Where did all the special education teachers go? Special education teachers who study and address the unique differences in students are really a part of the whole learning puzzle—necessary to a student’s future success. But alas, special education teachers are falling by the wayside.
Time to update this post. In Washington State they are using paraprofessionals now a special education teachers. Today on Twitter I was informed by a special education teacher that she hasn’t had a student teacher in five years. No special education student teachers, no special education teachers.
Importing Teachers from Other Countries
The shortage of special education teachers appears to be so bad in places, school district officials are looking overseas. In the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, more than 80 special education teachers from the Philippines with J-1 visas have been hired to teach special education. Many have left their families in Manila. In the Philippines, teachers make $5,000 to $7,000. In Clark County, starting salary’s are $40,000.
Hawaii Teacher Shortages
In Hawaii, special education teacher shortages mirror the rest of the country. Parents like Jay Handlin rightly bemoan the difficulty students have in general classrooms when they don’t get the special assistance they need from a support teacher.
Handlin’s daughter has Down syndrome, and upon moving to Hawaii and entering a middle school, she struggled due to a lacking support system. She went on to study photography at the California Institute of the Arts, but she is lucky she had help from home. Her school sure didn’t come through for her at a critical point in time.
Many parents find themselves in the same situation as Handlin. They have students who will do fine in general classes, but they need special education assistance. Students with special needs were originally placed in the general class with the promise of such help.
Parents of preschoolers with disabilities can’t find assistance for their little ones either.
New York Preschool Special Education Teacher Shortages
Staten Island and New York City have seen an increase in preschoolers with special needs, but not only special education teachers are missing there. They have a decline in speech therapists, occupational therapists and physical therapists, along with the special education student intervention teachers.
Where did everybody go? What happened to these helping professions?
And the larger caseload has been made even more unmanageable by piling paperwork, which robs providers of time that should be spent serving children.
Villainizing Special Education
Perhaps one problem is that special education has been villainized in recent years—subtly if not outright. Parents have been led to see special education, not as a helping area, but as something to avoid.
Along with this, the learning disabilities category, a legitimate area of study, was pretty much eliminated years ago (please note the title of the referenced article below).
IDEA reauthorizations were all about the Least Restrictive Environment. How many special education teachers were included in the new loop to help address disabilities?
When students have learning disabilities today, it is left to the general education teacher to address difficulties in the general classroom. But teachers have so much on their plate, it is unrealistic to think they have time to individually focus on every disability or difficulty that enters their classroom.
Teaching Students with Dyslexia
Dyslexia? Who’s helping the teachers help the students in this area?
Parents might also be steered away from special help by administrators thinking more about program costs.
I salute the parents I know who have resorted to home schooling because the public school sold them short and didn’t provide decent special services. But it was not right that the school did not address their child’s needs. It should have been against the law.
Extra help, especially individualized assistance, costs more. There is also a concerted effort around the country to cut overall special education funding—or special education altogether.
Response to Intervention and Online Instruction
Even Response to Intervention (RTI) involving the universal screening of young children to intervene in supposed disabilities early is designed to steer students away from special education.
Value-Added Models of evaluating teachers of students with special needs are also unfair.
The current push to place students online for instruction is another concern. Universal Design for Learning and CAST are a part of the Every Student Succeeds Act. There is little mention of special education teachers here.
Restore Honor to the Special Education Profession
While intervention and assisting students to address their academic problems is important, such a push to avoid special education also stigmatizes the profession. Few teachers want to enter a world where they are not valued for what they can contribute.
But students, as I noted in the above examples, still need special education teachers and a good support system.
James Kauffman, Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Virginia, said of special education teachers in 1999 in The Journal of Special Education:
If we are going to survive as a viable professional field, then I think we are going to need to change the way we view our legitimacy in public education and develop a sense of self-worth and pride in what we do….I would like to see us become unapologetic about our function, our identity, our distinctiveness, our visibility.
Students appear at school with disabilities, and the intent of special education has always been to help lift students with special needs to a better place.
We are seeing that there is still a place for good special education teachers who study uniqueness in children. They are still a part of the learning puzzle. Parents are noticing their absence. Let’s restore honor to the profession. Then, maybe we will see more special education teachers enter and return to the field.
Johns, Bev. “The New “Inclusion,” Distortions of LRE, Eliminating LD Teacher Training & Other Improper Uses of Federal Courts.” The DLD Times. The Division of Learning Disabilities. Council for Exceptional Children. 16 (2). Winter 1999.
Amanda Dyson says
Read this article and see if you can connect the dots. http://www.progressive.org/news/2015/10/188342/cashing-special-needs-kids
Nancy Bailey says
YES! Gracious! Amanda, I just finished reading about the J.B. Young School closing in Davenport, Iowa which led to the closing of a Life Skills class for students with disabilities. This is happening around the country.
