Why Special Education Programs Struggle to Find (and Keep) Teachers

In a recent study from Denver-based Regional Educational Laboratory Central, a great need for special education teachers is growing at an alarming rate. In states across the country, special education programs are having a hard time not only recruiting new special education teachers but retaining the ones they have.

To try to recruit and keep these teachers on board, school districts across the United States are offering signing bonuses worth thousands of dollars. But is it enough to find the right talent to help provide special education students with the right classroom leadership?

The study from Regional Educational Laboratory Central highlighted a startling fact, pointing out that special education teachers are twice as likely as other teachers to change schools in Colorado. For administrations and school boards, this means that there’s a constant need to fill vacancies and scramble to find consistency. For students and their families, this means frustration and the possibility of lower achievement in the classroom.

In Colorado, as well as in Missouri and South Dakota, state education departments are trying to find solutions to these issues with the goal of attracting dependable teaching staff in the special education field. But it’s understanding the root of the issue that remains the focus, and that is burnout based on a number of factors.

From not receiving adequate funding to training paraprofessionals to not collaborating with general education teachers, special education programs are operating on razor-thin budgets on top of high levels of stress, which filters down to the teachers.

In fact, half of all special education teachers leave their jobs within five years in the United States, feeding into a turnover rate of 75 percent every 10 years. In Colorado, specifically, teachers with less than four years at a school were nearly 50 percent more likely to leave than their senior teaching colleagues.

The state had more than 100 priority improvement schools in 2016 and more than 100 districts with teacher salaries averaging about $42,000. But what can be done besides signing bonuses and benefits like loan forgiveness?

Some say that pairing beginning teachers with mentors or providing extra support in the classroom during induction can possibly lower the risk of a teacher departing. Many school districts across the country are initializing alternative-certification programs, which can get teachers working with special education students while they are earning their credentials. This can help to alleviate some of the stress of jumping into a special education program somewhat blindly and without the right support.

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