Keeping Special Ed Staffing Shortages in Check

Topics: School Management, Teacher Effectiveness

If you’re a school principal, the available data on special education teacher shortages likely only confirms your experiences over the past decade. While the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated staffing problems, it has been widely reported that a shortage of special education teachers has been persistent since the beginning of special education itself.

We believe principals need to be more concerned about this problem today, however, and prepare to act for three reasons. First, we know from research that students in high-poverty urban schools, students of color, students in remote rural schools, and students with disabilities are most impacted by teacher shortages. Given the influence teachers have on student achievement, principals must work to hire and retain fully prepared special education teachers to mitigate the persistent achievement gaps between students with disabilities and their general education peers.

Second, principals might be dealing with higher populations of students with disabilities. Some special education advocates are projecting the number of students receiving special education services to climb sharply, since many students who fell behind during the pandemic might be referred to special education, according to Chalkbeat.

And finally, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with disabilities have adequate and certified personnel. Already, parents are filing claims that their children have been denied the education to which they are entitled under federal law, claiming that services were not provided as specified in their child’s individualized education program during the pandemic. Principals have a legal obligation to ensure that students with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education.

How can principals ensure that they can keep effective special education teachers in the classroom? Experts at the CEEDAR Center and the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders (GTL) recommend that principals use the following short-, medium-, and long-term practices:

Strategy No. 1: Hiring Candidates With the Most Potential

Principals can hire teachers with certain characteristics and specific experiences that suggest they would be well suited for a job as a special education teacher—for example, individuals who have experiences as paraprofessionals, in roles working with children and/or individuals with disabilities, and in schools. Similarly, using hiring committees that include a mix of general and special education teachers can help establish a collaborative and supportive community.

Strategy No. 2: Providing New Hires With Intensive Professional Learning Supports

Novice teachers—most particularly those certified through fast-track or alternative routes—might have gaps in knowledge and skills that require increased professional learning and support. To start, principals should offer all new teachers orientation prior to the beginning of the school year to get them acquainted with school practices, policies, and instructional expectations. This time can also be spent welcoming new staff and introducing them to school colleagues. Finally, orientation should provide just-in-time strategies and tips for the first days and weeks of school, plus assistance in lesson planning to ensure that novice teachers gain confidence early in their careers.

Strategy No. 3: Pairing Novice Teachers With Knowledgeable, Experienced Paraprofessionals

Paraprofessionals know the school context. They understand school policies and practices and often live in the same community. Principals can carefully match experienced paraprofessionals with novice teachers to help alleviate teacher stress, facilitate connections within and outside of school, and improve job satisfaction. Principals should also provide professional development to train novice teachers to collaborate and leverage paraprofessionals productively to support students with disabilities.

Strategy No. 4: Establishing an Inclusive Learning Environment

Special education teachers often cite a lack of administrative support and poor school climate as primary reasons for leaving the profession. Principals who establish and maintain inclusive and collaborative learning environments increase special education teacher satisfaction. Research says that inclusive principals employ the following practices:

  • Supporting high expectations for all students;
  • Developing positive, orderly, and safe learning environments;
  • Promoting effective instructional practices;
  • Creating a collaborative culture for teachers to work within; and
  • Engaging parents to enhance student opportunities for learning and shared decision-making.

Strategy No. 5: Offering Mentoring and Induction Programs

Teachers who participate in high-quality induction and mentoring programs tailored to their specific needs are more likely to stay in the profession. Effective induction and mentoring programs are typically organized at the district level (see the National Center to Inform Policy and Practice’s District Induction Manual for guidance at bit.ly/3EjjKtj).

However, principals have many roles in implementation, including:

  • Carefully pairing mentors and mentees (bit.ly/3CGkN5u);
  • Prioritizing time for mentors and mentees to meet and observe each other’s classrooms;
  • Ensuring that novice teachers attend regularly scheduled professional development; and
  • Aligning principal supports to mentor/mentee and professional development.
  • Principals can also target core practices such as those recommended by High-Leverage Practices (highleveragepractices.org) as part of their school’s mentoring and induction program. All teachers, across content areas and grade levels, can learn these core practices to improve student outcomes.

Strategy No. 6: Learning How to Evaluate Special Education Teachers, Engage in Progress Monitoring, and Provide Targeted Professional Learning

Many principals explain that they are unprepared to observe and provide support to special education teachers, according to a 2020 RAND research report. Principals can engage in their own professional development to learn how to evaluate and provide feedback to special education teachers using valid, reliable measures that are sensitive to educators’ capacity to support students with disabilities. GTL offers guidance at bit.ly/3rBtBmF.

Principals provide instructional leadership by observing special education teachers regularly, providing coaching and feedback, and monitoring progress. When principals identify areas of need, they can provide immediate coaching, connect teachers with effective models, or solicit additional outside support from the district or professional development.

Strategy No. 7: Targeting Promising Paraprofessionals to Pursue Becoming Special Education Teachers

Paraprofessionals often have deep connections in the community. They typically mirror student demographics and create long-standing relationships with parents and students. Principals can target effective paraprofessionals with both encouragement and connections to programs that lead to certification in special education.

“Grow-your-own” programs are gaining traction for ameliorating shortages. They allow paraprofessionals to remain employed and often offset the cost of attending an educator preparation program. Principals play a strong role in identifying and encouraging potential candidates for special education teacher preparation. With such programs, the paraprofessional workforce typically becomes more diverse and more likely to remain in their communities.

Strategy No. 8: Elevating Teacher Voice

Teachers lament that they don’t often have a voice in policy and practice decisions. Offering teachers input into school decisions can increase satisfaction, facilitate buy-in, and establish a sense of community. Principals can establish school teams, approach and gain input from teacher organizations, and continually assess teacher satisfaction to ensure that teachers feel heard, valued, and appreciated.

Strategy No. 9: Establishing and Monitoring Teachers’ Perceptions of Working Conditions and Teacher Retention Targets to Make Appropriate Adjustments

Principals can establish data systems that collect information about working conditions and teacher hiring and retention, or a shortage toolkit (bit.ly/3T1dTgf). Having this critical information can assist principals in adjusting current practices to ensure that they are recruiting, supporting, and retaining effective special education teachers.

Strategy No. 10: Collaborating With Other Agencies That Have the Same Goals

Principals are not alone in their quest to ensure that every student with a disability has effective teachers. This effort must be systemic—schools, districts, educator preparation programs, and state education agencies must partner to establish and nurture a pipeline of special educators. Principals can coordinate and collaborate with local educator preparation programs to offer high-quality field experiences, hire newly prepared teachers, and connect novice teachers with educator preparation programs to provide support. Leveraging and coordinating efforts offers the best opportunity for success.

Systemic changes are needed to prevent this decades-​long staffing scenario from continuing. While principals can’t address all points of the career continuum, they can be pivotal in establishing and maintaining an inclusive learning environment, positive working conditions, and a supportive community so that teachers want to stay.

Margaret Kamman is co-director of the CEEDAR Center.

Kelly Acosta is a special education doctoral student at the University of Florida and a research assistant at the CEEDAR Center.

Lynn Holdheide is a managing technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research.