Yes, there’s a shortage of special education teachers. And that’s nothing new


This Story was created by The74, an independent news organization that focuses on education in America.

While there are many headlines claiming and discrediting reports of a teacher shortage in the country, very few people have noticed the third rail. Teachers who can teach students with disabilities for the past half century have been scarce since the creation of special education.

There are many reasons special educators are always in short supply. However, there are also evidence that strategies can be implemented to increase their numbers. Disability advocates say that these efforts will be in vain as long as special education is considered second-class.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director of Center for Learner Equity. She says that special education is a part of a continuum in which special education is treated as secondary. Teachers work hard but if they don’t feel part of a community or considered central to the community then teaching special education is unfulfilling and unsustainable.

These problems, she says, impact almost every aspect of special education staffing. There are no policies to encourage colleges of education to produce more teachers, and there is a lack of incentives for newly-minted teachers to start teaching children with disabilities.

Special educators have to do more depending on their state’s rules. They must earn more college credits, take on more student loans, and perform more work than general education teachers while receiving the same resources or less. Although some districts offer higher salaries, few have made sufficient financial incentives to fill special education vacancies.

Although it was difficult to quantify teacher shortages before the pandemic it has been obvious that there is a nationwide shortage of special education teachers. Between 1998 and 2018, 80% states reported special education shortfalls. However, only nine states report a high percentage of vacancies in general education.

The education consultancy Bellwether warned that what is often called a teacher shortage actually stems from a mismatch between the needs of schools and the types of graduates colleges are producing in a 2019 Report. For example, in the 2011-12 school years, 22% of schools reported difficulty finding general elementary teachers and 17% couldn’t find enough special education professionals. Similar shortages continue in math, biology, and the life sciences.

The report illustrates this by noting that one teacher was hired for every twelve social studies licenses in Illinois. Two out of three special educators, however, found employment.

Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act of 1972 does not permit school systems to use a lack of qualified educators to deny students with learning disabilities the services they need. This is one reason why districts are required to prioritise this vulnerable group of children. Advocates say that pressure to create a pipeline of special educators has not been applied in the 50 years since the law was passed.

These are some of their obstacles, along with promising practices that might help.

The Current Moment

After the closure of the first COVID schools, controversy erupted about students with disabilities. The district administrators claimed that special education could not be moved online; federal officials countered, stating that there was no reason to delay. In practice, however, many children were left without critical help for months or even years.

These children are legally entitled to additional help to catch up. This puts pressure on schools to make sure they have enough teachers and support staff to meet their needs. To make matters worse, disability advocates predict that the number of students who receive special education services will skyrocket as more children are diagnosed and those who have fallen behind are referred to specialists.

Districts are using their billions of federal pandemic recovery funds to increase staffing. This creates intense competition for talent. The supply of special education classroom aides is particularly limited.

Districts are hiring sub-educators or teachers without the proper qualifications to teach children with disabilities in their classrooms. Unqualified teachers are less likely to assist students after the interruptions in the previous three school years. They are also more likely to quit, which only adds to the problem.

The 2019-20 school year is the first to show a rise in resignations. There is evidence that turnover is greater among special education teachers than other teachers. One study showed that special education teachers were 11% more likely than general educators to leave the classroom, and 72% more likely change schools between 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Due to the challenges of remote learning and COVID’s devastating impact on student wellbeing, the factors thought to drive turnover among special education teachers likely increased during the pandemic. This may have led to resignations and retirements not yet recorded in official statistics.

Rand conducted research on educators’ perceptions for the 2020-21 schoolyear. It found that teachers who teach students with disabilities are particularly stressed. Many said they didn’t get enough support and guidance for remote instruction, and they had no idea if they were communicating with students who were disengaged.

The Pipeline

Federal officials have been asking states for teacher shortage reports for over 20 years. However, they have never requested it. While policymakers know that the shortage of special educators is a problem in many areas, they do not take any action to address it.

Bellwether stated that the “misalignment between teacher demand and teacher supply is where the teacher shortfall crisis is born” and cited a “misinformed narrative regarding generalized teacher shortages as part of the problem. It leads policymakers and others to seek broad solutions rather than specific ones to acute problems.

First, convince education college students that a longer route to teaching is possible. Many places require special education licenses, which can be more difficult and expensive than getting certified in other areas. This is something many college students are not willing to take on.

Mayme Hostetter, president of Relay Graduate School of Education which offers programs to help special educators overcome obstacles, says that “it’s a harder road.” It’s a more difficult and expensive process. You don’t get more. There is no recompense.

The percentage of new teachers who are seeking special education licenses hovered around 17% between 2013 and 2018. The path to licensure in special education is not paved with ease by all the colleges of education.

The shortfall is also due to the fact that not all newly certified special education teachers are able to serve students with disabilities. According to the 2020 report by the American Institutes of Research’s Calder Center, teachers with dual certification (both special and general education credentials) are 20% less likely than teachers without special education qualifications to be assigned to special education roles.

Labor market analysts suggest that struggling districts consider ways to get dual-licensed teachers to take on special education positions.

One example: As of the start to the new school year in Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools had over 2,800 dual-certified teachers and more than 100 unfilled special education positions. The district offered a $5,000 incentive to anyone teaching in general education and holding a special education licence to transfer to a position that is vacant in special ed.

The National Council on Teacher Quality says that if they are sufficiently large, these financial incentives can be very attractive. Hawaii paid special education teachers $10,000 higher than their peers in 2020. It reduced its teacher shortage by half and attracted 300 more special educators to its schools.

