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Special Education Plagued by Faulty Teacher Data

By Christina A. Samuels & Alex Harwin — December 04, 2018 5 min read
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Why is it so hard to figure out how many special education teachers are employed in each state?

For more than four decades, the U.S. Department of Education has asked states to submit information on special education teacher employment, along with a raft of other information that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires to be collected.

But the employment numbers that are submitted to the federal government are sometimes wrong—wildly so. In some cases, state data managers say the mistake is theirs. In other cases, state officials say they aren’t sure where the federal government got the numbers, even though states are the ones responsible for submitting them.

The Education Department said that it’s the state’s job to get the numbers right. States are sometimes asked to explain anomalies through “data notes” that are added to the file.

But such notes are not required, meaning that unusual or incorrect results remain publicly available.

Researchers in the field say that the data works to track national trends. But comparing individual states to one another is trickier.

As an example, the federal data on Indiana says that the state had 7,039 special education teachers in 2005-06. By the 2015-16 school year, however, federal statistics showed the number of special education teachers had inexplicably dropped to 1,203.

No data note exists to explain that number. If it were correct, it would mean that Indiana had one special education teacher for every 127 students.

But that’s not correct, said Adam Baker, the press secretary for the Indiana Department of Education. He said that for the past several years, Indiana had made a reporting error in its federal data: It was excluding certain special education teachers from the count, such as teachers who weren’t the primary classroom teacher or those who were not teaching in core academic areas.

The correct number of Indiana special education teachers for 2015-16 is 5,986, Baker said. That still reflects a 15 percent decrease from a decade ago. In contrast, the special education population in the state dropped by over 3 percent in the same time period. Baker said the state plans to submit corrected numbers to the federal government.

Mississippi is another one of several states with implausible personnel numbers. Federal records show the special education teacher count at 3,770 for the 2005-06 school year. The number of teachers reported in federal records drops to 910 in the 2010-11 school year. It jumps again to 4,145 teachers in 2011-12. For 2015-16, the number of special education teachers reported in the state is 5,086.

Patrice Guilfoyle, the director of communications for the Mississippi education department, said that the state’s records show that it has had around 4,000 to 5,000 special education teachers over the past decade. She could not explain the federal numbers.

A Disconnect

In Florida, federal data show the state had 22,254 special education teachers in 2005-06, and 6,178 by 2015-16. Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the state, said the real employment number is more like 26,000 teachers, some of whom are teachers in gifted education. Federal data notes do not address what would appear to be an unusual employment drop in one of the nation’s largest states.

Florida does include data notes in its submission to federal officials, but those notes don’t address the actual numbers of special education teachers.

Source: Education Week Research Center analysis of IDEA and Digest of Education Statistics, 2018.

Right now, though the federal government collects employment numbers, it does not conduct further analysis of them, nor does it require analysis by the states.

However, these numbers were once studied more closely. In the 1990s, the federal government produced analyses that tried to quantify the special education teacher shortage. They explored both a shortage in the quantity of teachers and the “quality” of teachers, meaning special educators who were not fully qualified in the subject. At that time, the overall special education teacher shortage was believed to be about 27,000 teachers annually, with no relief on the horizon.

Despite the problem figures, it is still possible to draw some useful comparisons among groups of states.

Logical Decisions

In a research paper under review, Paul Sindelar, a professor of special education at the University of Florida, and other colleagues eliminated states with suspect data. They then looked at the remaining states in order to compare those with high numbers of not-fully-certified teachers to other states with low numbers of teachers who were not fully certified in the field. The paper calls these high- and low-shortage states, but the shortage refers to the qualifications of the teachers, not their overall numbers.

What he and his colleagues found is that special education teachers may be making a number of logical decisions when it comes to where they will work.

For example, in the low-shortage states, special educators earn nearly $8,000 more annually than teachers in high-shortage states, after adjusting for the cost of living. In low-shortage states, special educators are paid at least as well as general education teachers; in high-shortage states, they’re paid comparatively less than their general education counterparts.

The per-pupil expenditure is higher in low-shortage states than it is in high-shortage states, Sindelar said. And low-shortage states produce eight teachers with special education degrees for every less-than-fully qualified special education teacher. In high-shortage states, preparation programs produce one special education graduate for every two teachers who are not fully qualified in the subject.

There were also differences in teacher-student ratios. In high-shortage states, there was one teacher for approximately every 17 students. In low-shortage states, there was one special educator for every 15 students in special education. The difference was not statistically significant, Sindelar said, but it may make a practical impact on the day-to-day lives of teachers.

Sindelar said the data suggest that districts may need to consider offering more money to teachers in subject areas where there are teacher shortages. Across-the-board teacher pay increases won’t help as much, because they don’t make those hard-to-fill positions a more financially appealing option than another teaching field.

Offering bonuses to teach in traditionally hard-to-staff areas such as high-poverty schools and rural schools have also been shown to help, he said.

“It’s a hard nut to crack, but we know what nut we need to crack,” Sindelar said.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as Spec. Ed. Teacher Data Plagued by Faulty Figures

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