A Word or Two on Retaining Sp. Ed. Teachers

8 Feb


In my last entry, I talked about how Special Education has become a bit of a tar pit for schools trying to comply with NCLB. The special ed. subgroup remains one of the most formidable obstacles for schools trying to make AYP.

But there is another headache visited upon school administrators, courtesy of the existence of special education.

Last year, at the annual assembly we have for teachers the week before school begins in the fall, the district superintendent stood on the stage flanked by school board members and the teacher of the year. He declared that many of the schools made AYP. The ones that didn’t, he declared, made AYP in all subgroups except one. Can you guess which one was the exception?

He then went on to declare that the county had opened a new school. Then he stated that they had hired 150 new teachers, and that, as of that day, every regular education vacancy had been filled. Did you catch that? Every regular education vacancy. And therein lies the ongoing headache of administrators throughout the country. Our administrators had managed to find and hire enough math and science teachers to fill those classrooms (or trailers) before school officially began. I have no idea how Highly Qualified (HiQ) those teachers were or how many of them remained in the system once school started. But what I do know is that they had not filled every special education vacancy. In fact, there were still several vacancies the day school started and as those vacancies were eventually filled, something even more onerous occurred. New vacancies opened up.

At no point so far this school year, have all of the special education vacancies been filled. Every time they get within one or two slots, new ones open up. They simply can not hire enough or retain enough special education teachers.

But G.W. Bush said nothing about this in his State of the Union speech. Amongst the excited chatter about hiring all these science and math teachers, no one is talking about it. The union blogs, the conservative education blogs and even teacher blogs. No one, except me. So far. One thing I do know, as I wait for my test scores to come in to tell me whether or not I am HiQ, is that no regular ed. teacher is anxious for my students to darken their doorways. In fact I’ve had more than one math teacher offer free tutoring once I told them that they might get one or more of my students if I failed to become HiQ.

Being a parent offers me a bit of an inside track on how they are thinking. Parents do talk, and parents of students with severe disabilities are an especially tight group. When my wife, Jane, goes to parent support group meetings, she hears all about the teachers that the parents hate. Fortunately, I’m not one of them. But every one of the teachers that parents dislike, without exception, are those with provisional certificates.

I feel like I’ve made a shift on you here. I’ve been talking about the shortage of special education teachers and suddenly I’m talking about parents and what they think. Who cares what parents think?

Well, all of you should. NCLB makes special provisions for parental involvement that still have not been fully realized, discussed and fleshed out. But that day is coming. And then regular ed. teachers will know what special ed. teachers already know; one onerous parent can ruin your day, your week, your year and possibly your entire career. Now, remember that the parents are talking so they may actually hate you before even laying eyes on you. This does play mightily into the retention of many of teachers. A middle or high school provisionally certified special education teacher has NO background in Special Ed. A mother of a middle/high schooler, however, has at least 10 years worth of IEPs under her belt. She may already know the director of special ed. on a first name basis. She knows special education, knows the law and knows her child. A provisionally certified Sp.Ed. teacher trying to use jargon and position to intimidate will likely find themselves totally mauled by Mama Bear.

The IEP is a piece of mini-legislation, drafted between the school system and the parent and ratified by the IEP committee. It falls on the caseload teacher to draft this and eventually write it all out. The paperwork involved in this is pretty massive and takes quite a lot of specialized knowledge about special education law, the child and the services the school system offers. Keeping up with numerous reports, assessments and data require a lot of administrative time. Time a lot of teachers don’t have. The paperwork load has frequently been cited as one of the leading causes of stress and attrition among special education teachers. IDEA 2004 sought to address this through a pilot study of 3 year IEPs. Since Georgia is not one of the 15 states included, we don’t even get to try out this terrible idea to demonstrate how bad it is. Instead, I have 5 more pages added.

Another factor cited as a reason for high attrition rates of Sp. Ed. teachers is lack of administrator support. Special education, to the majority of principals, represents a pain-in-the-ass. Those students make up the majority of the discipline problems, the majority of parent complaints, the majority of hiring headaches not to mention their dragging effect on making AYP. They are the least likely to get scholarships, become good athletes or boost the school’s image in any meaningful way. Most principals lack any sort of special education experience themselves, so they lack any understanding of the law, the techniques or culture of special education. Therefore, like my superintendent, they frequently find ways of simply working around the exceptional populations and their issues. If it weren’t for the law, they’d have nothing to do with us. This is not a very morale-boosting experience for most teachers. Special education teachers are seen as lower class teachers in their own buildings. Certainly this is true throughout the larger education establishment. Take a look at all of the education blogs discussing special education issues. When you find one, please let me know.

The shortage of special education teachers is more massive than the shortage of math and science teachers combined. Every year, thousands of fully funded special education positions go unfilled. But the silence on this issue outside of the special education community is pretty deafening. I have not read of any officials putting higher pay for special education teachers on the table for discussion. AFT? I’m all ears! My wonkish friends? Helloo??!

Oh well. I’ll just keep clanging and banging around here. At the very least if you ever run across any media news on the huge Sp. Ed. shortfall, remember you read it here first!


One Response to “A Word or Two on Retaining Sp. Ed. Teachers”

  1. Michele February 9, 2006 at 3:58 pm #

    Hi Dick,

    In one of our posts on math and science, we talked about the AFTs policy on teacher compensation. We encourage our affiliates to provide financial incentives for “teaching in shortage areas.” Although folks tend to think first of math and science, special education is definitely a shortage area, as is bilingual education. Here is the link to our policy.


    Michele at AFT

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