DeKalb Schools had only 40 applicants for 170 special education teaching vacancies.
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

How do we recruit and retain more special education teachers?

Why is there a chronic shortage of special education teachers? And what have we done to address a crisis that was predicted decades ago? 

My AJC colleague Marlon Walker focused on how the shortage is playing out in DeKalb where the district had only 40 applicants for 170 special ed teaching vacancies.

Walker wrote:

Special education teachers are responsible for some of the most vulnerable of learners and must meet certain federal and state requirements. The job often requires much more paperwork to show students are taught according to Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) built to teach students at their respective paces. But burnout happens more often, leading to higher-than-average turnover and teachers shifting to other areas of instruction, or leaving the field altogether.

We had fair warning about the shortage of special ed teachers. A 2004 review in the Journal of Special Education noted: 

Almost all of the 30,000 open public-school special education teaching positions are filled by the beginning of each school year. Only about 1% remain vacant during any given year (USDOE, 2000). However, persons not fully certified fill many of these positions. Boe, Cook, et al. reported that an average of 9% to 10% of all special education teachers are less than fully certified in the area of their primary assignment. The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that the shortage of fully certified special education teachers has increased to 47,532, or 11.4% of all special education teachers. This chronic shortage of fully qualified special education teachers exists in every region of the United States

In its report on the national special education teacher shortages, Education Week warned: 

The need is clear: Of public schools that said they had teaching vacancies, about 31 percent said they found it very difficult or were not able to fill their special education spots. That compares to 9 percent who said they had similar challenges filling general elementary spots. Only physical science and foreign language spots were identified as harder to fill.

The Education Week Research Center delved into federal data that showed, while the number of special education teachers was dropping, the number of students with disabilities ages 6 to 21 declined by only about 1 percent over the same time period. In the 2015-16 school year, the most up-to-date federal data, there was one special education teacher for every 17 students with disabilities. That's more special education students per special educator than the overall teacher-student ratio, which has held steady at about 1 to 16 for the past decade.

Among the solutions that have been suggested or are being attempted: Higher pay for special education. Improved training so teachers are not overwhelmed. Tuition reimbursement for education majors willing to go into special education. Increase in support and professional development for special education teachers. 

A former special education teacher now working as private counselor told me more money would not have kept her in a classroom.  She loved working with the students and accepted the demanding parents as part of the deal, but tired of fighting a lack of support and understanding from her principal and colleagues about what her students required to thrive.

“I didn’t feel the school was setting up my students for success, and it was a daily battle to get them what they really needed. I came home every night extremely frustrated and almost hopeless. My own two kids were not getting the best of me,” she said.

Her comments echoed the findings of an Education Week report on special education, which noted that, in a survey of special ed teachers in rural districts, fewer than 6 percent cited salary, benefits, remote locations, or paperwork as reasons they planned to leave the field. 

Ed Week wrote:

In surveys, research papers, and interviews, special educators say their jobs are also made difficult by factors that are well within school and district leaders' power to change. Those include a lack of support from principals, difficulty balancing competing priorities from various supervisors, ignorance (and sometimes disrespect) of the job from peers, and a workload that takes special educators away from what they really want to do: teach children.

These views are not universal, but they're common. And without understanding that these are problems that schools and districts can address, holding on to special educators—whose ranks have declined by more than 17 percent between 2006 and 2016—will end up being even more of an uphill battle.

 Your thoughts?

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.