Who's Teaching Students with Special Needs? A Profile of Characteristics, Licensure Status, and Reelings of Preparedness

Article excerpt

In the fall 1995 issue of TEACHING Exceptional Children's "Who Is Teaching Students With Disabilities?" (Cook & Boe, 1995) offered an analysis of national data regarding the size and demographic characteristics of America's teaching force in special education. In the years since then, the U.S. Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Amendments of 1997; the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC, 2000) published its Bright Futures for Exceptional Learners; the National Commission on Teaching for America's Future issued its report; the National Study of Personnel Needs in Special Education (SPeNSE) was completed; and Congress passed the landmark No Child Left Behind Act.

Considering those significant accomplishments in the past 7 years, we need to look again at who is teaching students with disabilities, what they bring to that effort, and, within several important variables, how the profile differs across school districts defined as low poverty and high poverty.

Size of the Special Education Teaching Force

Between 1990 and 1999, the special education teaching force for students with disabilities ages 6-21 grew by 11 %. During school year (SY) 1990-91, there were 323,565 special education teacher positions for students with disabilities ages 6-21 (U.S. Department of Education, 1993). Figure 1 shows, however, that by SY 1999-2000, there were 358,537 special education teacher positions nationwide for ages 6-21 (IDEA Data, 2003) Beginning with the Twenty-first Annual Report (U.S. Department of Education, 1999), which includes teacher counts for 1996-97, teacher data were reported without reference to teaching assignment, that is, the disability of students being served. Therefore, teacher data by area of disability taught cannot be tracked across the 1990s.

Growth in Number of Special Education Students

The number of identified students with disabilities ages 6-21 grew, as well, during the 1990s. States reported that 4,361,751 students ages 6-21 were receiving services during 1990-91 (U.S. Department of Education, 2001) with an increase of 30% to 5,677,996 students ages 6-21 by 1999-2000 (IDEA Data, 2003). Figure 2 shows that the growth in the number of teachers of students with disabilities ages 6-21 has lagged considerably behind the growth in the number of special education students during those years.

Teachers serving children with disabilities ages 3-5 increased from 19,834 in 1991-92 (U.S. Department of Education, 1994) to 30,122 in 1999-2000, (IDEA Data, 2003) an increase of 52%. Children ages 3-5 receiving services increased 40% from 420,403 in 1991-92 to 589,133 in 1999-2000 (IDEA Data, 2003).

Characteristics of the Teaching Workforce

In 1998 the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) funded the Study of Personnel Needs in Special Education (SPeNSE). This national survey of 8,000 special education teachers, speech/language pathologists, special education administrators, general education teachers, and special education paraeducators provided a profile of the special education workforce during school year 1999-2000. Its data complement and expand on those of the Annual Reports to Congress and are used primarily in the figures that follow.


When reported in 1995, special education teachers were considerably younger than general education teachers. Currently, the median age for special educators is 43.8 years, compared with 44.6 years for general educators. Approximately 22.1% of special educators are in the age range of less than 25-34 years, compared to 24.5% for that age group in general education. Sixty-eight percent of the special education workforce is age 35-54 years, compared to 62.4% of general education teachers across those years. Ten percent of special educators are 55 years or older, compared to 13.1% of their general education colleagues (Westat, 2002a).


The racial and ethnic composition of the special and general education teaching workforces has remained similar and stable since the 1995 analysis. …