Understanding the Causes Behind Special Education Teachers’ Departures and Schools’ Responses

Solutions to the perennial crisis of special education staffing must extend beyond training and recruiting more teachers to the more complex work of retaining educators who’ve already entered the field, experts say.

Twenty-one percent of public schools reported that they were not fully staffed in special education at the start of the 2023-24 school year, higher levels of reported shortages than for any other teaching specialty, federal data show. And about 8 percent of teachers who work with children who qualify for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are not fully certified.

All teachers juggle layers of practical and pedagogical responsibilities, but special education teachers carry an unusually complex workload that involves case management, teaching students in multiple grades and subjects, and cooperating with fellow teachers to help students meet educational goals.

“I just felt like I couldn’t meet all of my students’ needs with the resources and support that I had, no matter how hard I worked,” said Elizabeth Bettini, an associate professor of special education at Boston University who previously taught special education in K-12 schools.

Here are three ways states and districts are trying to keep current special education teachers on the job—and to improve their chances of retaining new recruits.

  1. Incentive Pay: Districts experiment with higher pay for special education teachers. When special education teachers leave their roles, they aren’t always leaving teaching altogether. Rather, special education teachers with multiple teaching endorsements often shift into another position. Districts like Detroit have sought to recognize the challenges of the special education role by providing annual incentive pay of up to $15,000 for special education teachers. Starting in 2020, Hawaii’s statewide school district offered a $10,000 bonus for special education teachers, with larger bonuses for those who teach in schools deemed hard to staff. While Hawaii’s special education teacher shortage hasn’t been erased, students with in special education programs are now more likely to be taught by qualified teachers because of the bonuses.
  2. Retention-Oriented Preparation: States and districts prepare new special education teachers with retention in mind. Advocates for grow-your-own programs and teacher apprenticeships say the approach may allow new special education teachers to enter the role with a greater awareness of the challenges they will face. Many participants in the University of North Dakota’s Special Education Resident Teacher Program complete their training at schools where they will later work full time. Similarly, a unique teacher residency program led by the Washington Education Association draws former paraprofessionals and emergency substitute teachers with experience in special education classrooms.
  3. Combatting Workplace Isolation: Administrators combat special education teachers’ workplace isolation and burnout. Special education teachers are usually stressed because they lack the support and resources to do their jobs well, not because of the students they serve. Administrators can address these stressors by seeking their own professional development on how to support special education teachers and by inviting regular feedback about how to include special education teachers in curriculum purchasing decisions, planning schedules, and schoolwide policy conversations.
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