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Turning the Table on the Special Education Teacher Crisis

Throughout the United States, schools are facing a critical shortage of special education teachers. This crisis is growing due to an emerging demand for special education teachers, coupled with a diminishing number of qualified candidates, recruitment challenges, and a high turnover rate. Reversing this crisis requires a multiprong approach that includes short- and long-term strategies to prepare and support teachers. Special education is complex, and one common type of instruction does not support all disabilities. To promote equity in education, we must ensure students with disabilities have access to proper assessment, resources, and qualified educators that correspond with their needs.

Improved outcomes for students with disabilities requires a systemic approach to reform through a collaborative, ongoing analysis and continuous improvement process. However, many schools do not have a research-based strategy in place to promote comprehensive professional learning support or to facilitate cooperation between general and special education teachers. Education leaders must change their approach if teachers are to be equipped to educate disabled students in inclusive classrooms. Schools that provide a collaborative culture and professional learning support have a far greater opportunity to retain teachers long-term. In addition, induction programs that match beginning teachers with mentors add an additional layer of support that facilitates retention.

With the number of college students entering special education programs declining, a concerted effort should be made to identify candidates early and ensure they achieve their goal to complete their studies. Outreach programs through partnerships between school districts and institutions of higher education can pave the way in building interest in a special education career while students are still in high school.

Be Prepared

The lack of qualified candidates and certified special education teachers often causes school leaders to react, searching for alternative ways to get teachers into the classroom. Such reactions lead to filling vacancies with teachers who received their certification through accelerated programs that do not fully prepare them with the knowledge and skills they need to effectively teach our most vulnerable students.

Underprepared special education teachers require more resources and support, are more likely to leave the profession, and are less likely to provide effective instruction to students with disabilities. Without the proper training, special education teachers are frustrated and overwhelmed. As the standards are lowered, teacher candidates are not inspired to enter the teaching profession.

Support for Success

In contrast, studies show that special education teachers who complete a full, comprehensive training curriculum are more likely to remain in the classroom, provide successful teaching, and improve student achievement. To promote the special education profession and retain teachers, there needs to be a front-end strategy that promotes collaboration between chief stakeholders to create evidence-based practices and policies that prepare special education teachers and school leaders.

Financial support and incentives, such as loan forgiveness, financial assistance, and tuition reimbursement, are additional ways to recruit and retain teachers, as well as motivate those who are uncertified to become certified. In addition, salary matters. Studies show that beginning teachers making more than $40,000 per year are more likely to stay in their position. In an effort to recruit highly-trained teachers, some districts even offer additional incentives, such as childcare, on site.

AACTE and The CEEDAR Center partner to offer national, special education initiatives for preparing teachers to effectively serve students with disabilities. To reverse the shortage of special education teachers, it requires deep collaboration between special and general education teachers, administrators in higher education and PK-12 schools, and faculty and candidates in teacher preparation programs, to advance equitable access to quality education for students with disabilities. In the latest segment of AACTE’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion video series, leading educators discuss “Building the Special Education Teacher Pipeline.” I would encourage you to watch the video, as well as learn more about this initiative at aacte.org.

Mary Brownell, is the executive director of The CEEDAR Center.

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Mary T. Brownell

University of Florida