Special Education

Why Special Education Teachers are Needed Now More Than Ever

Why Special Education Teachers are Needed Now More Than Ever
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Noodle Staff December 18, 2017

Teaching is one of the most rewarding professions: getting to see your work effectively shape young minds, as students grasp new concepts and become purposeful, active members of society, is satisfying to say the least.

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The reward of seeing that same kind of growth and development in people born without the same cognitive privileges as most, can be even more meaningful. Special Education teachers are trained to adapt traditional teaching practices for kids who learn differently from the vast majority. Such teachers are more in demand and respected than ever. It takes a certain kind of resilience and tenacity to sustain the demands of this type of teaching position, and with the growing cohort of students that fit the criteria of special needs, the discrepancy needs to be resolved–urgently.

Special Education Background

The idea of special education and catering to learners with unique needs came to the frontline of education reform in 1975 with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act which held schools accountable in their educational efforts towards children with special needs. For the first time, having a disability did not condemn students, but instead put them on the same track as students without learning differences. Over the last couple of decades, the law has been modified and revised, and ultimately transformed into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

The IDEA set forth standards and requirements for how public schools and teachers should meet and manage the educational requirements of students with disabilities and special needs, particularly on how to ensure these students have the same learning opportunities as their peers. The IDEA made it a requirement for all public schools to provide adequate amenities and additional help to any student with disabilities, and while private schools are not held to these same standards; the Americans With Disabilities Act holds them accountable for preventing discrimination against children with disabilities, and requires them to make a reasonable effort to accommodate all students.


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Special Educators at a glance

Many people have the false conception that Special Education only refers to children born with birth defects, when in reality it is a blanket term used to describe any student that requires alternative methodologies – only a very small fraction are severely disabled. Whether it be severe physical disabilities, mild learning or emotional issues, or processing issues that hinder the progress of otherwise capable students, special education refers to all permutations of students with atypical learning aptitudes, styles, and habit, and teachers in this arena are coveted for their unique training and ability to adapt general education lesson into an accessible education for, essentially, anyone.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported that between 2014 and 2015, the number of children and youth ages 3 – 21 receiving special education services was 6.6 million, or 13 percent of all public school students. The majority of special education teachers are found working in public school settings across the country in grades K – 12, because it is a requirement for public schools to provide these services for any student that might need it.

The median annual wage for special education teachers was reported to be $57,910 in May 2016, and the overall employment of special education teachers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2016 to 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations. There are around 569 special education teacher preparation programs in the United States.

Special Education Teacher Shortage

While the total workforce of special education teachers in the United States is roughly 258,277 with an estimated 6.4% job growth projection in the next 10 years, there are still special education teacher shortages in some locations. The demand for these highly qualified professionals is increasing at a time when the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates the shortages are “acute”. The national shortage does not necessarily mean that teachers do not exist, but instead in many cases there is a lack of “qualified” workers. In other words approximately 45,514 of those serving as special education teachers do not meet required standards.

Due to the discrepancy between Special Education teachers and special needs students, teachers that are not specifically trained in this arena are inaptly being allocated to special needs students to compensate for this shortage. These shortages, as well as unfunded positions, impede the ability of students with disabilities to reach their full academic potential, and hinder the work of districts to prepare all students to be college bound.

This shortage goes hand – in – hand with the universal teacher shortage that is occuring in the United States. In 2016, the Learning Policy Institute, a non profit organization concerned with teacher education, noted that enrollment in teacher training programs dropped from 691,000 to 451,000, about a 35% decrease, and that shortages are found in 46 states and D.C.. All the while, the demand for special educators is growing as the population of special needs students increases.

The demand for special educators is expected to increase by 17% from now through 2018 – a rate greater than what is predicted for all other occupations. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, 2009).

So how do we address this issue and account for our special need students when 13 percent of special educators leave their jobs each year?

Current data on the 2017-18 school year confirm that most states are still experiencing difficulty hiring qualified teachers in multiple fields. The U. S. Department of Education reports that a majority of states identify shortages of teachers in mathematics (47 states and the District of Columbia) and special education (46 states and D.C.).

So what is causing our teachers to leave? The National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services (NCPSSERS) studied this issue and reported some of the common issues seen in schools across the country.

A few listed are:

  • Poor working conditions which lead to professionals leaving special education (e.g., excessive paperwork, unmanageable caseloads/workloads, inadequate support, professional isolation)
  • Insufficient funding for incentive programs designed to entice new graduate students and support them as they gain professional training (e.g., loan forgiveness, personnel preparation grants)
  • Limited supply of qualified professionals willing to work in certain communities (e.g., rural, high poverty, high crime)
  • Credentialing barriers in some states limit opportunities for re-specialization, re-licensure, or alternative routes to licensure of otherwise qualified personnel

In the end, there is a misalignment between the rewarding nature of impacting children (which is the fundamental purpose behind the career) with all the added paperwork and policy management that comes hand in hand with special education caused by limited funding and credentialing. How do we stay accountable with high standards without overloading our coveted special educators?

One special educator wrote about her experience with education:

“Everyday, you get to see your impact on your students, big or small. There are no words to describe the feeling you would feel when your autistic student who avoids physical contact, touches your shoulder affectionately. Or when your student who has a learning disability and been many grade levels below their grade in reading or math levels finally makes it close to their goal. Or when your student who uses an augmentative speech device spells out their first full sentence to express themselves.”

So, the essential and fundamental aspects of the job don’t seem to be the issue. SpecialEdShortages.org highlighted some the of the shortage data and causes:

  • 49 states report a shortage of special education teachers and SISPs (Strategic Information System Plans)
  • 2.3% of special education teachers leave the profession; nearly double the rate of their general education colleagues
  • 82% of special education teachers and SISPs report that there are not enough professionals to meet the needs of students with disabilities
  • 51% of all school districts and 90% of high poverty school districts report difficulty attracting highly qualified special education teachers

One foreseen solution is the incorporation of new technologies in teaching practices so that full one on one attention is not required around the clock for some children.

Karen Cator, the president of Digital Promise, a nonprofit that focuses on innovative educational technology, suggests the interplay of technology and mentorship to alleviate some of the time- burdens on counselors:

“maybe a student with a tablet is less likely to need a full-time, one-on-one aide” and this well- trained individual can allocate her expertise more evenly. The future incorporation of technology in assisted teaching will change the special education landscape, and while more expensive, practically it will be worth it. Technological assistance, of course, comes in many capacities and it is important to recognize that assistive technology devices required by students with disabilities include hardware and software as well as stand-alone devices. Almost any tool can be considered to be an assistive technology device except for those assistive technology devices.

Even students on the more extreme end respond well to assistive technology.

According to a recent article by Slate,

“children with certain kinds of disabilities, such as those on the autism spectrum, respond especially well to technology programs because the programs behave in consistent, predictable ways.” Amazingly, in some cases technology can even accelerate the learning process fast than human touch: “A non-verbal third-grader with cerebral palsy was able to communicate for the first time using a Samsung Galaxy Tablet.”

The collaboration of special education and technology in the future will allow for the special education teachers to harness their expertise more effectively and foster the positive and uplifting benefits of the job without feeling spread too thin. With attrition rate dropping and the career-path cleared of extraneous non-relevant work.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: Special EducationEducation & Teaching