Meghan Whittaker, OSERS Special Assistant
Today, more than 60% of students with disabilities spend at least 80% of their day in general classes. This wouldn’t be possible without special educators who help to customize curriculum that is accessible to all and ensure the individual needs of students with disabilities are met.
Special educators serve a critical role in our nation’s public school, yet 45% of schools reported vacancies in special education roles, and 78% reported difficulty in hiring special education staff. Special education teacher shortages have been a longstanding challenging in most states and have only worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amid a dramatic teacher shortage nationwide, states and districts have faced the tension between the difficulties in recruiting and retaining special educators and the qualification requirements special educators must meet. States have found innovative solutions to meet these requirements in the face of a worsening educator shortage and are using federal funds to support them.
Indiana and Tennessee provide examples of how states are creatively addressing educator shortages. Additionally, the states’ programs leverage state and local partnerships to create sustainable pathways that maintain high standards while also improving the preparation and retention of special educators.
Special education teachers are essential to our nation’s ability to provide a free and appropriate public education to the 7.3 million students with disabilities that attend our public schools. But significant shortages in qualified special educators affect the ability of our public schools to provide equal educational opportunities for all students.
A nationwide survey of schools in 2022 reported that vacancies in special education were nearly double that of other subject areas. This survey also found that 65% of public schools in the United States reported being understaffed in special education. Even prior to the pandemic, there was a downward trend in the number of special education teachers. One study found the numbers decreased by 17% between the years 2005-12. Research has also shown that the number of teachers leaving the field of special education is among the largest contributors to the growing shortage. High job demands without adequate support and resources may lead to teacher burnout, which may, in turn, lead to teachers leaving the profession. Because teacher burnout and general working conditions are real concerns, NCSER has funded projects to take a closer look at this problem and find potential solutions. This blog highlights a few of these projects below.
Elizabeth Bettini at Boston University led a research project exploring special educator working conditions. The research aimed to provide an understanding of how instructional resources, planning time, and support from colleagues affect teacher instruction and student outcomes, as well as explore how administrators view their role in providing supportive working conditions for special educators. They found that teachers who provided high-quality instruction had a trusted co-teacher, consistent paraprofessionals with time and support for training, and protected time for instruction.