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The Special Education Teacher Crisis: Who’s Teaching Our Most Vulnerable Students?


This is the second installment of our blog series, Solving Teacher Shortages.

On the first day of school last fall, Daina Lujan, the principal of Meadows Elementary School in Millbrae, California, opened her doors fully staffed—but just barely. In order to begin the year with all vacancies filled, she hired an intern to teach a special education class for students with moderate to severe learning disabilities. The novice teacher entered the classroom with no student teaching experience before becoming responsible for the education of students with autism, traumatic brain injuries, and motor delays, including some who are nonverbal.

Night and weekend coursework and support from three paraprofessionals weren’t enough to offset the new teacher’s lack of preparation. For the first two months of the year, the students did not take well to their classroom, recalls Principal Lujan. “They began running. A lot,” she told legislators at a special hearing on the teacher shortage. While the new teacher worked to improve her practice over those first few months of the school year, Lujan explained, students’ safety took precedence over their learning goals. “That’s tragic,” she added, “because they can and should be productive, engaged members of society in the future.”

When facing these shortages, principals often resort to filling special education vacancies with underprepared teachers. This could mean hiring a teacher certified in a field other than special education, an intern with just a few weeks of training, or—in the most extreme cases—a teacher on an emergency credential who has no training whatsoever.

Lujan’s challenges are not unique. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia reported having shortages of special education teachers in the 2016–17 school year. In a 2016 national survey of districts, colleges, and universities, the American Association for Employment in Education found that districts reported shortages in every special education subfield and considerable shortages in 10 out of 12 of them. When facing these shortages, principals often resort to filling special education vacancies with underprepared teachers. This could mean hiring a teacher certified in a field other than special education, an intern with just a few weeks of training, or—in the most extreme cases—a teacher on an emergency credential who has no training whatsoever. In California, for example, special education teacher shortages are so severe that among new teachers, those with substandard credentials and permits outnumber those who are fully prepared 2:1.

Fortunately, programs around the country show promise for filling the pipeline of special education teachers who are well prepared to meet the needs of their students and to remain in the profession. Letitia Payne, a Westchester, NY, special education teacher, found that her participation in one such program, Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers (TSTT), sparked a long-term commitment to teaching.

TSTT recruits a diverse group of students as early as 9th grade into a program that offers internships and classroom-based training throughout high school, and then provides college tuition scholarships to help students earn teaching degrees, regardless of their economic circumstances. These supports allow TSTT participants—90% of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and 75% of whom will be first-generation college students—to receive high-quality teacher preparation. As a result, 90% of TSTT graduates are still teaching after 5 years, exceeding national averages. Payne is doing her part to bring up the average. She has been a special education teacher for more than a decade in the same county in which she joined TSTT in high school.

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In special education, as in most hard-to-staff fields, high teacher turnover intensifies teacher shortages. School and district leaders play a central role in developing the working conditions that contribute to teacher retention. Evidence-based practices at the school and district level, combined with supportive state-level strategies, will go a long way toward ensuring that all special education students are taught by prepared and supported teachers.

For more on the role of schools and districts in retaining teachers, see:

States can also play an important role in building a cadre of special education teachers who are well prepared to support the growth and achievement of their students—and who stay in the profession. Based on the evidence of what works, policymakers could consider the following program and funding strategies:

  • Offer service scholarships or forgivable loans that cover tuition and living expenses for teachers who earn special education certifications and commit to teaching in that field for at least 3 to 5 years. Many states have launched these initiatives. In Nevada, for example, high school and college students who decide to pursue teacher certification can be eligible for up to $24,000 to cover their tuition costs. In exchange, scholarship recipients commit to teach for at least 5 years in Nevada public schools. This program allows the state to prioritize applicants who will work toward degrees in high-need fields, like special education.
  • Support “Grow Your Own” programs that recruit and support high school students and other community members, such as paraprofessionals, into teaching. During the last legislative session, California invested $20 million in the California Classified School Employee Teacher Credentialing Program. Interest in the program far outstripped the program’s capacity. Applicant districts requested funds to train 5,582 classified staff, but just 1,000 slots were available.
  • Create and support teacher residencies that train teachers through one-year apprenticeships linked to credential coursework and mentoring. Residents commit to teach in the high-need districts where they are trained—and in the fields and grades where they are most needed. The Seattle Teacher Residency, for example, offers residents the option of receiving a dual credential in elementary education and special education, which was identified as an area of need for Seattle Public Schools.
  • Fund high-quality support and mentoring for beginning teachers. States can develop induction and mentoring programs using ESSA, Title II funds, and competitive grant funds, such as the Supporting Effective Educator Development program.
  • While shortages persist, states could also consider providing incentives to retain talented and experienced special education teachers who would otherwise retire, or to bring those who have retired back to the profession. Some states offer a Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP) to teachers nearing retirement. Teachers can elect to have their retirement benefit deposited in a DROP account while they continue to work and earn a full salary, providing an incentive to delay their decision to retire. The Oklahoma state legislature is considering a cost-neutral proposal to lift earnings limits to recruit retired teachers back into the classroom.

Back in Millbrae, Principal Lujan, with support from her district, has taken steps to avoid a similar start to the next school year. Principals in that district determined their hiring needs and began recruiting early, working with local universities to connect graduates of teacher preparation programs with schools that have openings. They are also hoping to attract special education teachers by offering pay incentives and capping class sizes.

Principal Lujan acknowledges that while these strategies will make her school and district more attractive, they don’t address the overall shortage and can exacerbate shortages in districts without the resources to offer similar incentives. “These strategies are quite effective in ensuring an individual district opens the school year fully staffed, but they do nothing for a neighboring district down the road,” says Lujan.

That’s why state-level efforts are so important. Strategic statewide policies and investments  can help every district begin the school year with enough well-prepared special education teachers to meet their needs.