Teaching Profession

The Push to Get More Teachers of Color in Special Education Classrooms

8 in 10 Educators Are White, Unlike Students
By Madeline Will & Corey Mitchell — September 09, 2019 7 min read
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It’s a constant struggle for school districts across the country to find qualified special education teachers. An extra challenge: finding special educators of color to help meet the needs of a student population that can be disproportionately nonwhite.

Just over 82 percent of special education teachers in public schools are white, according to 2011-12 federal data, the most recent available. Meanwhile, only about half of students receiving special education services are white, according to 2017-18 data.

Yet teacher diversity matters: Decades of research has shown that students often perform better academically when they are taught by teachers of the same race.

“The special education field is really prime to recruit faculty of color,” said Jacqueline Rodriguez, the assistant vice president for programs and professional learning at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. “We do have a disproportionate representation of students of color and students with second-language acquisition in special education programs and being identified as students with special needs. We also know that ... we have a dearth of certified and qualified special education teachers in the field.”

Rodriguez is leading a networked improvement community with 10 teacher-preparation programs that have pledged to find ways to enroll more aspiring special educators and reduce the shortage of special education teachers by fall 2022. A priority is bringing people of color and people with disabilities into the special education teaching ranks.

“Of course we want to strategize to decrease the shortages, but we also want to strategize and do something that’s sustainable and ensure that every child has a profession-ready teacher as a special educator in their classroom, who also reflects our demographics in America,” she said.

Federal regulations require districts to guard against greatly overidentifying minority students with disabilities, but there is an ongoing debate among researchers about whether black and Latino students are identified for special education too often, or not often enough. National data show that 16 percent of all black students and 13 percent of Hispanic students receive special education services, compared to 14.1 percent of white students.

For the first two years, the faculty in AACTE’s networked improvement community, or NIC, will consider the pool of potential special educators—including high school students, paraprofessionals, general education teachers, and career-switchers—and research ways to grow those pipelines. Faculty members will also test a change at their institution, and share both challenges and what’s working.

During the next two years, the participants will implement strategies that have been identified as high-fliers by other institutions, Rodriguez said. The goal is to publish case studies of different recruitment and retention tactics, so institutions can adapt tactics that fit within their local context.

Professors at Texas State University, a Hispanic-serving institution in San Marcos, joined the NIC in hopes of finding solutions to high rates of attrition among their graduates.

“The NIC is really an opportunity to do some things that are going to, we hope, not just get the teachers out there but also get them into placements where they’re going to stay,” said Cathy Newman Thomas, an associate professor of special education.

While Thomas said the aspiring special educators at Texas State are more diverse than elsewhere in teacher preparation, the college of education is still actively trying to recruit more students of color.

One such strategy is to recruit and retain faculty of color, said Glenna Billingsley, an associate professor of special education there.

“I think it does matter when you’re trying to recruit students of color to know that their faculty will be of the same cultural background,” she said.

About 84 percent of tenured or tenure-track education professors at four-year colleges and universities are white, according to an AACTE study released last year. Just 7 percent are black, and 3 percent are Hispanic.

Meanwhile, Virginia State University, an historically black university in Chesterfield County, joined the NIC as the K-12 schools in the state struggle to find teachers, especially educators equipped to work with students with disabilities.

Despite setting a goal of boosting teaching diversity, Virginia is one of six states that does not track teachers’ race and ethnicity, according to a 2018 report from the Albert Shanker Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank supported by the American Federation of Teachers. Prospective teachers can report their race on licensing applications, but not all candidates do.

School officials expect a recent change in state law to help boost teacher diversity. Teachers can now enter the profession with undergraduate degrees in education. Before the change, college students had to earn an undergraduate degree in the subject area they wanted to teach and then enter a graduate program to get an education degree.

Under the old system, Virginia State had fewer than 10 graduates per year who intended to work in special education classrooms. Now the university offers a major in special education and student interest has doubled, said Willis Walter, the dean of Virginia State’s college of education.

“We saw [the old policy] holding back a large number of individuals, and to be more specific, a large number of minority students and those that did not have the financial means to gamble on a minor in education,” he said. “Now they have the opportunity to go into the field of their choice.”

A ‘Complex’ Problem

Work in teacher preparation to diversify the pool of aspiring special educators is happening in pockets, said Erica McCray, the co-director of the Florida-based Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (or the CEEDAR Center). The center, which is supporting the NIC, works with states and colleges of education to help them better train teachers to serve all learners, especially those with disabilities.

“Some places are doing amazingly well, but it takes resources,” McCray said. “Some places are not putting in the effort that I think it will require to change some of the mindsets on the faculty side—who has the potential to be a good teacher?”

She said the work with AACTE will give teacher-educators a chance to solve these problems of practice.

“We want an effective special educator in front of every child, and what does that look like?” she said. “If we’re going to address the persistent issues in our field, we have to address diversity.”

LaRon Scott was a freshman in college majoring in criminal justice when his younger sister was diagnosed with an intellectual disability. The diagnosis changed his life and career path.

“My family really struggled with understanding exactly what that meant and trying to find answers about the types of supports that she would need in order to be successful,” said Scott, an associate professor of counseling and special education at Virginia Commonwealth University and a former K-12 special education teacher.

Scott’s research focuses on strategies school districts can use to retain black male special education teachers, including providing tuition assistance, flexible pathways to earning a teaching license, and mentorship programs for aspiring and early-career educators.

During Scott’s time as a middle and high school special education teacher in Henrico County, Va., he was often the only black male teacher or black male special education teacher on campus. About 70 percent of the students in the special education program were nonwhite, he estimates.

“Trying to place those students in environments that I felt would be inclusive and supportive of their needs, it was difficult,” Scott said.

Recruiting nonwhite special education teachers and keeping them in the classroom will remain a challenge until schools acknowledge the racism and discrimination many potential hires experienced as students, he said.

“How do we motivate teachers of color … to become special educators? It’s complex,” Scott said. “We’re then asking those same children to come back as teachers in the same industry that has to some degree harmed them.”

Research shows that black teachers tend to have higher expectations for black students—which is critical to students receiving special education services, said McCray, who is also an associate professor in the School of Special Education, School Psychology, and Early Childhood Studies at the University of Florida.

“When we get into special education, a lot of student need is met by individualizing their instruction and setting high expectations and scaffolding,” she said. “Having teachers of color in that space—it could be that teacher is now a model for students of color, [who] want to rise to their expectations.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2019 edition of Education Week as Special Ed. Field Pushes for Teachers of Color

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