Special Education and Its Discontents

special education discontents

Better training, support, and resources are key to retaining special education staff in 2016

In the world of special education, now, it seems, is the winter of our discontent. With 49 out of 50 states reporting special education teacher shortages and story after story in the media highlighting the problems plaguing special education, it’s frightening to think about the impact teachers leaving the profession may have on the quality of special education services for students with disabilities. Now more than ever it is crucial that policy makers and school district leaders develop creative ways to retain and recruit quality special educators.

In a recent NPR article, David Pennington, superintendent of Ponca City public schools in Oklahoma, called the situation a crisis, expressing deep concern over his ability to replace special education teachers leaving the profession: “Forget about replacing them with someone of the same quality,” he told NPR. “I’m just worried about replacing them. Period.”

More Paperwork Means Less Time for Teaching

Some of the issues special educators report facing include feeling overwhelmed by paperwork and documentation, fear of lawsuits, feeling isolated from colleagues, and struggling to meet the demands of students with the most intensive needs due to lack of training, time and support.

With all the paperwork and other demands of being a special educator, teachers complain of having little time left for actually teaching students. A 2011 study conducted by Donald Deshler at the University of Kansas, found that special ed teachers spend just 27 percent of their day engaged in classroom instruction, and only 21 percent engaged in specialized instruction in which they are using evidence-based teaching methods focused on individual students’ needs.

As Pennington told NPR, “It is not uncommon for a special ed teacher to tell me, ‘I did not get a degree in special ed to do paperwork. I got a degree to help kids.’ ” In most cases, it is not that teachers don’t want to spend more time teaching, it is that they simply do not have the time.  

Lack of Training Amongst Support Staff

Another problem facing special educators is a lack of training. A lack of training can make teachers feel inadequate and less effective in the classroom, and can also lead to inefficiencies, which make their already difficult jobs seem impossible.

Lack of training is of particular concern when it comes to one-to-one paraprofessionals, and is an issue that has only recently gained visibility thanks to media coverage over the last few months. As the fastest growing group of special education staffers, one-to-one paraprofessionals are also the most inefficient, says recent research. Without all the other pressures facing teachers, research found that the one-to-one paraprofessionals observed spent only 57 percent of their time in the classroom engaged in instruction, and when not engaged, about a third “spent their time sitting without students or material involvement.”  

Researchers suggested that one of the key issues at play was a lack of training. Paraprofessionals lack training in evidence-based practices for working effectively with students with disabilities and supervisory staff lack training in how to engage and train their paraprofessionals. In both cases, the burden falls on the teacher.  If paraprofessionals are not adequately trained and engaged in instruction and other activities, teachers are often left compensating.

So What Now?

In Politico’s education predictions for 2016, Brian Sharp, Rethink’s executive vice president for education, emphasized the importance of quality training and support for special educators in 2016: “We’ve known for some time that teachers and paraprofessionals don’t feel they are getting the training they need, but there have been a flurry of news stories in recent months on the challenges these educators face and if schools don’t do something, they may see a sizable exodus in 2016.”

Providing teachers and paraprofessional staff more training in effective evidence-based practices for working with children with disabilities will help alleviate some of the pressure on teachers by empowering paraprofessionals to be more effective in the classroom and share some of the workload. Additionally, providing teachers with more just-in-time training and professional development can help free up time for instruction and support teachers in staying engaged in evidence-based instruction 100% of the time.

The good news is, progress is being made. A recent Education Week story highlighted some of the work non-profits and technology companies like Rethink are doing to provide better training to paraprofessional staff and more on-demand special education resources, while an AP story published in October revealed how New York City Public Schools, the largest school district in the country, is partnering with Rethink to provide paraprofessionals access to evidence-based training and support for effectively working with students with special needs.

Ensuring that teachers have access to better resources and supports that save them time and support them in being effective with students, and that all staffers working with students with disabilities have access to high-quality training in evidence-based practices is the first step in retaining and recruiting the top-notch professionals we need to provide students with disabilities the education they deserve.


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