Impact Feature Issue on Volunteerism by Persons with Developmental Disabilities

Federal and State Standards for Paraeducators


Tish Olshefski is Acting Coordinator of the Education and Training Voluntary Partnership, American Federation of Teachers, Washington, DC.

For the past few years, we’ve struggled through the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Now known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), the new law includes education standards for paraeducators working in schools that receive Title I funds that go far beyond any previous federal mandate. This is just one example of many federal and state initiatives that hold both promise for increasing the professional stature of paraeducators and danger of serving as a catalyst for complete elimination of a large portion of the paraeducator workforce. On that dire-sounding note, following is an overview of federal and state regulatory and legislative initiatives that set standards for this important sector of the education workforce.

In Washington

First authorized in 1965, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has gone by various names including Title I, Chapter One, ESEA, and the Improving America’s Schools Act. Through all these transformations, this federal legislation has always allowed use of funds for paraprofessionals (the term “paraprofessional” is used here rather than “paraeducator” because it is used in the law) to support instruction in the classroom. For many years, Title I programs mandated training for paraprofessionals. Over the years these mandates were forgotten, overlooked or ignored.

The current incarnation of Title I includes very specific education requirements for paraprofessionals. The education requirements apply to differing groups of paraprofessionals in different ways and on different timelines:

  • All paraprofessionals funded by Title I, regardless of their position or responsibilities, must have a high school diploma or GED. The law is silent on a date by which this must be achieved. Paraprofessionals who provide only parent involvement or translation services do not need to meet any requirements beyond this.
  • Paraprofessionals working in programs funded by Title I who provide instructional services to students must meet one of three options to ensure ability to provide this service: (1) meet a rigorous standard of quality that demonstrates, through a formal State or local academic assessment, knowledge of and the ability to assist in instructing, reading, writing and mathematics (or reading readiness, writing readiness, and mathematics readiness); or (2) have completed at least two years of study at an institution of higher education (the law is silent on content area); or (3) have obtained an associate’s or higher degree (again, silent on content area). Paraprofessionals employed after January 8, 2002 must meet one of these three requirements upon employment, while those employed prior to January 8, 2002 have until January 8, 2006 to meet one of these three requirements.

The current law also defines very specific responsibilities paraprofessionals may be assigned. They include providing one-on-one tutoring, assisting with classroom management, providing assistance in a computer lab, conducting parental involvement activities, providing support in a library or media center, acting as a translator, and providing instructional services to students (this specific service must be carried out under the direct supervision of a teacher). Another section of NCLB requires that paraprofessionals working in Even Start Family Literacy Programs must have a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent by December 21, 2004.

Finally, the Department of Education has produced guidance for local education agencies (LEAs) on the scope of the workforce covered by these regulations. Any paraprofessional whose position is directly funded by Title I and who provides instructional support will have to meet these regulations. In a schoolwide project, any paraprofessional providing instructional support services will have to meet these requirements. Neither the nature of the work nor the characteristics of the students served seem to be a mitigating factor for exclusion. This will have an extremely far-reaching impact on paraeducators working with special needs students. There are very few schools in this country that do not receive Title I funds nor many schools that don’t provide education to students with special needs.

Another significant piece of legislation for paraeducators is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Reauthorized in 1997, IDEA requires states to establish standards to ensure that paraprofessionals (as well as other personnel) who provide education services to children with disabilities are adequately trained and prepared. Individual states may have more specific criteria for appropriate roles and responsibilities, but the federal law is not that precise. The current law will go through Congress sometime in the next year, and it is expected that an effort will be made to include education requirements for paraeducators that mirror the language in NCLB.

Lastly, the law establishing Head Start, which serves low-income children from birth to age 5 and their families, though not technically an education program (it is regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services) nevertheless, does set some standards for personnel who support instruction. Staff, specifically content area experts, working with infants and toddlers must obtain a Child Development Associate credential. There are also preservice and inservice training mandates for all staff.

At the State Level

States have always struggled to meet the requirements of the federal mandates described above. Some states established employment and education standards many years ago in response to passage of PL94-142. Others have established standards more recently and for entirely different reasons. Whatever the impetus for their development, the standards themselves are all over the board. It is possible, though, to group them as follows by common factors:*

  • Standards for Skills/Knowledge, Assignment/Performance, and Training/Education:Idaho, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Utah, Washington (not mandatory).
  • Standards for Training/Education (*special education only):
  • Standards for Assignment:Indiana, New Jersey.
  • Standards in Development:Oklahoma, Oregon.
  • No Standards Found:Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Wyoming.

The standards that exist were developed through a variety of processes – some by enactment of formal legislation, some through the work of task forces and approval of recommendations, still others by issuance of regulations in the absence of a law. Nearly all of them have the driving force of funding issues behind them – funding from the federal or state government to LEAs.

Through Associations

Any synopsis of the range of standards for employment and training of paraeducators wouldn’t be complete without a quick look at the standards developed and recommended by various organizations with narrowly defined programmatic or target population interests. They include:

International Literacy Association.  Provides recommendations on competencies for paraeducators providing support for reading programs.

National Association for the Education of Young Children.  Offers Standards for Early Childhood Professional Preparation.

Council for Exceptional Children.  Offers recommendations on standards for employment, training, and supervision from its paraprofessional working group report.

American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  Distributes Standards for a Profession, outlining AFT’s views on employment, knowledge, and training criteria for paraprofessionals.

National Education Association.  Offers resources for improving the working relationships of teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators.

National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals.  Has criteria for appropriate training for paraeducators, and information on supervision and roles and responsibilities.


In my 21 years tracking this issue, I’ve never seen as much activity and attention paid to paraeducators as in the last two years. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad. The federal initiatives driving state (and local) efforts to set standards hold such promise for this profession. There are nearly one million paraeducators who do this work simply because of their love of education and their desire to help students learn and grow. All they want is to do the best job possible.

* Note: Some state departments of education, when asked, are unaware of the existence of any regulations or recommended policy for paraeducators, even in those states we know have regulations. This list is compiled from various sources, legislative/regulatory searches, and phone surveys. It is as accurate as the information we can track.