Working in Special Education: Factors That Enhance Special Educators' Intent to Stay

Article excerpt

The noted documentarian John Merrow (1999) recently examined national attempts to fill the shortage of qualified teachers, including major recruitment and incentive efforts by various states. He concluded that enhanced teacher recruitment is not the answer: "We're misdiagnosing the problem as `recruitment' when it's really `retention.' Simply put, we train teachers poorly and then treat them badly--and so they leave in droves" (p. 64). Merrow's documentary and related article help once again to highlight a critical issue in special education: the need to retain qualified personnel. A national survey of over 1,000 special educators recently conducted by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) concluded: "Poor teacher working conditions contribute to the high rate of special educators leaving the field, teacher burnout, and substandard quality of education for students with special needs" (CEC Launches Initiative on Special Education Teaching Conditions, 1998).

While the profession of special education historically has not devoted much attention to examination of teaching conditions, seminal figures in the broader field of general education research, such as Lortie (1975) and Little (1982, 1984), initiated a profound revolution by arguing that in order to increase student learning, we need to understand and then improve the conditions in which teachers work. Rosenholtz (1989) went on to document the impact of working conditions on student achievement, followed by similar work by McLaughlin (1992, 1994). Over the past 8 years, however, special education researchers have contributed a growing body of research to this knowledge base, examining factors related to decisions of special educators to remain in or leave the field (Brownell, Smith, McNellis, & Miller, 1997; Coladarci, 1992; Cross & Billingsley, 1994; George, George, Gersten, & Grosenick, 1995; Singh & Billingsley, 1996) and describing the precise nature of special education teacher attrition (Boe, Bobbitt, & Cook, 1997).

As this recent tradition has evolved, the focus has been less on use of "supply and demand" to predict attrition based on analysis of demographic variables such as ethnicity, gender, age, degrees attained, and type of certification (e.g., Singer, 1993). As Yee (1990) eloquently noted, in both general and special education, there are numerous teachers who "retire on the job" (p. 120) suggesting that simple retention of teaching personnel is not necessarily the answer. Researchers have instead focused more on an indepth understanding of aspects of the working conditions of special educators that lead to increased job satisfaction and a higher commitment to the field of special education, as opposed to merely attempting to ascertain factors associated with job longevity.

With the exception of the longitudinal attrition research of Singer (1993), these recent studies have all used the technique of path analysis to understand the more complex way in which intent to stay in the profession is mediated by such variables as prior preparation, administrative and collegial support, stress, commitment, and job satisfaction.

Path analysis allows us to examine multiple hypothetical, causal relationships that would be impossible to experimentally evaluate in the real world. Suppose, for instance, we hypothesized that support from the school principal is related to teachers' plans to either remain in or leave special education. We might ideally wish to test that proposition by conducting an experiment in which all other factors that might affect retention are controlled for by randomly assigning a large number of teachers either to an experimental group that receives extensive principal support or a control group that receives none. Such an experiment, however, is not feasible in the real world. Path analysis offers an alternative method to evaluate the relationship. Additionally, it simultaneously permits us to assess the contribution of many other variables as they influence--directly or indirectly--decisions to leave the field. …