The Shortage Keeps on Growing
Nationally, there is a growing need for qualified special education (SPED) teachers. And the need has been growing for years. Federal data shows that 46 states reported a special education teacher shortage for the 2017-18 school year. Universities are preparing significantly less special education teachers than are required annually. What’s worse is that a greater percentage of special education teachers leave the field than general education teachers, with about 13 percent exiting every year.
Long before COVID-19, it seemed that the shortages would continue to increase. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for special education teachers will grow 3 percent by 2029, driven by the growing need for services.
And now with COVID, that shortage has been exacerbated. “The pandemic caused many states and school systems to shut down. This will likely increase the achievement gaps for all learners, and specifically those with disabilities,” says Roben Daubler, chair of the Masters of Arts for Teachers of Special Education program at Western Governors University in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Impact of the Shortage
The shortage of fully certified special education teachers is severe, chronic, and pervasive, and threatens the quality of educational services that students with disabilities receive.
Qualified and dedicated special educators are needed to teach these students how to navigate through life, despite their special needs. Without these educators, many of these students will suffer from adjustment problems throughout their lives.
These shortages pose a myriad of difficult problems for district leaders and education policymakers. They cause the achievement gap for students with disabilities and developmental delays to expand, put another layer of strain on classroom teachers and school personnel, and could lead to legal problems for schools and districts.
Invariably what happens is that, when qualified special education teachers aren’t to be found, schools thrust paraeducators, part-time staff, long-term substitute teachers, first-year teachers, or full-time teachers into the role of special educator—often without adequate training or guidance. Consequently, their students lose out in a big way.
Reasons for the Shortage
Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, feels that the shortage of special education teachers is related to a larger trend that stems, in part, from the disrespect afforded to public education today.
“There is a general teacher shortage nationwide, with some states having more of a problem than others,” he notes. “When millennials read about how teachers are being criticized and they see the pay that is involved, why would they want to go into that profession?”
But the challenges are even more acute in the field of special education, where educators engage with special-needs students in what are often very stressful environments. “It’s a tough job, and it’s not surprising that recruiting in this area can be difficult,” Domenech says.
Others explain that the lack of special education teachers is a direct result of high volumes of paperwork, heavy workloads, lack of support, and, thus, professional isolation. They admit that it takes an extremely motivated, passionate individual to accept the challenge of teaching these children.
Another problem is that many qualified teachers won’t work in certain communities. Areas that have higher crime rates or poverty rates are less appealing. So regional areas that are in desperate need of qualified special education teachers are unable to attract the educators they need due to their inability to offer personal security or comfort.
3 Welcome Solutions to Fix the Problem
1. Offering Financial Incentives
It’s time to get serious about creating financial incentives. Recruiting undergraduates to become teachers by promising them a bonus, covering tuition fellowships for aspiring teachers who commit to enter special education, loan forgiveness programs, and reimbursing tuition costs in exchange for a commitment to teaching special education all need to be considered.
2. Creating New Pipelines
Domenech recommends that K-12 leaders create pipelines for special education teachers within their districts. This process need not wait until high school but rather can begin as early as elementary or middle school. Educators should be talking to students about the rewards of working with special needs children and creating career pathways for those who are interested in the field.
“Establish partnerships with local universities that have schools of education so that you are creating a pathway that almost guarantees admission to those schools—with perhaps some tuition assistance or scholarships,” he advises. “That way, you’re growing your teachers. They go through your system as students and then come back to teach there.”
3. Widening Existing Pipelines
Another innovative idea to reverse the shortage is to widen existing pipelines. And what existing pipelines can be widened to address this shortage?
Two potential talent pools need to be carefully considered: teachers who are already licensed but teach a different subject, and other professionals with a bachelor’s degree, but lacking a teaching credential.
To draw from these two new talent pools, degree programs need to be crafted that will facilitate more qualified special educators to enter the workforce. College programs containing the following features need to be innovated to meet this objective:
Make the program affordable by soliciting government or private grants to help offset program expenses and keep tuition to a minimum.
The program needs to be completely online so that those who already have jobs can do the coursework when it is convenient. The flexibility afforded by online coursework increases accessibility to higher education for young professionals with busy schedules, like teachers and other young college graduates.
Many teachers don’t go back to school because they just don’t have time—especially when they feel that the time will be spent in general elective classes or rehashing pedagogical theories in which they’re already well-versed.
These programs need to offer teachers an opportunity to earn a special education license without taking redundant classes or obtaining a second bachelor’s degree. Help teachers to move through their coursework—which is intensive, streamlined, and focused on special education, methodology, and skill development—at their own pace.