Are Special Educators' Career Paths Special? Reports from a 13-Year Longitudinal Study

By Singer, Judith D. | Exceptional Children, December-January 1992 | Go to article overview
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Are Special Educators' Career Paths Special? Reports from a 13-Year Longitudinal Study


Singer, Judith D., Exceptional Children


This nation has a serious shortage of qualified special education and related services professionals. Projections of both student and professional demographic data indicate that over the coming years the shortages will reach crisis proportion and seriously impede the ability to provide students with handicaps the special education and related services they are guaranteed under Federal Law. (A Free Appropriate Education: But Who Will Provide It? Testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on the Handicapped and the House Subcommittee on Select Education, April, 1989)

* Public Law 94-142, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), guarantees a free appropriate public education to all youngsters with educational, emotional, developmental, or physical disabilities. As EHA's authors recognized, fulfillment of this mandate requires an adequate number of qualified teachers who can deliver the prescribed specialized instruction and services. Since its implementation in 1977, however, despite EHA's provisions for a Comprehensive System of Personnel Development, school districts across the United States have reported difficulties attracting and retaining sufficient numbers of special educators. In 1991, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) estimated that our schools still needed 28,000 additional special educators (10% of the U.S. special education teaching force) to fill vacancies and to replace uncertified staff.

In response to these reports and to predictions of deeper shortages ahead, The Council for Exceptional Children and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education joined other professional groups during EHA's 1989 reauthorization hearings and testified that unless we train more special educators, "there will be a major deterioration of both the availability and quality of special education for our nation's children with handicaps" (A Free Appropriate Education, 1989, p. 3). Alongside familiar pleas for increased personnel development funds was a newer request--for better data and more research on the special education work force. The group called for the most basic information--data describing who teaches special education, who stops teaching special education, and what factors affect these career decisions. Although OSERS annually tallies the number of special educators working in the schools, even this federal office recognizes that such data tell us little about the supply of or demand for special educators (OSERS, 1989).

Special education is not the only area with this knowledge gap; we actually know very little about the career paths of any teachers. The dearth of knowledge is so severe that a 1987 panel of the National Academy of Sciences that examined the supply of and demand for all types of teachers, especially mathematics and science educators, could not find answers to such simple questions as: How long do teachers teach? Why do some teachers stay? Why do others leave? (National Research Council [NRC], 1987).

During the past 5 years, my colleagues and I have been using a statistical methodology relatively new for educational research--survival analysis--to address these and related questions for public school teachers with regular classroom assignments (Kemple, Murnane, Singer, & Willett, 1992; Murnane, Singer, & Willett, 1988, 1989; Murnane, Singer, Willett, Kemple, & Olsen, 1991; Singer & Willett, 1988). Survival analysis has enabled us to uncover many findings about regular educators' careers that had heretofore eluded documentation--that salary does make a difference; that the schools are losing academically talented teachers; and that teachers of chemistry and physics, but not teachers of mathematics, are at greatest risk of leaving.

In this article, I use survival analysis to explore the career paths of special educators--to show how their career decisions resemble, and differ from, the career decisions of regular educators.

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