A Field at Risk: The Teacher Shortage in Special Education: A Shortage of Special Education Teachers Existed in 1983, and the Problem Persists Today. the Authors Emphasize That There Is a Pressing Need Not Only to Recruit and Retain Qualified Special Education Teachers but Also to Diversify the Special Education Teaching Force

Article excerpt

FOR DECADES, the supply of qualified special educators has been critically low. In 1983, the shortage of special educators was highlighted in A Nation at Risk. It is still with us 25 years later and shows no signs of disappearing, and in the coming decades it could well worsen.

Although the production of teachers in special education increased during the 1990s, the most recently available data indicate that just .86 teachers were prepared for each available position in special education, while more than twice as many teachers were produced for each available position in elementary education. (1) This limited production has clearly contributed to the overall shortage of special education teachers in the United States. An analysis from the late 1990s showed that because there were so many positions to be filled, some 10% of special education teachers were less than fully licensed in the area of their primary assignment. (2) Consequently, some students have never been taught by fully licensed special education teachers. (3) While the shortage of qualified special educators is evident, it is exacerbated by the need to diversify the field.


An adequate pool of ethnically diverse, high-quality educators is needed in all fields, but that need is particularly acute in special education. The reason is that minority students, in particular African American and Hispanic males, are overrepresented in special education.

Teachers influence children's attitudes toward school, their academic accomplishments, and their views of their own and others' worth. The members of a teaching force that is ethnically diverse can serve as role models of successful, contributing members of society for all students, not just students who share a particular teacher's ethnic background. The very presence in the classroom of teachers from racial and ethnic minorities reflects the growing diversity of professionals and authority figures throughout society and lets all students know what is possible. Finding such teachers in the required numbers is a problem, and finding them among qualified special educators is an even more serious problem.


Providing a high-quality education for students is an enormous undertaking, which increases in difficulty when less than fully prepared teachers assume this responsibility. William Sanders and June Rivers found large differences in achievement between students taught by high-quality teachers and those taught by low-quality teachers for a period of successive years. (4) Thus teacher educators and district administrators must make every effort to provide training for unlicensed special education teachers so that they may acquire the knowledge and skills they need to meet the educational and societal demands of teaching.

Two strategies are frequently adopted to address the lack of qualified teachers.

Alternative licensure. In response to the need for larger numbers of qualified teachers, as highlighted in A Nation at Risk, the alternative teacher licensure movement grew rapidly. New Jersey's plan, for example, was first announced in September 1983. Many other states and private organizations subsequently moved to develop programs of this kind.

While there is tremendous variation among current alternative licensure programs, one of the most common is the fast-track program, which delivers all preservice preparation in one summer. These programs are intended to accommodate individuals from other careers who want to become teachers. Such summer programs include abbreviated coursework and a field experience that involves either student teaching or classroom observations. Participants in fast-track programs are attracted by the fact that training is brief and inexpensive and offers rapid entry into a paid teaching position. Despite the premium they put on efficiency, however, candidates still expect programs to provide them with focused preparation in pedagogy, including generic teaching strategies, subject-specific methods of instruction, and a useful practice teaching experience. …


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