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?