Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Unequal Opportunities: A Profile of the Distribution of Special Education Teachers

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Unequal Opportunities: A Profile of the Distribution of Special Education Teachers

Article excerpt

Providing each student with a disability a qualified, prepared special education teacher (SET) has been a significant challenge for more than 30 years. Although recent evidence suggests a significant decline in the overall demand for special educators, the uneven distribution of SETs continues, especially among hard-to-staff schools where high rates of school poverty, high minority enrollment, or the geographic location of a school make it difficult to attract and retain qualified, prepared SETs (Boe et al., 2013; Fall & Billingsley, 2011; Lauritzen & Friedman, 1993; Peske & Haycock, 2006). No matter the reason, the uneven distribution restricts meeting goals of educational equity for all students with disabilities.

No matter how defined or measured, teachers matter. Although the meaning of a "quality" or an "effective" teacher continues to be debated, few disagree that a teacher is the most valuable resource provided to a student (Rivkin, Hanushek, & Kain, 2005). Whether defined by characteristics or outcomes, evidence suggests that the distribution of qualified, prepared teachers across schools is not equitable and not all students have access to such teachers, especially in schools with high proportions of poor, minority, and non-English-speaking children, where the academic performance of these student groups depends more heavily on the quality of their teachers than does the academic performance of their peers (Clotfelter, Ladd, Vigdor, & Wheeler, 2006; Iatorola & Stiefel, 2003; Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002; Sass, Hannaway, Xu, Figlio, & Feng, 2010).

The uneven distribution may be especially pervasive in special education, where long-standing chronic shortages and attrition have complicated providing a qualified teacher to all students with disabilities, especially in high-poverty or other hard-to-staff schools (Billingsley, 2004; Boe, 2006; Boe, Cook, & Sunderland, 2008; U.S. Department of Education, 2009). The limited research evidence available on the distribution of SETs indicates that regional variation in the supply exists (Lauritzen & Friedman, 1993) and that students with disabilities in high-poverty schools and districts are more likely to be taught by individuals with lesser qualifications and preparation (Fall & Billingsley, 2008, 2011; Peske & Haycock, 2006). Although data available from the Data Accountability Center (www.ideadata.org) demonstrated that the proportion of SETs considered highly qualified increased to 94% by fall 2011 (U.S. Department of Education, 2012), questions remain regarding the extent to which schools rely on substitute teachers, the number of positions left unfilled, and the qualifications of indirect service providers who do not need to meet highly qualified teacher (HQT) requirements (Steinbrecher, McKeown, & Walther-Thomas, 2013). And although there may be an overall decline in demand for SETs, the uneven distribution of qualified, prepared SETs continues to hinder providing all students with disabilities an equitable education (Boe et al., 2013).

In the present study, I sought to evaluate educational equity from a resource allocation perspective, a perspective not used often in special education. However, emerging evidence on the added value an effective teacher has on student learning, coupled with the legislative emphasis on providing all students with HQTs, suggests such a perspective is both timely and necessary. Unlike previous studies on the uneven distribution of general educators and SETs, whose authors often looked for differences in the qualifications and preparation between high- and low-poverty districts (for instance, Ascher & Fruchter, 2001; Clotfelter et al., 2006; Fall & Billingsley, 2011), this study focused on school-level differences. This is significant, as research suggests that much of the variation in sorting of teacher quality occurs at the school level rather than the district level (Hanushek & Rivkin, 2010). …

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