In the 2021-22 school years, Detroit Public Schools Community District offered a $15,000-per-year incentive for special educators. If they change classrooms, dual-licensed teachers in general education who are employed by the district are eligible for the salary boost.

Atlanta had filled all its vacancies before the pandemic by offering $3,000 bonuses to new special education teachers. It started offering incentives for teachers of students with disabilities in 2021.

According to Chad Aldeman (policy director at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab), there is some resistance to the idea that differentiated pay should be offered. He says that unions have always opposed special incentives for teachers working in hard-to staff schools or areas of shortage. “We have always treated teachers equally as a nation and not said, “This person has a more difficult job.”

Administrators often claim they cannot afford to pay more special educators, particularly since Congress and the states have not funded the system at promised levels for decades. Aldeman responds by pointing out that teacher turnover has its costs.

He says, “The cost of replacing a teacher is more than $10,000 per year.” Districts will make money if they invest in their existing employees.

Morando Rim agrees but warns that the churn won’t stop unless there is a change in the culture of special education at many schools.

She says, “I feel that it’s kinda a Band-Aid for a bullet hole.” You might be able offer more to teachers, but if you don’t address the root problems of special education teachers feeling second-class citizens, it’s not going to solve the problem in a sustainable manner.

Many disability advocates complain that special education is not integrated into schools. This refers to both the possibility that students may be separated within the school and the fact that teachers might not be fully integrated into the school’s staff. Administrators often don’t know their job or what their needs are. Co-workers may not be aware of their extra skills or longer work hours.

General education teachers often see special ed classrooms only as a place to send students who are struggling academically and behaviorally. This reinforces the idea that disabled children are not the responsibility of all schools, but a small group of teachers who have been trained to manage them.

Rand last year reported that “a culture of shared responsibility… has been linked to better working conditions and an increased likelihood special educators will stay in their schools,” Rand said. “Schools need to undergo significant’reculturing’, including changes in teacher beliefs, priorities, and norms of teacher interaction.

There is a constant tension between disability advocates, education leaders, and those who advocate inclusion. Inclusion refers to the practice of integrating students with special needs into regular classrooms. Students receiving special education services are entitled to qualified teachers and the same academic challenge as their peers when necessary.

It is cheaper and more effective to make schools as inclusive as possible, argue advocates. However, even though districts promote inclusion as a priority they often resort to segregating special educators from their students.

Schools are using the threat of a pandemic to justify cutting legal-required services. There are signs. Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools in Minnesota, the largest school system, announced that it will close its standalone facility for students with behavioral problems who require a segregated environment.

The neighboring Minneapolis District unilaterally and against federal law, moved hundreds of students who needed intensive services online to in-person over the summer. The in-person program was promised to make up for the lack of online learning during COVID. Some families complained about the removal of mandated services like specialized transportation in the days leading up to the start of the new school year.

Morando Rim warns, “You are robbing Peter in order to pay Paul.” “Kids aren’t content to sit in classrooms if they don’t learn. They develop behavior problems. They stop wanting to go to school.


The Learning Disabilities Association of Minnesota was founded in 1967 as a way to assist students with disabilities and their families. It has been a long-standing employer of educators. They have trained teachers to close literacy gaps, tutor students who don’t get enough help at school, and a variety of other tasks. According to Martha Moriarty, Executive Director, the creation of a special education licensure programme was easy when the state allowed non-traditional colleges of education to start training teachers.

She says, “Every single family who comes to us has problems with the special education system.” “Special Education is a pathway to prison for many children.”

Seven potential teachers were welcomed to the association in September. The small group of college graduates will be able to take classes in person at night and work with mentors one-on-one. They can also practice their skills in a classroom residency for 21 months. The Academic and Behavioral Specialist license will be awarded to graduates, which allows them to work with students with disabilities in all grades. This flexibility is highly sought-after by schools. It is hoped that 20 teachers will be trained each year.

Moriarty’s, like other alternative licensure programs also recruits special education classroom aides of color. Many people can’t afford a second degree because the job is only $15 an hour. Educational assistants are often familiar with the backgrounds of their students, making them well-suited to handle special education challenges.

Moriarty states that students who have experienced their own struggles are more likely to identify with them and want to be a part of the success. “For them, a college campus does not always feel as welcoming as small nonprofits.”

Students are not eligible to receive federal financial aid because the training is not provided by a university, but rather by a social services agency. This means that the $16,000 cost of the training will not be covered. The number of alternative licensure programs have increased, and the state funding that lawmakers provided when the law was changed has not kept up with this growth. This creates a new obstacle to ensuring special educators are more accessible to the public.

Candidates of color are eligible for a discount and local charter schools often subsidize tuition to employees who want to go up to address their special ed staffing needs. However, sustainability funding is difficult to find.

Morando Rim says this is further evidence that policymakers at all levels are apathetic and the true cause of the shortage of special educators.

She says, “This has been an issue for years that we didn’t pay attention too.” “I don’t believe special education in charter schools or district schools is functional at the moment. It is not a place we want to include all children.

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, provide financial support for Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab and the National Council on Teacher Quality, Center for Learner Equity, and The 74. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided financial assistance for research at Rand and the Calder Center of American Institutes for Research. The Joyce Foundation provides financial support for The 74 and The National Council on Teacher Quality. Bellwether was founded by Andy Rotherham. He is a member of The 74’s Board of Directors.

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