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Retention Is the Missing Ingredient in Special Education Staffing

Special education staffing strategies often focus on recruiting and training new teachers in the specialty, but those efforts alone aren’t enough to address shortages in the high-demand field.

Education labor economists say it’s equally important to address leaks in the educator pipeline—stressful working conditions and a lack of resources that cause many special education teachers to retreat to general education positions in the middle of their careers.

Special education teachers often teach multiple subjects across multiple grade levels, manage loads of paperwork to track individual student’s progress, and regularly communicate with families.

That’s why states and districts have adopted workforce strategies that target the stress points special educators face: incentive payments to motivate them to stay in the specialty, professional development practices to help them feel less isolated in their school communities, and approaches to teacher preparation designed with retention in mind.

Addressing the factors that strain special education teacher morale can feel like an uphill battle for district leaders, who face systemic challenges like gaps in state and federal funding to support their programs, said Elizabeth Bettini, an associate professor of special education at Boston University who studies educators’ workplace perceptions.

“Special education teachers are tasked with particularly challenging responsibilities— and that’s not because of the kids,” said Bettini, who previously worked as a K-12 special education teacher. “What’s frustrating educators is feeling like they are not serving [students] well, feeling like they don’t have the time, materials, and support to meet the needs of kids.”

District leaders say maintaining a pool of talented special education teachers is one of the biggest challenges they face.

A churn of teachers moving in and out of special education roles and positions left unfilled because of a lack of candidates or funding are consistent concerns. And economists believe the need for additional special education teachers will remain, even as many school systems brace for broader staff layoffs following declines in overall student enrollment. Reducing teacher shortages is urgent, especially as the number of students who qualify for special education services—about 15 percent of public school students—continues to grow.

Federal data show that 21 percent of public schools were not fully staffed in special education at the start of the 2023-24 school year, higher levels of reported shortages than any other teaching specialty. And about 8 percent of teachers who work with children who qualify for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are not fully certified.

States, districts experiment with extra pay for special education teachers

Research suggests that districts looking for special education teaching candidates might want to start with their general education workforce.

In Washington state, for example, researchers who analyzed 10 years of state data collected from 2009 to 2019 found that new teacher-candidates who were dual-certified in special education and another subject were more likely to take jobs in general education classrooms than their peers who were only certified in special education.

The study, published in the 2021 issue of the journal Exceptional Children, also found that dual-certified teachers were less likely to remain in special education placements than their peers. In every year of the analysis, the number of certified special education teachers in Washington state exceeded the number of teachers actually working in special education positions by more than 50 percent, researchers found.

“It’s a solution to special education teacher shortages that’s hiding in plain sight,” said Roddy Theobold, the deputy director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, who co-authored the study.

Theobold and his colleagues see the potential for success in one strategy: higher pay for special education teachers to match their more complex workload.

Incentive programs and differentiated pay by specialty remain rare because they are sometimes rejected by labor unions or viewed as politically unpalatable. The National Council on Teacher Quality has found districts’ financial incentives for special education teachers are most often one-time hiring bonuses, but some have experimented with ongoing pay boosts by advancing teachers in hard-to-staff areas a few steps higher on the salary schedule.

The Detroit district began offering an ongoing $15,000 bonus for special education teachers in 2022, which it has credited with reducing a long-standing need for special education teachers.

In 2020, Hawaii’s statewide school district raised its $50,000 base salary by $10,000 through a bonus program for special education teachers, offering further incentives for those who take positions in schools classified as hard to staff. Within a year, the school system saw a 16 percent increase in licensed special education teachers, and the number of unfilled special education vacancies dropped from 122 to 69, state data showed.

Studying Hawaii’s 2022 data, Theobold and fellow researchers found that, while special education vacancies continued to increase alongside teacher vacancies in general, they made up a lower proportion of overall unfilled teaching positions. The change could largely be attributed to teachers who were motivated by the incentive to shift from general education classrooms to special education placements, not by increased retention of existing special education teachers, the researchers found.

