Shortage of Special Educators Adds to Classroom Pressures

Education Week recently released data on the nation’s shortage of special educators. Excerpts of the article appear below:

The number of special education teachers nationally has dropped by more than 17 percent over the past decade, a worrisome trend in a career path that has seen chronic shortages for years.

An analysis of federal data by the Education Week Research Center shows that while the number of special education teachers was dropping, the number of students with disabilities ages 6 to 21 declined by only about 1 percent over the same time period. And as a whole, the number of teachers in all fields has gone up slightly over the past decade, as has overall enrollment.

For the 2015-16 school year, which offers the most up-to-date data, there was one special education teacher for every 17 students with disabilities. That’s more special education students per special educator than the overall teacher-student ratio, which has held steady at about 1 to 16 for the past decade.

The federal statistics show that there’s not only a shortage of teachers to contend with, but that there’s also a “quality shortage.” That term, coined by researchers, occurs when a relatively high percentage of special education teachers in a state are not fully qualified.

Nationally, over the past five years, on average nearly 95 percent of special educators have been identified as highly qualified. But in some states that number is much lower. In Kansas, for example, only around 70 percent of its special education teachers are classified as highly qualified.

Many districts are also turning to alternative-certification programs, which get teachers in front of students while they are earning their special education teaching credentials. The need is clear: Of public schools that said they had teaching vacancies, about 31 percent said they found it very difficult or were not able to fill their special education spots. That compares to 9 percent who said they had similar challenges filling general elementary spots. Only physical science and foreign language spots were identified as harder to fill.

And just as important as maintaining a pipeline into the classroom is holding on to the teachers that districts already have, through thoughtful mentorship and professional development opportunities, said Bonnie Billingsley, a professor of education at Virginia Tech who has studied special education teacher retention. Special educators often feel they don’t have enough support from administrators and colleagues. They also say they don’t have the tools they need to do their jobs, or the physical space to do it.

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