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Why Special Education Teachers Quit—and What Schools Are Doing About It

Solutions to the perennial crisis of special education staffing must extend beyond training and recruiting more teachers to the more complex work of retaining educators who’ve already entered the field, experts say.

Twenty-one percent of public schools reported that they were not fully staffed in special education at the start of the 2023-24 school year, higher levels of reported shortages than for any other teaching specialty, federal data show. 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.

All teachers juggle layers of practical and pedagogical responsibilities, but special education teachers carry an unusually complex workload that involves case management, teaching students in multiple grades and subjects, and cooperating with fellow teachers to help students meet educational goals.

“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,” said Elizabeth Bettini, an associate professor of special education at Boston University who previously taught special education in K-12 schools.

Here are three ways states and districts are trying to keep current special education teachers on the job—and to improve their chances of retaining new recruits.

1. Districts experiment with higher pay for special education teachers

When special education teachers leave their roles, they aren’t always leaving teaching altogether, said Roddy Theobold, the deputy director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. Rather, special education teachers with multiple teaching endorsements often shift into another position, like elementary education, he said.

To quantify the trend, Theobold and other researchers analyzed 10 years of Washington state data collected from 2009 to 2019. They found that, in every year studied, the number of certified special education teachers in the state exceeded the number of teachers actually working in special education positions by more than 50 percent. They also found that dual-certified teachers were less likely to remain in special education placements than their peers who only carried special education credentials, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Exceptional Children.

Districts like Detroit have sought to recognize the challenges of the special education role by providing annual incentive pay of up to $15,000 for special education teachers.

But it can be politically challenging to pay teachers different salaries depending on their role, and it can require changing teacher contracts. Plus, researchers are still identifying what incentive structures could best move the needle on staffing challenges.

Starting in 2020, Hawaii’s statewide school district offered a $10,000 bonus for special education teachers, with larger bonuses for those who teach in schools deemed hard to staff. That’s on top of a base salary of $50,000.

Theobold and fellow researchers studied that state’s 2022 data. They found that, after the bonuses started, special education vacancies continued to increase alongside teacher vacancies in general, but they made up a lower proportion of total unfilled positions than they had before. They largely attributed the shift to teachers who were motivated by the incentive to move from general education classrooms to special education placements, not by increased retention of existing special education teachers.

While Hawaii’s special education teacher shortage hasn’t been erased, students with in special education programs are now more likely to be taught by qualified teachers because of the bonuses, they concluded.

2. States and districts prepare new special education teachers with retention in mind

Advocates for grow-your-own programs and teacher apprenticeships—which allow candidates to earn teaching credentials while learning on the job—say the approach may allow new special education teachers to enter the role with a greater awareness of the challenges they will face. And that may help schools retain them longer.

Many participants in the University of North Dakota’s Special Education Resident Teacher Program complete their training at schools where they will later work full time, director Amy Jacobson said. The program allows candidates to earn a master’s degree in special education while working with a mentor in a partner district as well as a mentor at the university to learn the ropes.

Organizers recently developed an option that allows candidates without four-year degrees to get a bachelor’s and a master’s degree simultaneously. That opened the door for paraprofessionals, who often have years of hands-on experience in special education, to become full-time teachers.

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

Similarly, a unique teacher residency program led by the Washington Education Association draws former paraprofessionals and emergency substitute teachers with experience in special education classrooms, organizers recently told Education Week.

The program rotates participants through four different special education settings, including teaching alongside general education teachers, to better prepare them for a variety of potential roles.

“When you become a special ed. teacher, there’s so much variety within that, and you don’t know what you don’t know,” Annie Lamberto, the special populations coordinator for WEA, told Education Week. “We wanted our residents to be able to find not just what they’re good at and what their strengths are, but what they’re passionate about.”

3. Administrators combat special education teachers’ workplace isolation and burnout

Special education teachers are usually stressed because they lack the support and resources to do their jobs well, not because of the students they serve, Bettini said.

They have fewer in-school peers than their general education colleagues, and they are often led by principals without experience in special education, she said. That can lead to a feeling of isolation.

A lack of special education funding, inadequate support staff and school psychologists, and other systemic problems can lead teachers to feel like they are failing the very students they want to help, Bettini said.

Administrators can address these stressors by seeking their own professional development on how to support special education teachers and by inviting regular feedback about how to include special education teachers in curriculum purchasing decisions, planning schedules, and schoolwide policy conversations, she said.

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