The Special-Education Teacher Shortage
There’s a teacher shortage in special education.
From 2005 to 2012, the number of special education teachers employed by U.S. schools declined by more than 17 percent, according to the journal Exception Children. The American Institutes for Research tells a similar story. In the 2013-14 school year, 47 states reported shortages of special education teachers.
All students—regardless of who they are or where they come from—deserve to be treated with dignity and taught by highly qualified teachers who can help them become engaged and productive citizens. This is especially true in the case of students with special needs who, because they are often misunderstood or misrepresented, need strong advocates and champions to ensure that they are held to high expectations and not underestimated.”
Karrin Lukacs, M.Ed., Ph.D | Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction
The reasons for the shortage are varied. More students are being diagnosed as having a disability. The percentage of total public school enrollment in federally supported special education programs increased from 8.3 percent in 1976 to 13.8 percent in 2005. As a result, there aren’t enough teachers to fill the increased need.
Then there’s teacher pay, which is not just an issue for special education teachers but all instructors. On average, teachers make less than their peers. According to Time.com, in 39 states, the average teacher earned less in 2016 than they did in 2010, once you adjust for inflation. In the local area, some of the shortage can be attributed to teachers willing to drive east toward Washington, D.C., to obtain higher paying jobs with better benefits.
Teacher education programs require a fifth-year certification process after students complete a bachelor’s degree in a content area. According to Lukacs, students in recruitment fairs say they are tapped out in terms of financial aid and are still paying off undergrad loans, and that this fifth year is not feasible. In addition, many school districts in Virginia have reduced or eliminated tuition assistance for teachers going back to school due to budget constraints and concerns, leading to reduced enrollment in teaching programs.
According to Lukacs, the majority of special education teachers have someone in their family with special needs. Students who do not know someone with a disability will be less inclined to work as a special education teacher because they might be deterred by stereotypes, afraid of the unknown, or not confident in their own capabilities.
Shenandoah University is Making an Impact
Shenandoah University currently offers a Master of Science in Special Education. Eighteen students are enrolled in the 30-hour program, with several more in the pipeline as visiting students. The program blends distance learning with onsite classes, providing flexibility for working adults. Onsite classes meet only once a week at sites in Winchester and Loudoun County, Virginia.
All faculty members have terminal degrees (Ph.D., Ed.D.), and classes are taught by those endorsed in special education. All special education adjunct faculty members hold teaching or administrative leadership positions in Virginia K-12 school systems, so their knowledge of the field of special education is current, relevant and practical.
Andrew Dudley graduated from the Shenandoah special education program in the summer of 2014. He came to SU to become a special education teacher following his experience as a paraprofessional in a self-contained autism classroom at Handley High School.
My four years as a teaching assistant [at Handley High School] were truly rewarding, and the encouragement of the teachers I worked with just confirmed that this was the career path I needed to follow. I admired the dedication and passion they had for teaching students with special needs, and it became clear to me that I needed to grow professionally, while still continuing to do what I grew to love.”
Andrew Dudley ’14
One way Lukacs is battling the shortage is by teaching a First Year Seminar about disability awareness that will feature many guest speakers with disabilities. One of these speakers was Dillon Strouse, a 30-year-old native of Pennsylvania who is an entrepreneur and motivational speaker with cerebral palsy. He is the founder of Strouse Entertainment, which offers a wide array of party services including DJing, inflatables and photo booth rentals.
Other speakers will include a man from New Jersey who designs adaptive playgrounds, representatives from A Farm Less Ordinary, and Boulder Crest Retreat, which serves veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Overall, Lukacs says Shenandoah’s program is producing teachers who are caring, compassionate and know how to use data to teach effectively.
Good News on the Way
According to Jill Lindsey, BMA, Ph.D., director of the School of Education & Leadership, Shenandoah will be converting its current teacher licensure minors into majors earning bachelor’s degrees in education beginning in 2019-20.
Along with the new option to provide four-year degrees in teacher education, the state announced a new special education option being rolled out sometime later this year that will permit teachers with existing teaching credentials to add an 18-credit special education license to the licensure level the teacher already holds. Shenandoah is positioned to provide that program once the state provides the specific requirements and implements a program approval process later this fall.
This new approach will produce teachers able to more efficiently enter the workforce with a bachelor’s degree, something very much needed with the Commonwealth of Virginia.