Special Education

Dearth of Spec. Ed. Professors Kindles K-12 Shortage

By Lisa Fine — March 20, 2002 3 min read
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School district officials know all too well that there aren’t enough qualified special education teachers to instruct a rising number of students with disabilities.

But the shortage of special education personnel doesn’t start there. The number of special education faculty members at universities has dwindled in the past 20 years, meaning fewer people are equipped to train new teachers needed to ease the shortage.

As Congress prepares to revise the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal special education law up for reauthorization this year, incentives should be included to attract not only special education teachers, but also faculty members to train them, said a panel of researchers and educators at a recent Capitol Hill forum.

The number of those receiving special education doctorates annually has dropped 30 percent in the past two decades. Only about half of those who receive such doctorates choose to work in higher education, according to the experts convened March 8 by the Washington-based American Youth Policy Forum. The trend means college students training to teach in other areas are less likely to receive training in special education, panelists told the audience.

Similar shortages, though perhaps not as severe, exist for teacher-educators in general. (“Colleges Seeking Teacher- Educators,” March 21, 2001.)

Lawmakers should develop greater access to financial aid for students pursuing doctoral degrees in special education—and create loan-forgiveness programs for those who choose to pursue special education jobs in colleges and universities, panelists said.

“There are things that could be changed in the IDEA that could really make a difference,” said Deborah Deutsch Smith of Vanderbilt University, who presented her October 2001 study at this month’s policy forum. “Without changes, our goal of attracting special education teachers is in jeopardy.”

College-Level Shortages

About one-third of openings for special education professors go unfilled each year, according to Ms. Smith’s study, and universities in recent years have simply shaved off a fifth of those openings. The result: persistent ebbing of the number of special education faculty members, which diminishes the nation’s training and research infrastructure, according to the study.

Since 1992, openings in higher education for junior faculty members who focus on special education have averaged about 250 annually, roughly equal to the number of doctorates awarded.

If every college and university faculty slot in special education were filled, about 3,000 more special education teachers could be trained annually to serve about 48,000 K-12 students a year, the study says.

So why do 250 doctorates tend to yield only 125 or so special education professors? Ms. Smith’s study pinpoints mobility and pay.

The median age of those completing special education doctorates, researchers found, was 43. At that point in life, the study notes, educators are hesitant to relocate for university jobs. And the average salary of such faculty positions is $42,000, about 18 percent less than candidates could typically make teaching in a district.

The shortage of special education teachers is critical for many districts and states.

For example, the Illinois board of education last year identified special education as the area with the greatest teacher shortage. The board’s report said districts would have to hire an additional 8,516 special education teachers by the end of 2005. But Illinois universities are producing graduates in special education at an all-time low rate, said panelist Sue Gamm, the chief specialized-services officer for the Chicago public schools. “It is an alarming crisis.”

In 1971, four years before Congress passed the law now known as the IDEA, which guarantees students with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate public education, Illinois had 608 teachers with special education bachelor’s degrees. The number peaked five years later at 1,666. By the year 2000, the number had dropped to 675.

Illinois has taken steps to increase its roster of certified special education teachers. The state eliminated most categories for special education certification, continuing to isolate specialties only for educators serving students with hearing, speech, and vision impairments, so that special education teachers can be certified to serve a group of students with many different disabilities.

“You always hear about shortages for special education teachers mentioned along with foreign-language teachers, and math and science teachers,” she said. “Our shortages dwarf their shortages.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Dearth of Spec. Ed. Professors Kindles K-12 Shortage

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