Just watch the for-profit charters pop-up now.
Thank you for sharing.
Why is there a shortage of special ed teachers?
1) Districts (the teachers’ employers) offer fewer services to students with special needs; this puts teachers in a position of trying to advocate for their students against their employer.
2) Let’s face it, there’s a whole lot more work involved with being a special ed teacher: hours and hours and hours of IEP paperwork–usually done on ones own time. Few districts provide adequate time to do this part of the job.
3) More and more law suits in this area of education; everyone is walking on eggs.
4) Massive “selective ignorance” about special ed strategies, law, accommodations….on the part of district administrators. Admins SHOULD know better, but choose not to learn are often at the heart of poor decisions and lack of support for special ed teachers and students.
This is the short list.
Nancy Bailey says
I agree with much here, but are there really more lawsuits? I don’t know.
I do know parents who cannot raise the money necessary for attorney fees. That’s why I am asking.
There are way more lawsuits in special education the. In general education. An IEP is a legal document and simple things many school districts are not complying to out of ignorance or money. As a special Ed teacher, a big part of my job (per my supervisors directive) is things to cover my behind instead of being focused on the kids. Paperwork to prove I’m doing my job properly is a big part of special Ed. You can be the best teacher but if a parent finds fault with your paperwork you can be sued and the parents will win.
Ms. So and So says
I am a special education teacher and for the first time I have a case going to a due process hearing. I make sure that all of my families know their rights, and the right to a due process hearing is one of them, but this has been an incredibly stressful process.
It seems like my higher ups care more about legal compliance than they do about children. There is always some new change to our procedures to make our paper work as legally defensible as possible. Teaching ends up coming second to caseload management, which is a job in and of itself.
They don’t care if I’m above the legal caseload limit. They don’t care if I have teaching materials. They don’t care if it’s physically possible to fulfill all of the service hours my students are entitled to. All they care about is if my paperwork is filed on time.
This is only my third year as a special education teacher, but I feel like I’ve aged ten years.
ciedie aech says
You say this so well — and so sadly. We are entering an age where, depending upon the school or district, teachers can now be mandated into doing the impossible as if it were the norm.
Janet Harrison says
Bureaucrats believe in magic…teachers know reality
Ms. So and So says
Update- I became a union organizer and worked hard to enforce our contract. Our district doesn’t put teachers over caseload any more. And the parent who filed a due process complaint against me is now a friend! Don’t give up @Janet Harrison
I never had to go to hearing until my last year of teaching 32 years. The fact is that parents are challenging the schools more from breach of confidentiality to providing more expensive services. I had student teachers for about 20 years, and I called special education an “entry level” position. Teachers do not stay because the paperwork is overwhelming, prep time is non-existent, and in many cases there is no support from the home.
Now I supervise student teachers as an adjunct professor and I can tell you quite frankly that teachers are overwhelmed. They aren’t getting lunch breaks, prep time, testing time…the list goes on.. I don’t know what it’s going to take for communities to wake up and lighten the state regs caps on student instruction, because, the way i see it, the special ed teachers are getting burned out.
I have also found that in order to get students services they need but the district is unwilling to comply with, I would go in the back door. I would set the parent up with a child advocate who would then force the district to give the student what was needed. I would get written permission to speak with the advocate so he/she would fully understand the situation. For me, that was sometimes the only way.
Example….you have a student with Aspergher’s Syndrome who is in a self-contained classroom. That is not LRE,since the student is at or above grade level. So, I wanted a one on one teacher assistant to monitor the student, removing him during meltdowns to my classroom where he had a safe place to react. However, the best the school district was willing to do was the piecemeal 4 assistants to cover the child. Anyone who knows anything about autism know that the children need consistency. That’s why I got the advocate.
As a special education teacher in New Mexico, I serve 34 elementary students grades K-5 across four buildings: In one building, I focus on “resource” intensive intervention and across all four I serve gifted students (who fall under the umbrella of special ed in my state). The FTE is calculated in my state so that, given the 29 hours of school per week our students get in my district, I can have 35 students who see me for fewer than 3 hours, HERE’s the kicker — I can see up to 24 students who see me between 3 and 15 hours per week – that’s right – a kid who sees me 15 hours per week rates the same for counting my caseload as a kid who sees me for a little over 3 hours. I can have 15 students who see me between 15 and 22 hours per week, or 8 students who see me for more than 22 hours per week. Each student is given the weight that their level’s ratio suggests. So, imagine covering six grade levels, two extremely different programs, and trying to provide intensive supports on an individualized basis for that many kids. AND getting blamed by politicians, by the state’s evaluative formulas for teacher “effectiveness,” and overloaded general ed teachers. General ed teachers are also sweating having kids in their classes who count against their evaluations no matter how great they are with differentiation and their own interventions. Teachers are being treated harshly by the system, and the calls a couple of years back, when teachers started truly voicing this, was a very unsupportive “well, you chose that career, if you don’t like it, you should have done something else with your life.” So, many of us are leaving. With heavy hearts, because no matter how stretched we are, we love our kids as if they were our own, and we are concerned for their futures, too.
