Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Explaining the Decline in Special Education Teacher Employment from 2005 to 2012

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Explaining the Decline in Special Education Teacher Employment from 2005 to 2012

Article excerpt


Demand for special education teachers grew continuously from the passage of Public Law 94-142 in 1975 through 2005, when this trend reversed. From 2005 to 2012, the number of special education teachers employed by U.S. schools declined by >17%. The primary purpose of this investigation was to determine factors that contributed to this decline. We parsed change in number of special education teachers employed into four constituent elements and found that these recent reductions were fueled by decreases in disability prevalence and the relative ratio of teachers to students in special versus general education, which favored the latter. These changes have important implications for teacher preparation programs' efforts to adequately prepare special and general educators and for policies designed to improve teacher quality.

Teacher shortages are back in the news. Given special education's long history of unmet demand and unfilled positions (Boe et al., 2013), it is not surprising that 48 states are currently experiencing significant special education teacher (SET) shortages (Sutcher, Darling-Hammond, & Carver-Thomas, 2016). These current shortages closely follow a period of substantially reduced demand for SETs. In fact, from a high of over 420,000 in 2005, the number of SETs employed in U.S. schools dropped to 346,000 in 2012, a 17% decline (Office of Special Education Programs, n.d.). This decline is unprecedented in the history of our field and worthy of consideration in its own right.

From the 1975 passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act until 2005, the number of SETs employed in U.S. schools rose steadily. During this time, growth in SET employment closely paralleled increases in the number of students with disabilities (SWD; Boe, 2006). However, in 2005, for the first time in the history of the field, the number of SWD began to decline, and, a year later, the number of SETs employed began to decline as well (Boe et al., 2013; Zirkel. 2013). U.S. schools served 4% fewer SWD in 2012 than in 2005, and 17% fewer SET were employed in 2012 than in 2005 ( After years of steady decline, initial data indicate an increase in the numbers of SWD from 2012 to 2014. This increase of approximately 2.8% is attributed largely to the increases in the identification of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD; Samuels, 2016). Although not part of our current study, it will be important to determine how this change influences trends in special education teacher demand beyond 2012.

Although the most straightforward explanation for reduced SET employment is that fewer SWD were being identified, the rate of decline in SET employment (17%) was substantially larger than the rate of decline in disability prevalence (4%). As a result, the studcnt:tcacher ratio in special education grew from 14.29 in 2005 to 16.43 in 2012 ( Thus, explanations beyond reduced numbers of SWD are required to fully understand the decline in SET employment (Boe et al., 2013).

Demand for teachers in public schools is defined as the number of teachers districts seek to employ and are prepared to compensate (Barro. 1992). Like Boe and colleagues (2013), we operationalized demand as the number of teachers employed (and use the terms interchangeably). Understanding factors that contribute to declines in demand for teachers is important for a number of reasons, particularly for disciplines such as special education, long plagued by significant shortages (Boe et al., 2013). One such factor is general willingness or ability to invest in education. Declines in demand may represent an overall reduced societal commitment to public education, or they may relate to fiscal exigencies. For example, state and local tax revenues--the primary sources of education funding--declined dramatically during the recent recession, leading to district-level budget shortfalls (Boe et al. …

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