“It’s really less about keeping special education teachers than getting people who weren’t in special education to move into special education positions,” Theobold said of the Hawaii research. “That’s why you see this big shrinking of the gap in terms of vacancies and unqualified teachers between special education and other subjects.”

And that dynamic could be helpful as districts consider layoffs in light of budget cuts and declining enrollment, he said. Larger conversations about general teacher shortages have glossed over more pronounced and enduring shortages of special education teachers,, Theobold said. In that case of broader staff layoffs, districts would benefit from encouraging qualified, certified teachers to move into harder-to-staff subjects, he said.

More data are needed to determine how Hawaii’s incentive pay will affect the likelihood that new teacher-candidates take special education positions, he said. The research also spanned a unique time, the pandemic, in a unique place, an island school system where teachers can’t easily transfer to other districts, which means results may vary in different conditions.

Understanding special education teachers’ stressors

School and district leaders should also help retain special education teachers by addressing the systemic conditions that cause them to burn out in the first place—or at least acknowledging their frustrations, said Bettini, the Boston University professor.

“Generally, school is not oriented around students with disabilities,” she said. “It’s not oriented to meet their needs; therefore, it’s not oriented around the needs of the teachers who are serving them. That leaves them kind of back ending a lot of services and supports.”

In her time as a K-12 teacher and as a researcher, Bettini has heard from special education teachers whose planning time isn’t included in the schedule, who are left out of conversations about purchasing and curriculum, and who have to rush to formulate a plan B when assessments and classroom technology are not accessible to students with disabilities.

Special education teachers’ workloads are far more varied than their peers’, they must navigate the challenges of team teaching, and they are often led by principals who have no background in special education, Bettini said.

“That’s why I left,” she said. “I just felt like I couldn’t meet all of my students’ needs with the resources and support that I had, no matter how hard I worked.”

School and district leaders can help address these concerns by seeking targeted feedback from special education teachers, whose struggles are often masked by the aggregate results of general staff surveys.

More targeted surveys and feedback sessions can help gauge whether special education teachers have adequate planning time, whether they feel empowered to partner with general classroom teachers, and whether they face burdensome bureaucratic processes that add further stress to their days, Bettini said. The results of that feedback should be included in the district’s continuous improvement work, she said.

Districts should also offer principals professional development in supporting special education teachers and inclusion for students with disabilities, she said.

Preparing teachers with an eye toward retention

Supporters hope fast-growing teacher-preparation strategies like “grow your own” programs and apprenticeships will help improve special education teacher retention by providing more on-the-job training before they step into their first certified position.

Through those nontraditional certification programs, districts train teacher-candidates under supervision of certified teachers while they work full time in positions like paraprofessionals, student-teachers, or long-term substitutes. Cooperating colleges and universities, which oversee the programs, offer the candidates expedited coursework, often online, to allow them to complete a teaching degree while remaining in their communities.

The Biden administration has urged states to have their grow-your-own programs classified as approved apprenticeships, which opens up access to targeted federal funding for on-the-job training. Thirty states now have federally approved programs.

One factor that helps with retention: Many of the candidates who are attracted to on-the-job certification programs are special education paraprofessionals who want to work as teachers in their current districts, said Amy Jacobson, the director of the Special Education Resident Teacher Program at the University of North Dakota.

“They are already vetted by their school districts and they already have interest and a passion to work in special education,” she said.

North Dakota launched its program in 1997, first partnering with the Grand Forks school district after a massive flood caused widespread devastation and destabilized the community. The program, which has since expanded statewide, allows people with a bachelor’s degree to complete a master’s in special education while working with a mentor in a partner district as well as a mentor at the university to learn the ropes.

To address an urgent need for special education teachers, organizers recently reduced the program from two years to one, and they created an accelerated general studies program to allow paraprofessionals, who may not have four-year degrees, to sign on.

“They are really mentored and coached,” Jacobson said. “That only helps as far as retention goes. They feel superprepared by the time they get that full-time teaching job.”

The program also attracts traditional undergraduate students in fields like physical therapy who decide to go into teaching as a way to help people, she said.

“That passion, that love, and that drive to work with kids who may learn differently or behave differently,” she said, “that makes staying in the field easier.”

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