Nancy Bailey says
Michelle, I don’t know how you do it. This shouldn’t be allowed. You work in a poor state too. Thank you for your commitment, and I hope things turn around for you and your students one of these days. Thank you for also sharing your story. It is unfortunately all too common.
Teaching is like an abusive relationship. You are never good enough and it’s always your fault. So said we have come to this.
Norbert Leute says
In 2007, I ran for the Spokane school Board and one of my issues we were leaving our special education students behind. I didn’t win because the local teacher union supported the status qou.
In 2011, a front page article in the local newspaper talked about how the district was leaving special education students behind. Currently, the Department of Education is investigating the district for that reason. These children are being brushed aside for numbers. Immense pressure is being put teachers to get these students ready for test. Moreover, we aren’t preparing these student for life after school. I have filed two complaints with WA State superintendents Office which they never investigated because they help school district cover up wrong doing. There are so many reasons teachers are leaving special education from parents, pressure, lack of respect, blame game, stress, not being able to do their job in the best interest of the students, money, testing, and many more. reasons. We have non educators creating laws they no nothing about special education. People whispering in their ears, who have forgotten what is to be on the front lines. So many people with their hands reached out wanting a cut of the big pie. Special education always gets the smallest cut of the pie.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Norbert, The State of Washington has had serious issues in the past with special education. I am sorry it sounds like things aren’t improving much.
I trained as an Earth Science/Science teacher 5-12 because I saw a need for content certified special education teachers at this level. I extended my education to include special education 5-12 and took and advanced certification in behavior intervention, so I may be the best for the students. After all the education when it came to NYS testing and being a co-teacher in the science classroom. I found I needed to take two additional tests to the 4 I had already taken and passed. I passed the SPEd NYS test and found out the content specialty test was for all content because special educators need to know all content at the middle school and high school level. Instead of hiring a special education teacher in Science, I would now be a special education teacher in everything. More preparation, more paperwork and less time with students. I am not prepared to teach math across grade levels, I would do the students a disservice. All I ever wanted was to see the student needing extra support thrive and share I their accomplishments. My dream and love of special education has been crushed by NYS and their constant changing of teacher certification requirements forcing special education teachers of 5-12 students to learn math, history, ELA and Science across 8 years of curriculum. Basically I need to be a master at algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, biology, earth science, chemistry, physics, vocabulary, grammer, writing, reading, world history, American history and more. There is no field I know of that needs to be a master of all except Special Education in NY. This breaks my heart because my son has Autism and I have helped and advocated for him for 14 years. I have been told I have an innate talent with students and NYS, I will assume other states have made it basically impossible to be a special education teacher.
Nancy Bailey says
If you have special education credentials and work resource, or in inclusion, you should also be certified in the content area you teach. That makes sense.
It sounds like you are certified to teach students with special needs earth science and science in grades 5-12.
Now it sounds like they are making you jump over a bunch of hurdles to teach every subject under the sun!
NYS is not alone.
Joy Hudson says
I am a first year special ed teacher in Ky. I am expected to co-teach across all core classes. I was told that someone walking into the classroom should not be able to tell who was the science teacher (or any other subject). I went to college to be a special ed teacher. General ed teachers are not having to learn how to do an IEP or conference summary. When would I help plan for the four different core content classes I am in and keep up with all my paperwork and ARC meetings.
Ms. So and So says
Joy, I feel for you! The fact is that, if my experience tells me anything, your program specialist is only going to care if your IEP’s are filed on time. They could care less how you manage to find time to plan. Prioritize your caseload management, because frankly you don’t have a choice. Do your best with your co-teaching. I recommend building a close relationship with one core teacher and focusing your planning energy there. When that is fairly solid, you can shift your focus to another teacher. The fact is that you can’t do it all at once. Special education teachers have to juggle, and sometimes we have to wing it.
If you are nervous about someone accusing you of not doing enough (ha!), jot down how you spend your time each day. Either on the computer or on a blank schedule, just fill in how you spent your day. That way if someone says you weren’t prepared, you can tell them, well, here is how I spent my week. I had one hour for collaboration, X-number hours of instruction, two hours of meetings, and this many hours of report writing, scheduling, behavior emergencies, etc. I find that when I lay it out like this that people are surprised. Document how you spend your time! I keep a schedule of my groups, check them off and in any blank spaces fill in what I was working on. All the time is full, believe me!
