Employing, Developing, and Directing Special Education Paraprofessionals in Inclusive Education Programs: Findings from a Multi-Site Case Study

By Gail Ghere and Jennifer York-Barr

Institute on Community Integration (UCEDD) & Department of Educational Policy and Administration, University of Minnesota

ideas that work office of special education programs

the college of education and human development

Printed July, 2003

This document was supported in part by Grant #832M980176, A Systems Approach to Paraprofessional Development and Support in Inclusive Schools, awarded to the Institute on Community Integration (UCEDD) at the University of Minnesota from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). This document does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Education, the Institute on Community Integration or the University of Minnesota, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

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Table of Contents

Section 1: Introduction

Section 2: Study Purpose and Research Questions

Section 3: Design and Methodology

Section 4: Findings

Section 5: Implications

Section 6: Conclusion
Appendix: Interview Protocols


We wish to thank each of the 53 teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals in the three school districts who generously shared their time and expertise for this study. Clearly, these dedicated educators have demonstrated strong commitments to creating schools in which students with disabilities are included, valued, and supported to learn well. We were privileged to be listeners and learners as they shared so openly their experiences and insights regarding successful inclusive practices. Because of these individuals, many other educators, students, and parents will have the opportunity to learn from the findings of study and make local applications to improve the quality of their respective educational programs. We are truly grateful.

We also wish to thank the Publications Office at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota for their unsurpassed talents in designing a “user-friendly” monograph easily accessible by practitioners, policy makers, and researchers.


It was not until the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that federal special education legislation referred to “paraprofessionals.” This was despite the paraprofessional workforce exploding from 10,000 in 1965 to over 500,000 full-time equivalent employees by 1996 (Pickett, 1986, 1996). IDEA focused national attention on paraprofessionals who support students with disabilities in public schools. Concurrently, the literature on paraprofessional roles and responsibilities, direction, and development has grown steadily. Although more research is needed in all of these areas, little continues to be known about paraprofessional employment processes (Giangreco, Edelman, Broer, & Doyle, 2001). Policies and practices at each level of the school district (i.e., team, school, district) affect paraprofessional employment, direction, and development. There is a significant gap in our knowledge about how districts are looking at these issues across the levels of district and the degree of communication and coordination that exists between the levels of a district. These issues are particularly important for inclusive special education programs because the programs tend to be highly decentralized and paraprofessionals often do not work in close proximity to the special education teachers most of the school day.

The purpose of this study was to describe and understand the systems that districts use to employ, develop, and direct their special education paraprofessionals to work effectively in inclusive special education programs. A multi-site case study of three school districts was conducted. District level special education personnel in each district identified one elementary special education teacher and one secondary special education teacher whom they believed were effectively including students with disabilities in general education classes and who directed the work of at least two paraprofessionals. Other key informants (e.g., special education directors, special education supervisors, principals, paraprofessionals) were drawn from the site and district levels in the three school districts. A total of 53 individuals from across the three districts participated in the study. Data collection included semi-structured interviews and structured group interviews. The findings clustered around key areas:

Employing, Developing, and Directing Special Education Paraprofessionals in Inclusive Education Programs: Findings from a Multi-Site Case Study
Go to Section 1: Introduction