside locations around us,” shared a school administrator in California.
To position themselves as attractive employers for paraprofessionals, schools need to pay attention to three key areas: compensation, career development, and job satisfaction.
Historically, the paraprofessional role has been undervalued. According to Indeed.com, “On average, paraprofessionals in the U.S. earn $13.34 per hour.” Often they’re burdened with administrative tasks beyond their specific role. And due to widely varying requirements, they sometimes lack consistent training.
One California school leader explains the reality of the situation: “It’s not surprising that we are seeing more vacancies in paraprofessional positions, when there are more lucrative work opportunities outside of schools. You can work at a fast food restaurant and make more money than some of our positions.”
A recent survey collected responses “from paraprofessionals, school transportation employees, and other classified employees who indicated that they are likely to leave their work within the next year and go into a field outside K-12 education.” Seventy percent of respondents selected “pay” as the top reason for leaving. An article covering the survey reports, “Paraprofessionals in Madison, Wis., recently walked out of work to push for a 5 percent pay increase, but the district so far has only agreed to raise wages by 2 percent.”
For many, the PSP role is a starting point on a career path in education. These are professionals seeking career fulfillment through their work with children in schools, and from the school’s perspective can be a strong talent pipeline for future educator roles. Some schools are leaning into this by providing access to advanced degree programs through partners such as 2U, Inc. The company offers advanced degree programs across many education professions, including masters degree programs in speech-language pathology, a field in which schools regularly struggle to hire and retain sufficient capacity.
According to Jessica Wang, senior vice president of placement at 2U, “One of the biggest challenges for someone pursuing higher education in a field like speech therapy is understanding what working with children in that capacity looks like every day. Paraprofessionals often make excellent candidates and excel in their clinical experiences as graduate students because they already understand the workings of the school setting and how to interact with children. It is a natural next step for many paraprofessionals and it can be a fulfilling and lucrative one over a career.”
Staff shortages in one area impact other areas. Paraprofessionals are frequently expected to cover gaps by taking on additional tasks beyond their core job responsibilities. The survey referenced above reports that paraprofessionals interviewed are working additional hours to make up for the wide range of staff shortages, and they’re distracted by tasks outside their job descriptions.
With their time taken up by additional duties such as bus duty and hallway monitoring, job dissatisfaction is running high. Paraprofessionals want to focus on the passion that inspired them in the first place—working in the role they trained for to support their students.
In all contexts, paraprofessionals need to be recognized as an essential part of the classroom or therapy experience. They need to be valued, positioned to grow in their careers, and given opportunities to center their work on supporting the children who inspired them to take on these roles.
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