I promise your second year won’t be this bad. Hang in there!
Left in 2013 after 17 years. I couldn’t be a part of the system and watch kids get cheated out of appropriate education.
Ms. So and So says
We should be doing more to keep special teachers like you in the classroom instead of driving them away. People burn out before they reach that level of experience. In my district, if you have been teaching special education for five years, you are someone who “has been there forever.” That isn’t right. Our most high-need students deserve more than a revolving door of inexperienced, overburdened special education teachers.
Nancy Bailey says
Excellent point! Very true!
Nancy Bailey says
Lara, I totally understand. But I am so sorry for both you and your students. Thank you for sharing. I hope things turn around.
Jim Katakowski says
What ever happened to FAPE? Too much administration? The whole system seems to be mess. What can a retired teacher of Spec. Ed. do?
Nancy Bailey says
Jim, I wish I knew the answers to your questions. I think IDEA re-authorizations in 1998 and 2004 to PL 94-142 changed the equation. It stripped much good out of the bill and left parents more vulnerable legally.
As far as what to do. I originally hesitated to get involved with social media. But I have connected with many people of like-mind on Facebook and Twitter. If you are not there you might find it uplifting. I’m still not sure what I am doing on Twitter but I keep trying. Ha!
Stay in touch!
Suzanne Hall-Whitney says
I’ve been an elementary SpEd (Resource Specialist) teacher for over 24 years in CA and it has never been an easy position but in the last 5-10 years the workload has become unbearable. I’m experienced and am struggling. I can only imagine how a new SpEd teacher would be managing. Trying to balance increased instruction with RTI, on-going case management with tougher cases than ever, time-sensitive assessment, increased meetings (IEPs, SST, CARE), collaboration with teachers/support staff, etc, is impossible. I’ve tried to advocate for myself and the position through our administration and union but it seems to fall on deaf ears and nothing changes. Special Ed teachers are always the minority in a district’s union. Throw in the teacher bashing from the almighty and powerful reformers and no wonder I don’t know anyone in SpEd staff meetings anymore. I’m transferring to a SpEd Preschool in hopes it will be a kinder, gentler place to work and will ultimately get me to retirement. I feel very sad for public education and never imagined things would be where they are. Thank you for being a voice of support, I for one really appreciate it.
Nancy Bailey says
You have explained it well, Suzanne. The lack of support will continue to drive teachers out and they will be replaced by computer programs and people who keep students in line. Unless things change. But right now I see little effort in trying to support the teaching profession. Parents really need to start demanding better. And teachers need to organize on the issues that matter.
Thank you for taking the time to comment.
This is a national problem! says
All of these issues are pervasive throughout the nation. The most tragic thing is that in my situation most of my elementary resource kids could be out of resource by 5th grade if I could get to them. Most of,my kids need to read 1 to 1 with an adult who can coach them as they read.
But we are asked to teach kids k5 in all subject areas, with all disabilities, at all reading levels, deal with the most behaviorally challenged kids- all at the same time. Kids now qualify if they do not make progress in Tier 3 Rti where they receive 1 to 1 intervention only to then be placed in resource classes with 6-10 kids at a time. This defies logic.
And we have to write perfect IEPs because this is what is audited, I am also deeply troubled by the failure to provide counseling and psychological services for kids with mental health challenges..
The failure to provide curriculum and supplies is also a big issue. I served 35 kids last year and was given less than $200 for curriculum and supplies. I rely on curriculum purchased more than a decade ago.
There is a lot of advocacy for our more impaired children, but the kids who could be dismissed with.a year or 2 of solid interventions are abandoned to languish in resource placements where they do not receive the intensity of services they need to address their needs quickly.
I work in NYC. What I have noticed since I started teaching, over 20 years ago, is the quality of Special Education teachers. When I started, the teachers with Special Ed licenses really wanted to teach those children. (I have a general ed license.) They were amazing teachers with a wealth of knowledge. My first unofficial mentor was a special ed teacher. I learned so much about ways to try and help a child before I ask for help and possibly a referral. Graduates from ed programs in the last 5-10 years have been told by their professors to get both licenses so you can get a job and that is what they do. Not as many are as invested in special education students. I do not find the quality of their education or dedication as strong. Then you add lack of supports for those new teachers who got into it because, meh. I feel bad for the children who need those services and are not getting strong enough support from those teachers. Our school has had the opposite problem. It has been harder for us to find general education teachers. I tip my hat to those who have chosen special ed as their area and do it with full passion and dedication. It is not easy. Teaching isn’t no matter what, but meeting the needs of kids who are not neural typical can be so much hard as you try and teach common core.