Special Report
Teaching Profession

Colleges Seek Out Future Special Ed. Teachers

By Christina A. Samuels — January 25, 2016 6 min read
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With the need for special education teachers in Utah far outstripping the supply, teacher educators at Utah State University aren’t letting any potential prospects slip through the cracks.

For high school students, the university has created a dual-credit class that allows them to learn more about special education while they also provide volunteer support to their classmates with disabilities. A highlight of the program is a visit to the university’s Logan campus, where the high schoolers dine with university professors who impress upon them just how much they are wanted in the teaching profession.

For paraeducators who might be intimidated about the prospect of college but who have valuable classroom experience, the university is partnering with school districts to pave their way into teacher preparation. To break through the barriers, districts have found that hosting appreciation events or awards programs are a way to get their paraeducators all in one room—and those events are also a perfect time for university coordinators to talk to them about becoming teachers. Later, the university provides mentoring to the paraeducators who choose to take the next steps.

For career-switchers, the university offers a distance-learning program in special education, a boon to working adults who may live in one of the state’s far-flung rural communities.

The overarching theme of the university’s initiatives, said Robert L. Morgan, a professor of special education who oversees student recruitment, is that an enticing brochure or a flashy website isn’t enough to bring would-be teachers in the door.

“If you have a teacher shortage in special education and you need people to be coming into your teacher-preparation programs, you have to go out and actively recruit,” Morgan said.

A Shortage Field

Utah is far from alone in facing a shortage of special education teachers: It’s been a nationwide problem for decades. For the 2015-16 school year, almost all states reported to the U.S. Department of Education that they would have special education shortages. In a 2011 federal report, 51 percent of all school districts and 90 percent of high-poverty districts reported difficulty in attracting highly qualified special education teachers.

The issues that drive teachers from special education—or that prevent some would-be candidates from considering the field—are multifaceted, said Mary Brownell, a professor of special education at the University of Florida.

Special education teachers report that they have to teach more subjects than their colleagues, that they don’t always feel supported by their administrators, and that they aren’t given the time and resources they need to do their jobs well, said Brownell, who directs the federally funded CEEDAR Center. CEEDAR stands for Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform, and was created by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs to strengthen teacher preparation in the field.

Brownell says research shows that educators who are what she describes as “fully trained” in special education are likely to stay in the profession longer. Fully trained, in this context, means having a college degree in the field or multiple hours of specialized post-baccalaureate work.

States, though, often find themselves turning to more accelerated certification routes, just to have educators available to fill slots. Then those teachers leave after a relatively short time, and the cycle of needing to fill those positions begins anew.

“You’re solving an immediate need, but you’re creating a long-term continual need,” Brownell said.

With that concern in mind, some special education advocates are looking warily at a new federal law that allows states to set up teacher, principal, and school leader academies that could provide certifications equivalent to master’s degrees. That provision, part of the newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, does not spell out any minimum qualification levels, leaving that up to states to determine.

Supporters say such academies would foster an innovative and vibrant market for teacher preparation.

But Deborah Ziegler, the director of policy and advocacy for the Council for Exceptional Children, says such programs could ultimately connect the least-trained teachers with the most needy students.

“You could come in and do a short, several-month program of preparation and then you’re placed into a classroom and then you do some ongoing mentoring,” she said. “Honestly, it’s unfair to them. You put teachers into a position that they can barely handle and you’ve not prepared them well enough to be in that position.”

For the foreseeable future, however, traditional universities will remain districts’ main source for most special education teachers, which means they have to devise new ways to bring people into the field.

Janet Fisher, the head of the special education department at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, one of the oldest in the country, said that her colleagues also try to entice potential teacher-candidates early.

“It’s about letting your passion shine, letting people know what it’s like to work in the very worthy field of special education,” Fisher said. “We’ve got to be visible. You don’t just hide in times of declining enrollment.”

Time and Money

In addition to enthusiasm and direct outreach, the types of partnerships Utah State has worked out are an essential part of the recruitment process, said Benjamin Lignugaris/Kraft, the head of the department of special education and rehabilitation at the university.

Those partnerships take a long time to establish, but the rewards can be worth it. Around 100 Utah State graduates each year seek licensure in special education, and the university meets about half the state’s annual need for teachers in that field. The university also partners with other institutions of higher learning in the state, referring students to them if for some reason its own program might not meet that potential recruit’s needs.

Utah State’s initiatives are financed through an annual state allocation of $200,000 to $300,000. Lignugaris/Kraft said that during the recent economic downturn, the state made plans to cut its support, but university officials were able to make a case for what would be lost by ending the recruitment efforts.

“There has to be strong state support for doing what we do. If that wasn’t there, none of this would be happening,” Lignugaris/Kraft said. “It doesn’t get done for nothing. It requires support, it requires funding, and it requires an investment.”

That investment has helped develop teachers such as Kjerstin Mourra, who works with severely disabled students at Sky View High School in rural, northern Utah.

Mourra attended Sky View herself and worked as a peer tutor, enrolling in the Utah State dual-credit course that allowed her to earn college credit while getting a taste of what it would mean to be a special educator. She then went on to Utah State and returned to the school, where she has taught since 2010.

Having that early experience helped her gain some understanding of what it would be like to be a teacher, Mourra said. “I definitely felt like the university was excited about me and helped me to get excited about working in special ed.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as Colleges Seek Out Special Ed. Teachers

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