What’s going on with the shortage of special education teachers?

In many states, such as Oklahoma, there is a shortage of special education teachers. Tulsa World reports that “Special education teachers have become so scarce that districts face fierce competition to find and keep good candidates and sometimes leave open positions unfilled.” Job applicants are few and far between. For those that do apply, don’t be surprised if you are called in for an interview the very next day.

That was the case for Melissa Parks, who was brought in for an interview the day after Superintendent Shelley Arrott received notice that Parks applied for a special education teaching position. Ms. Parks got the job (and accepted the job over 7 other offers from competing schools). Parks is now able to put her special education certification to good use.

The shortage of special education teachers being seen in Oklahoma is not just a local problem. Nationally we aren’t seeing special education positions attracting enough qualified talent. Some say poor teaching conditions and low salaries are the cause of this trend, but is it something else? Are younger students, middle and high school, not exposed to the idea of a profession in special education? Is the special education field not appropriately marketing itself to would be candidates? When it comes to a profession where you can earn a solid living, with benefits, while helping others in need on a daily basis, few check all of the boxes that being a special education teacher can check off.

How are schools dealing with the shortage of special education teachers?

Schools are relying more and more on temporary (both short and long-term) substitutes to fill the role of full-time special education teachers. Hiring paraprofessionals, or classroom assistants, can also relieve the burden that some special education teachers report feeling. Paraprofessionals are generally employed for minimum wage, or slightly more, and often work as part-time employees without full-time benefits.

What’s the risk of having a shortage of special education teachers?

The risk we see in the shortage of special education teachers is the possibility for classrooms to become overcrowded and understaffed. Each student that receives special education supports and services receives those services through an individualized education program (IEP). Each student’s IEP is unique to them and must be implemented accordingly. Each teacher is expected to read and be familiar with their student’s IEP. The IEP is the “roadmap” to that child’s education. The lower the student to teacher ratio, arguably, the more likely each student’s IEP will be implemented with fidelity.

What can you do?

If you are feeling the impact of an understaffed school and feel as though your child may be suffering as a result, it may be wise to contact an education lawyer or advocate for a consultation. When required, the provision of special education services are governed by federal law, and a shortage of special education teachers is no excuse for the delivery of an inappropriate education.