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Published in Print: May 1, 1999, as Exodus


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Special education teachers are quitting the field in droves.

To just about any district recruiter, Amy Burnette would be a prized catch. The 25-year-old teacher in California's Pasadena Unified School District has a bachelor's degree in special education, two years' experience in an "inclusive" classroom, and a passion for teaching students with disabilities. But this is likely to be her last year in special education. "I'm burned out already," she says.

Like many other special education teachers, Burnette is disillusioned by her job, which demands more time and energy than teaching in other fields-usually without any more pay. "We can't keep teachers," says Pat Guthrie, an official with the Warren County district in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which is also home to one of the state's largest teacher-training institutions, Western Kentucky University. "It's gotten to a point where teachers would rather have 30 students in a regular classroom than 10 in special education because [those students] are so time-consuming with the paperwork and legal issues."

Susan Kellam, a teacher of emotionally and behaviorally disturbed students at Occahannock Elementary School in Northhampton County, Virginia, concurs: "You have to document, document, document," she says. "I live with the fear that I'm going to screw up, with all the changing laws."

Such demands are driving thousands of special education teachers across the country to transfer into regular education or leave the profession altogether each year. Inner-city and rural school districts seem to be hit particularly hard, but every region in the country is experiencing a shortage in every special education teaching specialty-behavioral disorders, multiple handicapped, learning disabled, physically impaired, hearing impaired, visually impaired, and mentally handicapped-according to a recent survey by the American Association for Employment in Education. Says George Ann Rice, assistant superintendent for personnel in Clark County, Nevada, "Everybody in the country needs special education teachers. This isn't a next-year problem; this is a rest-of-our-careers concern."

The exodus couldn't come at a worse time. Growing school enrollment and an increase in identification of kids with special needs has schools teaching more special education students each year. The number of 6- to 12-year-olds in need of special education has grown 25.3 percent in 10 years; the number of 12- to 17-year-old special education students has increased 30.7 percent in the same time, according to the U.S. Department of Education. During the 1996-97 school year, there were 5.8 million students ranging in age from 3 to 21 with disabilities-that's 10.8 percent of the nation's total enrollment.

Hiring teachers for these students is a two-fold problem, according to Rice and other administrators: It's difficult to find qualified special education teachers; once found, they are hard to keep. It is a basic question of supply and demand. There simply aren't enough graduates in the field of special education to recruit into the schools. The U.S. Department of Education says that 28,000 new teachers are needed annually. In 1993 (the latest year for which data are available), higher education institutions produced just 18,000 special education teachers. And some 6,000 of them were already employed in schools.

Part of the blame for this shortage, says the Education Department, lies with colleges that are not recruiting and producing the number of graduates needed to meet the critical demand. "The annual supply of degree graduates of teacher-preparation programs in special education has been exceptionally low in comparison with general education," according to one recent department report.

But once in the field, the pressures of the job wear down many of even the most dedicated teachers. They grapple daily with complicated federal mandates, conflicts with parents, and overcrowded classrooms. Paperwork and unmanageable caseloads pose the biggest obstacles, according to the Council for Exceptional Children, the country's main organization of special educators.

"We bring people in, burn them out early, then bemoan the fact that we have this high turn over rate," says Richard Mainzer, assistant executive director for professional standards and practice for the Reston, Virginia-based council. "Meanwhile, the kids are hurting."

Much of the paperwork burdening special education teachers stems from each student's "individual education plan." The IEP is the legal document that spells out the educational services a student with disabilities must receive-and it is a major disincentive for those considering the field, administrators argue. Developing the IEP, with its requisite meetings with parents, administrators, specialists, and other teachers, takes away much-needed time for instruction and lesson planning and contributes to teacher burnout.

In addition, special education teachers often feel isolated from other staff and overwhelmed by their students' emotional and behavioral problems. "Some special education teachers feel all they're doing is disciplining. It's hard to get any academics in," says Burnette, who team teaches a class of 30 regular and special education students.

Because inexperienced teachers often find it difficult to monitor the progress of the special education student, they can feel ineffective, explains Stephen Tonelson, a professor of early-childhood and special education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. "The gratification tends to be slow," he says. "In some ways, [special education] can be more satisfying, but the cost-benefit ratio leans more toward general education."

Although recent research suggests that the attrition rates of special education and general education teachers are about equal, the data do not factor in the number of special education teachers who switch to general education, according to Lynne Cook, a special education professor at California State University at Northridge. Early results from a 10-year study by Cook and others indicates that about 7.2 percent of teachers in special education switch to general education each year. Fewer than 1 percent of general educators switch into special education.

'Some special education teachers feel all they're doing is disciplining.'

Amy Burnette,
special education teacher

Complicating the shortage of teachers are certification requirements that vary widely between states. California, for example, requires a master's degree in education plus special education coursework for full certification. In Kentucky and other states, experienced teachers can get full certification without additional courses. Of 330,000 special education teachers in the field, 30,000 are not fully certified, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some states and districts are experimenting with alternative-licensure programs to put paraprofessionals and teachers from other fields on a fast track to certification. But the quality of those programs is highly uneven, researchers say.

Meanwhile, as many as 6,000 special education teaching positions go unfilled, says Mainzer of the Council for Exceptional Children, and other teachers are picking up the workload on top of what they already carry.

Researchers say, however, that qualified candidates can be found-if recruiters keep an open mind and are creative. Brenda Townsend, an associate professor of special education at the University of South Florida in Tampa, has created scholarships and support systems for minority students who study special education. She uses university funds and a federal grant for two such programs. One, which is four years old, is devoted exclusively to black men; about 25 students have graduated so far. Another, created this year, seeks African American and Hispanic men and women as well as white men. Through a partnership with the local school system, the students are guaranteed jobs. "Universities are going to have to come up with some really innovative incentives," Townsend says.

Special education professionals across the board need to be innovative in finding solutions to the shortage, as Donna di Grazia, the principal of Punta Gorda Middle School in Charlotte County, Florida, knows. When she discovered that a man mowing lawns in her neighborhood was certified in elementary education and looking for a teaching job, she hired him.

He was a "big, bruisy guy, but I saw a potentially good teacher," di Grazia says. He now works with 7th grade special education students, and, she says, "he's becoming a fabulous teacher."

--Joetta L. Sack

Vol. 10, Issue 8, Pages 14-15

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