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Personnel Shortages Augur a 'Crisis' In Special Education, Groups Warn

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Washington--Serious shortages of special-education personnel constitute a "national emergency" that could jeopardize the education of handicapped children, six organizations in the field have warned in a report scheduled to be presented to the Congress this week.

"Over the coming years the shortages will reach crisis proportions,'' the coalition predicted.

The dearth of trained workers could force school officials to increase special-education class sizes, hire unqualified personnel, and scale down programs to fit the size of their workforce rather than the needs of children, the groups maintained.

"Unless this trend is reversed, there will be a major deterioration of both the availability and quality of special education for our nation's children with handicaps," the report states.

The report, "A Free Appropriate Education: But Who Will Provide It?," was to be formally presented April 3-4 in testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped and the House Subcommittee on Select Education.

Joining in the statement were the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the Council of Administrators of Special Education, the Council for Exceptional Children, the Council of Graduate Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders, the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education, and the the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Special education has long been plagued by shortages of trained teachers for rural areas and for particular types of disabilities.

But experts say that school systems in wealthier and suburban areas are now beginning to feel the pinch as well. And special-education administrators report that they are having trouble finding qualified people trained in a wide variety of handicapping conditions.

"My assessment is that people are now scared," said Frederick J. Weintraub, a lobbyist for the cec

In its most recent survey, the Education Department found a shortage of more than 27,000 special educators during the 1985-86 school year--an increase of 10,000 over the deficit recorded just two years earlier. An additional 14,000 speech and language therapists and other "related-services personnel" also were needed, the department reported.

But such estimates greatly understate the extent of the problem, the groups said.

"When states report to the federal government, they may report a position is filled, but it may be filled by someone who is not certified or endorsed or recognized as qualified by the field," said William Carriker, a professor of special education at the University of Virginia. Up to 30 percent of practicing special-education workers may be unqualified, he contended.

"We've got gym teachers," said Mr. Weintraub, "and we've got people who aren't even teachers."

"There's this game called 'subs,"' he observed, referring to the practice of substituting personnel from other areas to make up for deficits in special education. "But they're limited to how many weeks they can be there, so schools play 'musical subs."'

In addition, the coalition foresees in its report a major "aging out" of special-education administrators and university faculty within 10 years. A similar exodus is expected among teachers and related-services personnel over the next decade.

The field is also plagued, the groups maintained, by high turnover rates, particularly during the first five years of a special-education teacher's career.

"For some reason, we tend to 'burn out' our younger teachers by loading up on class sizes or mixing disability groups," said William Schipper, executive director of nasdse

Moreover, recent surveys of college and university special-education programs have found a decline in the number of students seeking training in the field.

In many respects, the groups acknowledged, shortages in special education reflect larger trends in teaching.

"Education was once a field that women felt they could go into when they were fundamentally excluded from other fields," Mr. Weintraub explained.

But now, as women move into professions once dominated by men, the pool of prospective special educators is shrinking.

It is difficult, however, to determine whether teacher shortages in special education are more severe than shortages in other teaching fields. A 1983 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics--the most recent available--indicated that scarcities were greatest among bilingual-education instructors, followed by physics teachers. Special educators ranked with computer-science teachers as the third most needed group.

But other factors combine to exacerbate the personnel situation in special education, the groups contended.

Training requirements, for example, are longer. In some states, prospective special educators may have to study up to two years longer than regular teachers in order receive certification.

In addition, said Mr. Carriker, "there are lots of people who just aren't interested in working with kids who have some of the handicaps we're talking about." The problem is especially severe, he said, among teachers of the emotionally disturbed.

Paperwork and regulatory demands also tend to be overwhelming in the special-education profession.

"My job was very much governed by court orders, legal mandates, and parents, who in their strong advocacy for their child, demanded that I do individualized things with 12 to 17 kids every day," recalled Mary-Dean Barringer, who was chosen "special educator of the year" by the cec in 1987. She now works as a teacher-collaborator at Michigan State University.

"I listen to my colleagues and they're all outstanding teachers but they're worn down," she said. "I wonder if they were to talk to a college freshman class whether they could argue convincingly to go into the field."

To avert the coming crisis, the groups called for:

Increased federal funding for personnel-preparation programs authorized under the federal Education of the Handicapped Act.

A major coordinated campaign to recruit people for careers in special education--particularly among minority groups, who make up a disproportionate share of all handicapped students.

Better data collection on trends in the special-education workforce.

Increased financial support for students pursuing careers in special education, at both the entry and the leadership level.

Establishment of a panel of experts to advise the Education Department on ways to alleviate personnel shortages.

"It's not just Congress's problem," said Mr. Schipper. "It's a national problem and we're going to have to do better at treating our professionals."

"We're going to have to find ways to motivate young people and we're going to have to learn retention techniques from business," he added.

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