A Teacher Supply Problem

18 Jul

I like to try to recruit smart people into the Special education business as much as anyone else. We need more people, and we need smart people. At the same time, I’m a strong advocate of doing whatever I can to support teachers who are already in the business. This business with NCLB and alternate assessments has made that task a lot more difficult and has taken quite a lot of the heart out of any efforts I might make. It’s very difficult talking about bringing in new talent into a business that I’m not sure that I want to stay in.


That last sentence was a tough one to write.


Special education is a VERY tough business, no doubt. The attrition rate 3 years ago when I last saw the figures was a 50% turn-around within 5 years. Less than 3 years in some areas such as teaching those with emotional behavior disorders and those serving children with severe disabilities. And NCLB has probably increased those figures considerably. At this point, school districts are happy with any warm body, let alone someone who is reasonably competent and experienced.


For your reading pleasure, I direct you to an article from the boston.com news about New Hampshire trying to alleviate its shortage of special education teachers. Early on it is noted that no one had registered for the special education program at the University of New Hampshire for the last two years! No one. Not even one. There’s a bit of a problem here, isn’t there? NH’s solution is to offer reduced or free tuition for those enrolling in the UNH special education program funded by a federal grant. They are hoping to attract 20 new students this year and 20 more next year. So far they’ve accepted 6 applicants with 6 more saying that they plan on enrolling this fall. I wonder if they will make their goal.


Even if they do, there are some problems. First and foremost, this is like sticking a finger in the proverbial dike. With the attrition rate running as high as it is, 20 new teachers will not even come close to addressing New Hampshire’s needs.


Secondly, even with 50% off or free tuition, they are having trouble meeting their goal. Finally, with the “warm body” mentality running amok, there’s little controls or measures to make sure that the applicants they DO get are going to be competent enough to do the job. There may be unseen checks that were not written about in the article, but that is a substantial issue nation wide.


So what do I think should be done to ease the supply problem?


1. Untangle the mess that is the teacher supply-line. There are a myriad of ways a person can become a certified teacher, but state departments all too often put up silly road blocks such as the lack of reciprocity between states or requiring teachers take a course on their state history before giving them a certificate. Many of these hoops have nothing to do with teacher competence. Also, they are not always clear. People call the state DOE and get conflicting answers as to what they have to do to get certified.


2. Concentrate efforts at retention. I witnessed my own administration seemingly bent on running off teachers who were doing a decent job. Instead of offering more training and mentoring, they simply try to run off teachers who make mistakes. Okay, I’m against incompetence as much as anyone, but reasonable attempts should be made to train the people already warming those spots before cutting them loose.


3. Differential pay. Oh boy. This is a touchy issue, but right now there is a very steady migration of teachers out of special education and into other subject areas. Once a special education teacher gets highly qualified in a core subject, they say “Screw this!” and simply move over into a regular classroom. In contrast, the migration from regular education to special education is practically zero. Differential pay would help balance this migration problem as well as help with recruitment. Oh, and this pay differential should include para educators as well. It’s getting harder and harder to staff those positions as the requirements go up but the pay does not.


4. Produce a special pipeline that will help para educators get certified. This is where the grant money NH got could have been better spent. Paras often have years of experience already in the classroom with these students. They already know many of the ropes. They are already there and if they are willing, they’ll have a better idea of what they are in for than those walking in off the street. In fact, paras should be allowed to turn their para positions into paid internships for student teaching. With the current state of para pay, they are not likely able to afford the cost of higher education. Give these folks a helping hand and grow your own supply of competent experienced teachers.


5. Include in the supply pipeline an avenue for advancement to administrative positions. Administrative support is one of the single biggest issues in the retention of special educators. And more and more we find ourselves working under supervisors who are pretty clueless as what special education entails. This has such a direct bearing on competence and could help prevent many due process hearings. Time and again I have been in IEP meeting where the administrator who was acting as LEA knew little or nothing about IEP’s and special education law and then they said something absolutely stupid that pissed a parent off.


I think that’s a decent start. Any other ideas?





3 Responses to “A Teacher Supply Problem”

  1. josh rosenthal at 6:05 pm #

    Really enjoyed this post – one of the most thoughtful I’ve ever seen. I used to teach exceptional education before going on to a PhD and other things.

    Anyway, in Louisville there is a program called Teach Kentucky – http://www.teachkentucky.com – that recruits ivy league kids and others acing their praxis exams to teach, giving them a masters degree and emergency certification as they begin teaching from day one – a good portion are exceptional/special education teachers. It’s been up for about five years and the majority stay on teaching – about 1/4 the students in the city are taught by them. A success story of sorts not unlike some of the things you describe.

    In getting new teachers in, they often struggle out of the gates before finding their grooves. These teachers actually wrote a new teachers’ Field Guide – and there is a good section on exceptional/special education: http://www.teachopedia.com/teaching_fieldguide

    thanks again for the article and know that some people are making efforts along those lines

  2. Dick at 12:53 pm #

    I’ll have to do a post on alternative certification after I talk to a couple of folks who are going through it. But notice that this was not one of my 5 suggestions of ways to increase the supply of special education teachers unless it is under #1. Also, after looking at Teach Kentucky, special education was conspicuously absent. There was no mention! Not untypical since we get listed in last place if we even make the list, not because there is not a sufficient shortage but simply as we’re sort of an educational afterthought. Plus how many Ivy Leaguers are going to sacrifice an Ivy League salary to teach special education? New Hampshire is struggling just to find 20 people who may or may not be from one of the elite schools. Prior experience really is important for this field in particular as content knowledge is abit less important than for the regular teachers.

    Thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed!


  3. Kathy Rollheiser at 12:35 am #

    Hi Dick

    I am a special ed consultant in BC Canada. My field is reading development and I work primarily with dyslexics- but I was in the system for 15 years and have taught learners with a wide range of abilities and problems. I now work privately, teaching reading. I am also a special ed consultant for the SelfDesign Learning Community- a class one independent school in BC.
    I have several students with dyslexia, some with intellectual challenges, and several on the autism spectrum. Although we have a different system in Canada, we share many common problems.

    In a rare moment of candor the administrator for Special Needs learners in our district lamented that while she didn’t have a shortage of special ed teachers, she did have a shortage of special ed teachers who knew what they were doing.

    I think part of the problem is that there is no standard of what a special ed teacher should know- not up here anyway. There are attempts, and each district wants trained Special Ed teachers, but the training varies from university to university. I completed my Masters degree in 2004, and at one point was berated for using the term “dyslexia” by a senior (too senior, obviously) professor. At another university in the same province, the head of the Special Education department is writing papers on dyslexia! Half of my Masters cohort was under age 35, and all of these admitted to having no training at all in teaching students with learning challenges, and yet all were expected to teach students with a wide range of abilities/disabilities.

    Some schools advocate waiting until a learner is 8 or 9 before intervening, and some screen kindergarten children. It is this uneven application of knowledge and methodology that is really hurting our special needs population in our school systems up here.

    So, I am all for better training of special education teachers, and I agree with you that differentiating pay is necessary. However- I think first we need a standard training program for special ed teachers.

    While I believe that teachers are professionals and are very capable, in this area I think we need to start telling teachers what they need to do, and insisting on certain courses being taken. Up here there is a very strong sense of teacher autonomy- teachers resent and reject being told what to do. Unfortunately, in the field of learning disabilities it is the child who suffers.

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