Special Education Teacher Retention and Hiring:
Reflecting on Minnesota’s Teacher Supply and Demand Report
I still remember vivid moments from my first year as a Special Education teacher serving high school students in Minneapolis, despite being over 10 years ago now. One moment in particular stands out in my mind as I look back at Minnesota’s 2019 Teacher Supply and Demand Report.
Toward the end of my first year teaching, my colleague and I held intake meetings for 8th graders entering our high school the following year. In one of those intake meetings, we met James – an 8th-grade student who had been receiving special education services for a Specific Learning Disability since elementary school. During his meeting, he looked at both my co-worker and me and said, “Why do I need to get to know you?”
We responded with the obvious answer, “Because we will be your high school special education teachers next year, and we think it is important to start building a trusting relationship now.”
James was not impressed. “No, really why do I need to get to know you? You won’t be here next year. No Special Education teacher has ever lasted more than one year here.”
And James was right. Previous to my coworker and I starting, our school had seen yearly turn over of special education teachers. A reality that extends far beyond the boundaries of Minneapolis.
In Minnesota, the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB) releases a Biennial Teacher Supply and Demand Report. Given the new year, we thought it a perfect time to reflect on 2019 and take a closer look at the data in regard to Special Education teacher retention and hiring.
Based on PELSB’s reported data, we found In Minnesota, Licensed Special education teachers are less likely to be retained in the profession than other teaching areas, and current Special Education positions are more likely to be filled with teachers not adequately prepared with a special education teaching license. According to the numbers, roughly 18% of the teachers listed as “licensed for assignment” are working in special education, while 26% of those listed as “inactive teachers” hold a current special education license. Additionally, 38% of those listed as working on “special permission” or “out of compliance,” are working in special education. So, in reality, it’s more likely a Special Educator will quit teaching before their license renewal date (generally 5 years), and it is more likely that their position will be filled by a person without a valid teaching license – as compared to any other teaching area.
While worrisome, this trend is not unique to Minnesota; 49 states report teacher shortages in the area of Special Education. This trend is also not new: The number of licensed Special education teachers has declined by 17 percent over the past decade, while students identified as needing special education services has only dropped by 1 percent. And what’s worse, this trend differentially affects different groups of people based on socioeconomic status. In a new report, Garcia and Wiess (2019) write, “The teacher shortage is real, large and growing, and worse than we thought. When indicators of teacher quality (certification, relevant training, experience, etc.) are taken into account, the shortage is even more acute than currently estimated, with high-poverty schools suffering the most from the shortage of credentialed teachers.”
The implications for these statistics are numerous. At the most important level, the student level, we believe the lack of retention and lack of qualified special education teachers in Minnesota contributes to many of the negative outcomes we see for students with disabilities in this state. Outcomes like lower academic test performance data, lower high school graduation rates, and lower college graduation rates. Additionally, these negative outcomes can compound with intersections of racism and classism our students face.
In thinking about my own role in this system, I remember my work with James. James was brilliant, observant, and assertive. We worked together for 3 years, and I would grow to love working with James; though we each had our frustrations with each other at times. James’s dream was to complete a two-year associate’s degree and then get his commercial Class B driver’s license to operate heavyweight commercial vehicles. As of the last time I heard from him, he had not met his goals. The rigors of his local community college and the written tests he needed to pass were too difficult for him. I had failed like so many of his previous teachers to truly prepare him. While I have no doubt the revolving door of special education teachers he had prior to my work with him contributed to his lack of being able to read by the time he entered high school – despite working with him for 3 years I was not able to teach him how to read. Truly, I did not have the understanding or support to meet his needs.
In my first years of teaching, I did not understand what rigor meant, I did not understand systemic inequities, I did not understand my own role in oppressive systems, and I failed countless students as a result of my lack of understanding – leading me to contemplate leaving the field of Special Education several times.
But I persevered. I forgave myself. I worked harder for my future students. I got more training. I learned what rigor means. I learned how to teach a high school student how to read and catch up to his peers. And when I met Edgar – a 9th-grade student similar to James: brilliant, observant and assertive, and unable to read entering into 9th grade – I taught him how to read. And I watched him graduate on level with his peers 4 years later, and attend college with the goal of becoming a lawyer. And I believe he will accomplish this because he can, and he was set up too.
For me, it was not a lack of will or intention that lead me to question whether I should stay in the field. It was not the overwhelming paperwork of special education that lead me to question if I should leave the field. It was a lack of training. Are their numerous institutional forces that stand in the way for many of our students with disabilities – systemic barriers like institutional racism, classism, and ableism – yes. But do we often have power in our individual classrooms to help combat many of these with our students – yes. And we can realize this power with the right training and support.
At LDA, we strive to provide that training and support. We believe that adequately preparing special education teachers with rigorous, relevant content (content that addresses systemic inequities head-on), face-to-face instruction, one-on-one coaching and mentoring from people that have persisted in the field – can make the difference. And we know we are not alone. Minnesota recently passed a law to allow programs like LDA, a non-profit community organization, to create teacher preparation and licensure programs and do things differently than traditional teacher preparation programs. If we want to stop the trends we have seen – we cannot continue to do the same things over and over and expect different outcomes. We need to be brave; try new ideas, give others an opportunity to lead, and make space for all voices.
Submitted by Ian McLaughlin