Special Education

Alternative Routes for Spec. Ed. Teachers Relieving Shortages Worsened by NCLB

By Vaishali Honawar — May 02, 2006 6 min read
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The shortage of special education teachers in Volusia County a few years back was critical.

“The positions had to be filled with out-of-field teachers who had no training whatsoever in special education, but who had the heart to work with these children,” recalled Albert Bouie, the director of recruitment for the 65,000-student Florida district that includes Daytona.

Grace Carpenter, an associate professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, leads a class for the Los Angeles district, which runs an alternative-preparation program for individuals to be certified as special education teachers.

Then, in 2003, the district received a state grant that gave it money to start an in-house alternative-certification program that would train 25 teachers each year in areas of high need, including special education, mathematics, and science.

More than 130 teachers applied for the available 25 slots, according to Mr. Bouie, helping the district meet some of its need.

Over the past few years, alternative routes for teacher certification have helped alleviate teacher shortages in districts big and small, as they’ve attempted to juggle a nationwide need for special education, math, and science teachers and a federal requirement that all teachers of those subjects, among others, be deemed “highly qualified” by the end of this school year.

Despite unanswered questions about how those teachers perform compared with their peers who have come through more traditional training, and concerns about “fast track” programs that may inadequately prepare teachers and result in high attrition rates, special education has seen a spurt in the number of alternative routes for certification in the past decade.

The fastest growth in alternative-route programs in the past few years has been in the field of special education, according to C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the Washington-based National Center for Education Information, a private group that tracks teacher-training programs.

Just five states offered alternative routes in teacher preparation in 1995; by last year, the number had increased to 48 states and the District of Columbia, with more than half offering special education certification.

The Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education at the University of Florida in Gainesville, which examines the preparation of special education professionals, estimates that alternative programs now prepare as many as 25,000 new special education teachers annually.

“We would certainly prefer [teacher candidates] to go the traditional route,” said Andrea Zetlin, the director of the Education Specialist Intern Program at the California State University-Los Angeles. Because of the “tremendous need,” however, it is necessary to provide alternative routes, she said.

The number of those seeking to go through such programs, she said, has risen since the No Child Left Behind Act became law four years ago. That law requires teachers to be “highly qualified.” In general, that means they must hold at least a standard license and show command of the subjects they teach. New teachers must pass tests of their subject-matter knowledge or complete college majors in their subjects.

Because of the incredible shortage of special education teachers, districts were hiring on emergency permits, but because of the law, they are now unable to do so, Ms. Zetlin said.

Lower Attrition Rates

Ms. Feistritzer estimates about half the alternative-route programs now operating are administered by colleges and universities, about a fourth by districts.

California State University-Los Angeles runs an alternative program in partnership with 30 area school districts to prepare teachers for certification in special education. Teachers in the Education Specialist Intern Program attend college in the evenings after a day in the classroom. To get into the program, the “interns” need a bachelor’s degree with a 2.75 grade point average, among other requirements. About 150 are enrolled this year.

The interns get support both from the faculty and from assigned support providers at the schools where they teach. A support provider, chosen by the intern and the principal working together, is usually an experienced special education teacher who acts as a peer coach and meets with the intern several times a week.

Interns also take many of the same courses as students in traditional programs over the course of the two-year program, Ms. Zetlin said.

Over four years, she said, the attrition rate of teachers who have gone through the program has been as low as 5 percent. According to the personnel-studies center, the annual attrition rate among special education teachers nationally is 13.5 percent.

Candidates—some teachers, some not—in the Volusia County program in Florida are also provided mentor support and go through a series of seven special education modules that are comparable to college courses. Participants in the program, which is run by the district in partnership with the state education department, attend classes twice a week and take two courses online.

According to Jan Kirchberger, a special education personnel-development specialist in the Volusia schools, the program is equivalent to a three-semester college course.

Classroom Management

One of the biggest concerns for most new special education teachers, whether they come through traditional or alternative courses, is classroom behavior management.

George Giuliani, the director of the Washington-based National Association of Special Education Teachers, says there is not enough research right now to say whether alternative programs prepare students adequately to handle the myriad issues that arise among special-needs children on top of all those that teachers must deal with on a routine basis.

After a day teaching in the classroom, Annette Kong switches gears and clips artwork during an evening class she's taking through the Los Angeles schools to become a special education teacher.

“Although [alternative routes into special education] are respected by many in the field, there is controversy surrounding their effectiveness,” Mr. Giuliani said. “And that controversy is not that they are or are not effective; rather, it’s that limited research on certain areas of how these teachers perform later in the classroom has been done.”

For the California State University’s alternative program, Ms. Zetlin said, behavior management is discussed in a number of courses. In one class, interns learn about strategies for effective classwide management, for managing a small group of students who act out or are off task, and for handling defiant, out-of-control students.

While there are some concerns about whether teachers who come through alternative routes meet high quality standards, Paul T. Sindelar, the director of the special education personnel-studies center, says those concerns mainly center around fast-track programs that offer to train candidates in just weeks.

“Those are the ones that people worry about, because teachers who go through those programs don’t do well and tend to leave the field quickly.”

On the other hand, Mr. Sindelar said, several alternative routes for special education teachers offer a fairly substantive program of training over a year. “Many of the programs are not bad at all, and graduates seem to be doing especially well,” he said.

Attracting Diversity

In California, according to Michael McKibbin, the project officer for alternative certification for the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing, nearly 3,100 candidates are going through special education alternative-route programs—a jump of almost 600 from last year.

Proponents argue that one big advantage of alternative-route programs is that they attract candidates who might otherwise never have gone into teaching.

“We’ve had success in recruiting males in special education. Nationwide, 86 percent [of special education teachers] are female, but in California, almost a third of the people in special education intern programs are male,” Mr. McKibbin said.

According to the personnel-studies center, special education teachers who have prepared through alternative routes tend to be older than those who have completed traditional programs—some 65 percent are more than 40 years old. Also, alternative routes appear to attract more men and slightly more nonwhite teachers.

At the CSU program, said Ms. Zetlin, 42 percent of the candidates are Hispanic, and 14 percent are African-American.

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2006 edition of Education Week as Alternative Routes for Spec. Ed. Teachers Relieving Shortages Worsened by NCLB

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