Chronic Shortage of Special Education Teachers

Chronic Shortage of Special Education Teachers

“If teachers are well-prepared in both content and pedagogy, ‘it makes an enormous difference not only to their effectiveness in the classroom but also whether they’re likely to enter and stay in teaching’… [and] it is ‘more expensive to under-prepare people, and let them spin out again, than it is to prepare people more effectively and keep them in the profession…'”

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(Billingsley, 2004, p. 39)

The shortage of special education teachers has been a problem for schools and administrators for many years. The literature available indicates that the shortage is not only severe, it is threatening to reduce schools’ effectiveness in bringing a quality education to those students with special needs. This paper provides current research into the shortage of special education teachers, the reasons why there is a shortage and potential solutions to the problem. Without highly qualified, well-trained, and motivated special education teachers, schools have a difficult time meeting their obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide a good education for children with serious disabilities.

The Literature

Factors that contribute to special education teacher shortages. An article published in 2004 reports that “Ninety-eight percent of the nation’s school districts” in the U.S. report “special education teacher shortages” (McLeskey, et al., 2004, p. 7). The greatest shortages within the overall special education field are teachers who work within five specific fields, including: emotional/behavioral disorders; multicategorical, severe/profound disabilities; learning disabilities; and mild/moderate disabilities (McLeskey, p. 7). (Those categories are used by the American Association for Employment in Education [AAEE]).

Of great concern to administrators, parents and qualified teachers is the data presented in this article that indicates many special education students are not receiving the kind of quality education that the federal law mandates through IDEA. To wit, data from the U.S. Department of Education’s “Annual Reports to Congress” in 2003 shows that 11.4% of all special education teachers “lacked appropriate special education certification” (McLeskey, p. 7). That percentage in real numbers works out to 47,532 individuals who were teaching special education without a full certificate at the time of that survey (2001) — in other words, those teachers were either substitutes or general education teachers shifted over to special education because of the acute shortage of special education teachers.

Doing the math an alert reader can quick see that since the average class size in special education programs is 17 students the number of special education students that did not receive instruction from a certified teachers was approximately 808,000 (McLeskey, p. 7). When the issue of cultural / ethnic teachers in special education is reviewed, there are some problems in that aspect of the field as well. McLeskey (p. 8) explains that while approximately 38% of special education students in the U.S. are “culturally and linguistically diverse” only 14% of special education teachers are from culturally divers — and historically underrepresented — ethnic groups (McLeskey, p. 7).

Another trend in the special education field that is a cause for concern is that the number of students (between the ages of 3 and 21) with disabilities is increasing faster than the number of students in general education. “The number of students with disabilities grew at a rate almost three times greater than the overall student population,” McLeskey writes on page 9. In fact in the years 1992-1993 there were an estimated 5.08 million students with disabilities in the U.S.; but six years later the number of disabled students increased to 6.11 million, a jump of 20.3%, McLeskey explains (p. 9). This trend continued into the 2000s (McLeskey) albeit up-to-date information is not available for this report. Still, the disproportionate growth rate of students with disabilities is a pivotal factor in the nationwide shortage of special education teachers.

Ten-year-old data from the AAEE also shows that for every general education elementary school teaching position available, teacher preparation programs in U.S. colleges and universities were turning out 1.68 trained graduates. However, for every entry-level teaching position in the field of special education, teacher preparation programs were graduating .86 teachers (less than one). This trend continues today and hence, there continues to be a glut of elementary teachers and a dearth of special education teachers.

Texas teacher issues. A good example of the negative things that happen to special education teachers in some school districts is presented in an article published in the Journal of Instructional Psychology. One of the main problems in teacher attrition is a high burnout rate, according to the authors, and the “key variables causing burnout and attrition” (according to a nationwide survey of 4,500 teachers referenced by the authors) include: “job stress, weak support by administrators, unreasonable caseloads,” class sizes that are unwieldy and “ineffective in-service programs” (Kaufhold, et al., 2006). Moreover the authors mention other factors that lead to special education teacher burnout and attrition as “increased expectations for inclusive instruction,” changes in recently mandated behavioral intervention strategies and “the ever-increasing paperwork load” on special education teachers (Kaufhold, 2006).

