NCLB and the Demand for Highly Qualified Teachers: Challenges and Solutions for Rural Schools

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Abstract

Teacher shortages in special education have been a source of longstanding concern for professionals and parents involved in the education of students with disabilities. Because of their geographic location, culture, and lack of resources, rural administrators have always struggled to staff their schools with qualified special education teachers. No Child Left Behind and its definition of highly qualified teacher present new challenges to rural district administrators attempting to secure adequate numbers of special education teachers. In this paper, we outline the challenges rural administrators face in reducing special education teacher shortages, present strategies being used nationally and regionally to reduce strategies, and critique those strategies. We conclude our paper by advocating for a more comprehensive approach to solving teacher supply and demand problems, one that is driven by personnel data.

Chronic and growing shortages of special education teachers have been a source of longstanding concern for local, state, and federal agencies charged with educating students with disabilities. Since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was enacted, many school districts have been unable to secure sufficient quantities of certified special education teachers, threatening our nation's ability to adequately serve students with disabilities. Approximately 12.3% of the 13.6 million special education teachers lack certification in special education (U. S. Department of Education, 2002). When you consider that the average teacher caseload in special education is 16 students, then approximately 800,000 students with disabilities are served by uncertified teachers, clearly an unacceptable situation. Moreover, current supply and demand statistics indicate that shortages will become more dramatic in the next decade as a result of increasing special education enrollments, forecasts of teacher retirements, high teacher attrition rates, and the continued increase in the number of uncertified teachers (McLeskey, Tyler, & Flippin, 2004). For instance, from 1992 to 1999, the nation's student population (age 3 to 12) grew by 6.8%; at the same time, the number of students with disabilities grew by 20.8% (McLeskey, Tyler & Flippin, 2004). Additionally, the number of special education teachers who leave the field annually exceeds the numbers of new graduates by twofold (U. S. Department of Education, 1998). Considering this context, schools are faced with the daunting challenge of insuring that students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education (FAPE). We believe FAPE requires that all special education teachers be highly qualified.

In a national context of teacher shortages, policy makers struggle to provide a quality education for America's children. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, P.L.107-110, 2001) acknowledges the important role teacher quality plays and includes sweeping changes in public education. This legislation responds to the issues of providing a quality education to general and special education students alike by attempting to address issues of teacher quality and quantity. As such, a new federal definition of "highly qualified" establishes a universal standard for teachers that requires (a) a bachelor's degree, (b) state certification or licensure, and (c) competence in the core subject areas they teach. NCLB responds to the quantity issue by relaxing entry requirements into the teaching profession through alternative certification routes. It also emphasizes the importance of innovative recruitment and retention strategies by promoting professional development, compensation strategies, tenure reform and certification reform (NCLB, 2001).

The overall premise of this legislation to improve the quality of America's schools cannot be overlooked. However, the "one size fits all" design is problematic, particularly for special education, whose shortage problem fails to match the NCLB solution of streamlined training for individuals with content expertise, and even more for rural special education where the availability of specialized content and Special Education teachers is even less viable. …