Experts warn about teacher shortages in special education
Special ed assessments are up, but the teacher workforce is shrinking
All but one of Sara Baillie Gorman’s students for her Disability in Chicago class last semester admitted they chose the class because it was the only one that fit in their schedule. But by the end of the semester, Gorman said several students had changed their major to fields like social work or special education to work with people with disabilities.
Providing a course to all students that focuses on disabilities is one of several strategies Trinity Christian College employs to guide more students to the school’s special education program. Experts in special education warn that the field will need those added numbers.
As the number of students needing extra services rises, experts are raising concerns about a shortage of special education teachers.
During the 2010-11 school year, 13 percent of U.S. students had a disability. In the 2020-2021 school year, that number grew to 14.5 percent of students. Much of the increase comes from rising numbers of autism diagnoses, which Laurie VanderPloeg, associate executive director for professional affairs at the Council for Exceptional Children, said can at least partially be explained by a more widespread understanding of autism.
VanderPloeg, who previously directed the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, said the pandemic sparked a higher number of special education evaluation requests for students. Because most students experienced interruptions in learning due to COVID-19 shutdowns, she said it’s difficult to determine which children are eligible for special education and which may require individualized attention to catch up but don’t need special ed services. She added that the field is also seeing more behavioral and mental health–related issues.
While nationwide data on teacher shortages are hard to come by, VanderPloeg said some states have reported that about 45 percent of their unfilled teacher positions are in special education. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected occupation growth for special education will result in 37,600 more job openings in 2030 than were available in 2020.
But despite the growing need, fewer prospective teachers are joinig the field since before COVID-19 first shuttered schools in March 2020. A 2019 report found that a third fewer students entered teacher preparation programs in 2016-17 than they did in 2008-09. The shortages are often felt in special education. An August 2016 report showed that 48 states and the District of Columbia all experienced a shortage of special education teachers.
Those who choose the special education field may not remain there long. One study found that twice as many special education teachers leave the profession as teachers overall. Trinity Christian College offers undergraduate and graduate programs in special education, as well as an undergraduate evening program for nontraditional students. Gorman, associate professor of special education and the director of education operations at the school, said that, for many teachers, meetings and paperwork restrict time for building relationships with students and contribute to burnout.
“Many people come into the field of special education in order to work with individuals with disabilities,” she said. “As these times change, our job as a special educator becomes more about paperwork … and less and less about being in the classroom.”
Lynn Roper, assistant professor of special education and special education program coordinator at Cedarville University, said that special education teachers face increased expectations without receiving increased support. “Special educators are asked to be in inclusive classrooms, co-teaching. Then they’re asked to pull students out and support them in a separate classroom or in the back of a classroom,” she said. “We have higher and higher numbers of students that we’re responsible for as special educators, and there’s just no way, with the variety of needs that students have, that … you’re going to be able to meet all the needs of those 20 students.”
Cedarville’s program prepares graduates to work with students with mild to moderate disabilities. Roper said these disabilities are the most frequent in K-12 schools: learning disabilities, ADHD, speech and language needs, and emotional disabilities. According to Roper, Cedarville has about 35 students in its four-year program, with about nine students graduating each year.
Through her observations of student teachers, Roper said she sees more challenges for teachers today, especially with increased documentation requirements and students’ heightened emotional and behavioral needs. And the job was already all-consuming: “You can always be thinking about this student or that student and thinking, ‘Okay, I need to find another way to reach them,’” she said. “Their day doesn’t end at 3 p.m.”
Both Roper and Gorman said their schools’ Christian foundation affects their approach to special education. “In the Bible, Jesus often reached out to those who were needing extra support, whether that be having leprosy or a variety of ailments,” Gorman said. “It’s hard to think of a more Christian perspective of how to live your life than to continue to care for those individuals, just like the Bible showed that Jesus did.”
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