Meanwhile, pointing to the specific problems that special education teachers face in South Texas, the authors refer to a lack of school resources — basic school supplies and materials. Why would a shortage like this exist in a school with a special education program? The authors refer to “a constant ‘tug-of-war’ with regular education personnel” for the same resources (Kaufhold, 2006). The authors provide quotes from a special education teacher in Texas:

“I did not have an adequate supply of textbooks, teachers’ manuals or basic consumable materials. The computer in my classroom was better suited for a museum than for instruction. I spent a lot of my personal time soliciting donations from retail business that carried school supplies” (Kaufhold, 2006).

In another survey referenced by the authors for this article, “A reported source of teacher stress” included financial shortages and a “lack of educational supplies” (Kaufhold, 2006). In addition, this second survey alluded to by the authors asserts that many special education teachers had not choice but to support their own classroom by buying supplies, materials and equipment out of their own pockets (Kaufhold, 2006). Some of the supplies special education teachers bought on their own included computer software, audiovisual aids and basic school materials. These are issues that should be resolved by school administrators — providing those administrators have the funds available and also have the interest in providing special education teachers with all the resources they need.

Is the federal funding that is supposed to flow to the schools (through IDEA) not sufficient? Is that funding simply not reaching the teachers who so desperately need it to fulfill their obligations to children with special needs? The authors believe that the answer to both questions may be a qualified “yes” — and as a way to make their point, the authors surveyed 228 special education teachers from 48 South Texas school districts.

The questionnaires were sent to 750 special education teachers and 228 teachers participated. Fifty percent of those 228 special education teachers responded with “strongly agree” that they lack “sufficient school supplies, materials and resources” in order to fully complete their duties to special needs students. Forty percent of the 228 teachers “agreed” that they also lacked sufficient supplies, materials and resources; six percent were “neutral” on the question and four percent had no reply to the question. None of the 228 indicated they had plentiful supplies and materials (Kaufhold, 2006).

Why are there shortages of teachers (more specifics)? A 2007 article in The Clearing House journal updates the number of teachers freshly trained for the special education field; to wit, annually colleges and universities graduate “…nearly 22,000 special education teachers,” which amounts to “about half number required to fill vacant positions” (Thornton, et al., 2007, p. 233). Among the reasons for the high number of vacancies in the special education field is that “Up to 9.3% of special education teachers” quit the field after their first year of teaching. Additionally, 7.4% switch to general education instruction (Thornton, p. 233).

Thornton and colleagues present six general areas that cover reasons why so many special education teachers quit after one year, and why others wriggle loose from this instructional field. Number one, employment issues (better salaries elsewhere; hard to make ends meet on teacher pay); two, working conditions (job stress, lack of support from administration, class loads, “lack of empowerment,” and paperwork loads); three, personal issues (family needs, lifestyle, relocations); four, support (“lack of collegial, principal, and district support; lack of appropriate staff development”); five, students (discipline and behavior issues; low student motivation; lack of student progress); and six, other (better jobs and retirement).

The article also mentions what other research has offered, and that is the growth rate of children with special needs has outpaced the growth rate of individuals who wish to enter the field of special education. And moreover, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation requires that all students, to include disabled students, perform at “proficient” levels (according to standards set up by states and the federal government).

For the teachers working with the 6.6 million students in special education classes this is a nearly impossible task. As the pressure increased for schools to meet “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), and administrators see that their special education classes are dragging their schools down, that will cause administrators to put more pressure on special education teachers and the result will likely be more special education teachers changing fields or quitting their positions (Thornton, p. 234).

Factors that could help reduce the special education shortages. Meantime, Thornton offers suggestions for improving the situation in schools across the U.S. with regard to special education teacher shortages. For example, politicians, education leaders and policy makers “can take measure to alleviate, or at least minimize, the crisis” by increasing the pool of candidates for teaching certification. In other words, meet the demands of the existing special education teachers and offer incentives for teaching candidates to focus on special education instruction (Thornton, p. 234).

Also, the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have a program called “Troops-to-Teachers” (TTT) that offers special incentives to returning war veterans — including a “stipend” that helps military personnel to go to school and be trained for teaching careers. Thornton explains that “ninety percent” of the TTT enlistees are men, 29% are minorities, and many of those enrolled are pursuing credentials in special education (Thornton, p. 234). In addition, the DOD has a program that assists the spouses of both active duty and reserve military personnel achieve their certification at teachers.

