Sunday, July 12, 2009

What is Being Done About the Shortage of Qualified Special Education Teachers in the Public School System?

Over the last several years, school districts throughout the nation have struggled with finding enough qualified special education teachers to meet their needs. These shortages occur for a number of reasons, but seem to occur mostly in urban and low socioeconomic (SES) areas. Several recruitment plans have been attempted, however relatively unsuccessfully. Research suggests why this problem continues, why recruitment solutions are ineffective, and more successful ways to decrease this issue.

It is necessary to ask why a deficit of qualified educators exists. One reason is that the number of students classified with the need for special education services is increasing over time—especially in poorer student populations. A second reason for such shortages is the increasing credentialing requirements for special education teachers—probably linked to the expectations stated in No Child Left Behind (NCLB). A third reason is attributed to the high rate of teacher turnover in urban schools (Zascavage, Winterman, Armstrong, & Schroeder-Steward, 2008). Nedra Atwell (2007) explains that much of the observed turnover stems from unqualified teachers who: 1) are placed in classrooms due to the already existing shortages, 2) are in unsupportive teaching environments, 3) receive inadequate skill preparation for those teachers, and 4) transfer to easier schools. Therefore, the issue of unqualified special education teachers increases.

How have school districts been addressing these concerns? Not effectively, according to research on special education. Some recruitment incentives attempted in Texas, for instance, have included college scholarships, tax credits, and student loan forgiveness for general education teachers who pursue dual certification in special education. Other ideas implemented include the expansion of teacher education programs by incorporating special education courses, as well as financial support for paraprofessionals to encourage the completion of bachelor’s degrees (Zascavage, Winterman, Armstrong, & Schroeder-Steward, 2008). Some states, such as California for example, offer alternative incentives to untrained teachers. The two primary incentives in California are emergency special education permits and internships. Both programs, supplemented by professional development, result in certification (Esposito & Lal, 2005).

While many education experts think the recruitment attempts mentioned above have accomplished little in eliminating these teacher shortages, they do offer further solutions. As Zascavage, et al. (2008) claim, effective solutions can only work if the general perceptions of special education change. The authors think that change must occur from within—through students themselves. By establishing peer tutoring programs and social support groups in high schools, an informed and eager new generation of teachers can develop. Such programs provide positive and rewarding experiences for teens, who may choose to pursue special education as a future career path. If special education and general education students can interact academically, more acceptance of the former can occur, therefore eliminating the stigma that often is placed on special education.

Esposito and Lal (2005) suggest a new idea to increase the recruitment of certified special educators from the pool of existing classroom teachers. The authors propose an innovative and accelerated alternative credentialing program for the state of California. This program specifically is modeled after the Profession Development School (PDS) model, and targets low performing Title I districts. The main features of this accelerated program include retention of current special educators, recruitment of general educators who wish to transfer into special education, and accelerated credentialing through preparing professionals to work in multiethnic, multilingual, and low-SES schools. The hope is that through this accelerated credentialing program teacher comfort will increase and turnover will decrease.

In closing, special education’s needs increase over time, and so demand for qualified teachers increases, too. A paradox exists in that the schools with the greatest needs often repel the most qualified educators. If more effective recruitment, development, support, and retention programs are instituted, special education programs in low-SES urban schools might increase the likelihood of attracting highly skilled teachers, keep those teachers, and increase student achievement. Only skilled and supported educators can create skilled and supported students.

Atwell, N. (2007). Increasing the supply of highly qualified teachers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Western Kentucky University. (ERIC Document). Retrieved from

Esposito, M. C., & Lal, S. (2005). Responding to special education teacher shortages in diverse settings: An accelerated alternative credentialing program. Teacher Education and Special Education, 28(2), 47-50.

Zascavage, V, Winterman, K., Armstrong, P., & Schroeder-Steward, J. (2008). A question of effectiveness: Recruitment of special educators within high school peer support groups. International Journal of Special Education, 23(1), 18-29.

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