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By Paul Bradley  /  
2008 January 27 - 12:00 am

2. No Community College Left Behind

The No Child Left Behind Act contains scant mention of community colleges or other postsecondary institutions.

Yet the landmark law aimed at improving public schools, a measure which Congress will consider revamping this year, has had a profound and lasting effect on community colleges. 

As professional development demands on teachers have increased beyond the capacity of four-year colleges to meet them, two-year colleges are filling the void with a wide variety of programs intended to increase the supply of talented teachers.

Many education experts believe professional development is at the center of reforming education and improving instruction. Today, professional development, also called in-service training, has moved beyond one-day seminars and workshops, providing community colleges with new training opportunities.

And because community colleges are more nimble than their four-year counterparts when it comes to creating new programs, they have assumed a prominent role in providing training for teacher’s aides.

“No Child Left Behind is really driving what a lot of colleges are doing,” says Ray Ostos, interim director of the National Center for Teacher Education. “These colleges are able to react quickly, and a lot of them have good relationships with local school districts.”

In no area are community colleges more active than in the training of the often under-appreciated teacher’s aides. Since No Child Left Behind became law and increased educational requirements for these paraprofessionals, more than 200 community colleges across the country have created training programs for them, according to the National Resource Center for Paraprofessionals.

Prior to the enactment of No Child Left Behind, most teacher’s aides needed only a high school diploma to go to work in classrooms, though educational requirements varied from state-to-state and district-to-district.

But No Child Left Behind dictates that by 2006, all paraprofessionals working in schools that receive federal Title I funds must either have an associate degree, two years of college or must be able to pass a test measuring their ability to assist in teaching reading, writing, or math.

The degree-less moms and grandmas who took a part-time job working in their children’s classrooms are becoming a thing of the past.

Dual Benefits

By no means are public two-year colleges the only institutions helping teachers aides meet the new mandate. Four-year colleges offer a variety of two-year certificate programs. Individual public school districts have developed test preparation workshops. For-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University also have launched paraprofessional training programs.

For federal policy makers, the new requirements represent an effort to upgrade early childhood education, since teacher’s aides are found primarily in elementary schools. But they apply to all schools getting money from the federal Title I program, which is designed to improve the academic achievement of economically disadvantaged children. The idea is to introduce a new level of skill and professionalism among teacher’s aides, education officials say, in order to help students with math and reading skills.

For community colleges, the new rules have dual benefits. They create new opportunities for colleges to educate an underserved segment of the workforce. And by steering new associate degree recipients toward four-year teaching degrees, colleges can also assume a greater role in boosting the supply of classroom teachers, educators say.

Paraprofessionals were introduced into classrooms more than 40 years ago. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 675,000 teacher’s aides now work in instructional roles in classrooms across the country.

Historically, they have performed functions such as clerical work and student monitoring, allowing teachers to concentrate on classroom instruction. But they have been largely overlooked by state and federal policy makers.

As cries for better schools have grown louder, paraprofessionals are performing more essential classroom tasks, such as reading instruction, coaching students, helping with special education students and guiding and advocating for those with limited English skills.

No Child Left Behind has moved paraprofessional training to the forefront of teacher education, according to a policy paper prepared by the Education Commission of the States. Today, paraprofessionals are seen as critical to classroom management and student success, the ECS paper says. 

According to a study by the Urban Institute, about 60 percent of paraprofessionals did not meet the new educational requirements at the time they were enacted into law. The percentage of those needing to upgrade skills was higher in urban school districts.

A New Path
Faced with having to upgrade the training for paraprofessionals, many community colleges devised programs to provide low-cost training, an important consideration because many teacher’s aides earn as little as $14,000 a year.

Delaware Technical and Community College created such a program in 2003. The college offers a 65-credit associate of applied science degree in paraeducator technology that can be completed in four semesters.

The degree program was crafted with an eye on the needs of working paraprofessionals – classes are offered at night and on weekends – and a look toward the future, says Nancy Campbell, who heads the education department at the college’s Owens campus. Graduates not only meet the new federal requirements, but also are presented with a path toward a four-year degree at the University of Delaware and a teaching career, she says.

“Paraprofessionals already have an idea of how to run a classroom,” she says. “Many of our students are minorities, and they have the option of pursuing a four-year degree in elementary education if they want to.”

Other states are taking similar approaches. In Florida, Indian River Community College offers an associate degree training program for paraprofessionals as part of its Educator Preparation Institute, says Henri Sue Bynum, vice president of academic affairs. She expects many of those who earn an associate degree will go on to four-year colleges and take jobs in Florida classrooms.

A Point of Access

Massachusetts is going even further. In 2006, lawmakers went beyond the federal requirements, enacting a law aimed at all early childhood education programs. In the Bay State, all early childhood educators, including those working in private day care centers or nursery schools, must have at least an associate degree by 2010, says Phyllis Walt, chairwoman of early childhood education at Massachusetts Bay Community College in suburban Boston.

The effort is part of the Massachusetts Education Compact. Involving community colleges, four-year institutions and state policy makers, the compact spells out for the first time precisely what is required of community college early childhood education graduates to transfer to four-year colleges.

Community colleges assisted in writing the early childhood education degree requirements and in crafting the articulation agreements. In doing so, the colleges beefed up academic requirements for students intending on becoming teachers, Walt says.

Her institution, Mass Bay, created two new associate degree programs, one in early childhood education and the other in elementary education.

“We are playing a critical role in providing in-service education to all early childhood educators,” Walt says.

The paraprofessional training mirrors traditional teacher preparation programs, she adds. That way, officials hope many of the paraprofessionals who earn an associate degree will be ready to continue their education careers and become full-fledged teachers.

“The training is a combination of early childhood psychology and a strong foundation in liberal arts so they can assume a strong role in educating these children,” Walt says. “These children deserve to have high quality instruction. This is not babysitting.”

Walt believes paraprofessionals can become an important resource for Massachusetts and other states facing impending teacher shortages, especially in subjects like science, math and foreign languages, Walt says.

 “We really think this can be a strong point of access into the teaching profession,” Walt says. “For many students, this is a second chance at a career. A lot of our students are very tentative about getting a degree. We provide a lot of support so they can get the skills and confidence they need to meet some new aspirations.”

Walt says she is pleased with the response since the compact got under way in 2006. Mass Bay currently enrolls 50 students in early childhood and elementary education programs. The first cohort of 12 students is scheduled to graduate this spring. The program is supported with a modest grant  of about $14,000 from the state.

Students enrolled in the program get free tuition, underwritten by a variety of scholarships and grants. But most still hold jobs. Walt said many find it difficult to take more than two classes a semester, meaning it will take most of them four years to complete a course of study.

Going All the Way

Mary C. Belknap, teacher education co-coordinator and education professor at Michigan’s Jackson Community College, sees an added benefit of prodding paraprofessionals toward four-year degrees – improving the diversity of the teaching force, which she says is still a “white woman’s world.” Nearly 40 percent of community college students are members of a racial or ethnic minority group.

“We have had many nontraditional students who are coming back into college,” she says. “When they reach those No Child requirements, they say to themselves, ‘I can do this.’ They begin to see themselves as educators and they might as well go all the way.”

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