Districts could take further positive steps to train and enroll special education teachers, Thornton’s article asserts. Some of these steps include: a) Wichita’s school district locates high quality high school students who wish to go into teaching; those students are offered scholarships and other incentives (paying their tuition, books, paying for their distance learning expenses — online education); b) districts should hire a coordinator to locate and support local talent that wish to become teachers, and encourage paraprofessional now working part time in special education classes to go to school and become certified; c) special education department heads and district administrators should “become highly skilled headhunters” and engage in serious marketing efforts (job fairs, developing relationships with placement offices in universities); districts should have quality, updated, user-friendly interactive Web sites that address “pay schedules, application forms, student body demographics” and more, since a majority of teachers looking for work find their jobs on the Internet (Thornton, p. 234).

More ideas for reducing the shortfall of special education teachers. Thornton continues the list of factors that could lead to more special education teachers: d) Under the NCLB law, special education teachers have previously been required to obtain “certification in multiple special education areas” above and beyond core academic areas; that dual certification regulation must be eliminated in states where it is currently applied; e) those teachers who have been fast-tracked — allowed to take alternative routes to being credentialed (because of the acute shortage) — tend to be less than fully prepared; hence, teachers who are not certified through the full process of training “appear to be a greater risk of attrition than their certified counterparts” (Billingsley, 2004, quoted by Thornton, p. 234) and so the professional training must be consistent for all teachers with few if any shortcuts.

Special ed teachers need separate induction process and mentoring. In the Thornton article the author points to a survey in which 1,153 special education teachers participated. All had been teaching in their field for fewer that five years, and the general consensus among those teachers was that school districts “need to provide systematic and responsive teacher induction programs” for all new special education teachers (p. 235). In other words, rather than just placing the newly trained special education teacher in a classroom, a “meaningful induction experience” can have “lasting effects on teacher quality and retention” (p. 235).

In addition, mentoring and professional development programs should be mandatory, Thornton continues. Using an existing teacher to mentor new special education teachers is cost effective, capitalizes on an available resource, and administrators should be required by boards of education to implement mentoring programs (p. 235). And all district administrators should create professional development programs to improve the skills, abilities, and morale of teachers. In conclusion, Thornton insists that administrators need to help create a school culture in which special education teachers feel welcomed, empowered, and are given the necessary resources.

Reducing demand for new special education teachers. Erling E. Boe has published an article referencing “Long-Term Trends in the National Demand, Supply, and Shortage of Special Education Teachers” (Boe, 2006, p. 147). The author presents multiple data sets exploring the trends in teacher demand and supply. Boe also states that the national “quantity demand” for special education teachers is “not known precisely” because current databases record the number of teachers that are employed, “not the somewhat larger number of positions that have been established and funded” (Boe, p. 138). And so, the author explains, the difference between the number of positions that have been filled, and the number of special education teaching positions that have been funded “is the number of positions that are vacant” (Boe, p. 138).

Meanwhile, germane to this paper is his offering of four possible strategies that may reduce the demand for more special education teachers: a) improve the strategies for retaining special education teachers (SETs) through revamped programs that encourage teachers not to exit and not to transfer to general education; b) “redesign the education process” by using more technology in special education classes and by employing teacher aids more extensively, thus creating a situation where fewer SETs are needed; c) reduce the number of students who are technically classified as “disabled”; and d) increase the “proportion of instruction provided” by general education teachers for students with disabilities, hence reducing the size of existing special education classes (Boe, p. 147).

Works Cited

Billingsley, Bonnie S. (2004). Special Education Teacher Retention and Attrition: A Critical

Analysis of the Research Literature. The Journal of Special Education, 38(1), 39-55.

Boe, Erling E. (2006). Long-Term Trends in the National Demand, Supply, and Shortage of Special Education Teachers. The Journal of Special Education, 40(3), 138-150.

Kaufhold, John A., Alverez, Velma G., and Arnold, Mitylene. (2006). Lack of School Supplies,

Materials and Resources as an Elementary Cause of Frustration and Burnout in South Texas

Special Education Teachers. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 33(3), 159-162.

McLeskey, James, Tyler, Naomi C., and Flippin, Susan Saunders. (2004). The Supply of and Demand for Special Education Teachers: A Review of Research Regarding the Chronic

Shortage of Special Education Teachers. The Journal of Special Education, 38(1), 5-21.

Thornton, Bill, Peltier, Gary, and Medina, Ricky. (2007). Reducing the Special Education

Teacher Shortage. The Clearing House, 80(5), 233-239.

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