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Shortage of Special Educators Adds to Classroom Pressures

By Christina A. Samuels & Alex Harwin — December 04, 2018 7 min read
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The number of special education teachers nationally has dropped by more than 17 percent over the past decade, a worrisome trend in a career path that has seen chronic shortages for years.

An analysis of federal data by the Education Week Research Center shows that 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. And as a whole, the number of teachers in all fields has gone up slightly over the past decade, as has overall enrollment.

For the 2015-16 school year, which offers the most up-to-date 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.

Shortages Effects on the Ground

So how does this play out at the school level?

For Allison Oliver, a positive behavioral specialist for the 30,000-student DeSoto district in northern Mississippi, the shortage meant that during her time as a classroom teacher, she was responsible for classes of 18 middle school students with a spectrum of disabilities. Teens with emotional or behavioral disturbances, specific learning disabilities, or physical disabilities would all be in one class.

“Our numbers were packed,” said Oliver, who was a paraprofessional before entering the teaching field.

From her perspective now as a person who works among several schools, Oliver said the problem isn’t getting much better. “I have some teachers who are very strong special education teachers, but they get dumped on a lot. They get all of the severe children. They get all of the severe paperwork.”

Angela Holstedt, a special education teacher in Wyoming who teaches in the early-elementary grades, worked in an elementary school where high numbers of elementary students would enroll or leave the school during the year. She said her caseload could sometimes swell to as many as 25 students, and she was also in charge of conducting academic evaluations for incoming students with disabilities.

This year she moved to a new district and a new school. The number of students she works with has been cut in half.

“It’s a strange sensation for me this year, having a more reasonably sized caseload instead of just feeling that I’m overwhelmed,” Holstedt said.

The shortage of teachers is only a part of a multifaceted problem. Walter Smith, the director of special education for the 3,900-student Elizabethtown Area district in Pennsylvania, said he has to scramble to find substitute teachers for special education classrooms.

“The sub pool is so small, and they can pick the [Advanced Placement] classes or the regular ed [classes],” Smith said. “They’re making sub pay—why wouldn’t they pick the easier gig?”

This situation stands in sharp contrast to previous years where the sub pool included prospective teachers, he said. “We had subs champing at the bit, trying to prove themselves, trying to get hired.”

The employment figures come from federal data collected from every state. Personnel data is not required from the states in the same way that federal law requires other data, such as a count of children served and their disability categories. However, the data has been collected since 1976, and includes the number and type of personnel employed under the IDEA and whether those personnel are fully certified or qualified in their field.

The numbers can be used to study national employment trends. However, anomalies in the data make it challenging to make state-to-state comparisons, because the number of special education teachers reported in some individual states fluctuate dramatically from year to year in ways that are not fully explained. States and the federal government offer different explanations for why their personnel numbers have so many aberrations.

Quantity and Quality Shortages

Data problems aside, the federal statistics show that there’s not only a shortage of teachers to contend with, but that there’s also a “quality shortage.” That term, coined by researchers, occurs when a relatively high percentage of special education teachers in a state are not fully qualified.

Nationally, over the past five years, on average nearly 95 percent of special educators have been identified as highly qualified. But in some states that number is much lower. In Kansas, for example, only around 70 percent of its special education teachers are classified as highly qualified. Colleen Riley, the state’s director of special education, confirmed the figures, and cited the pressure of decreased school funding as one factor that makes it difficult to find highly-qualified educators.

“When funding is reduced, there are increased demands in every part of the educational environment and these demands are challenging for teachers,” Riley said.

Leaders of teacher-preparation programs, those who have studied personnel shortages, and educators themselves cite additional factors when asked about the shortage: For example, fewer young people, particularly women are interested in entering teaching at all, let alone special education.

“The perception of education has changed so drastically. It’s not really viewed as the profession that it once was,” said Brittany Bales, a former special education teacher who is now a lecturer at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. and a member of the Muncie district school board. And special educators are a tiny slice of a shrinking pie: In 2015-16, only 7 percent of teachers who earned bachelor’s degree in education majored in special education.

To lure people into the field, Ball State is asking its special education teacher candidates why they wanted to make that their focus. Universally, they say they have had direct experience with people with disabilities, either through their own families or through mentorship activities in their K-12 education, Bales said. So, the university is sending packets of information back to those high schools to share with their students, in an effort to keep those pipelines open.

Training and Retaining

Many districts are also turning to alternative-certification programs, which get teachers in front of students while they are earning their special education teaching credentials. 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.

Timothy A. Slocum, the head of the special education department at Utah State University in Logan, noted that the university’s alternative-certification program has 47 students, the same as students enrolled in its traditional program.

The program is by no means an easy path for prospective special educators, he said. “It’s a terribly difficult thing for the teachers to be in a special education classroom with no training and no idea of how to do that—and not only to navigate that but to be in a university classroom as well.”

The university is revamping its offerings so that teacher candidates can take a blend of online courses where they can study on their own, and courses where they have direct, real-time interaction with an instructor.

Loan forgiveness or free tuition for special education majors might be one way to draw more people to the field, Slocum said, and he’s working with state legislators to put such a program in place.

“Policywise it seems fairly simple to me,” he said. “If you have the commitment you could just turn that on.”

And just as important as maintaining a pipeline into the classroom is holding on to the teachers that districts already have, through thoughtful mentorship and professional development opportunities, said Bonnie Billingsley, a professor of education at Virginia Tech who has studied special education teacher retention. Special educators often feel they don’t have enough support from administrators and colleagues. They also say they don’t have the tools they need to do their jobs, or the physical space to do it.

Such problems are not universal, Billingsley said, but they come up frequently enough to put a pall on the profession. Principals and district administrators need to start thinking, “what can I do to make special education teaching a better experience in that school?

“I think these are all well-meaning people, but it may not be on their radar,” Billingsley said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as Shortage of Special Educators Adds to Classroom Pressures

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