Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Factors That Predict Teachers Staying in, Leaving, or Transferring from the Special Education Classroom

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Factors That Predict Teachers Staying in, Leaving, or Transferring from the Special Education Classroom

Article excerpt

The provision of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities is dependent upon the retention of qualified special education teachers in the classroom. The ability of public schools, however, to retain qualified special education teachers is questionable. For over a decade, educators have voiced concerns about higher teacher attrition rates in special education as compared to general education (e.g., National Association of State Directors of Special Education [NASDE], 1990). Interestingly, at least one research effort using a national sample of teachers reveals no significant difference between special (6%) and general education (6%) teacher attrition. Yet, if transfer attrition (e.g., special education teachers who transfer to general education) is included in the calculations, then the attrition rate for teachers in special education is much greater than for general education (cf. Boe, Bobbitt, & Cook, 1997; Boe, Cook, Bobbitt, & Weber, 1996).

Compounding the attrition problem of special education teachers are increases in special education student enrollment. During the 1993-1994 school year, the number of students with disabilities being served increased by 4.2% from the previous school year. This increase represents the largest enrollment growth in special education since 1976. In addition, "the rate of growth in the number of children and youth receiving special education continues to exceed the rate of growth in the number of the birth through age 21 population (which in 1993-1994 increased by ... 6%)" (U.S. Department of Education [DOE], 1995, p. 7).

Along with increases of students in special education, teacher shortages persist. During the 1993-1994 school year, 7.4% of the total positions needed in special education across the country were left unfilled or filled by persons who were not fully certified (U.S. DOE, 1996). When compared to national estimates, however, state level figures can vary dramatically. For example, in Florida 10.4% of positions during the 1994-1995 school year were left unfilled or filled by persons who were not fully certified (Florida Department of Education, 1996).

The combination of teacher attrition, increasing student enrollments, and persistent teacher shortages in special education can only mean that numbers of well-trained, committed professionals available to provide high quality education to students with disabilities is distressingly insufficient. Consequently, policymakers and state and local education agency administrators must understand the reasons for teacher attrition to design effective retention strategies.


The purpose of our study was to determine those teacher and workplace variables that were significant predictors of teachers' decisions to leave or transfer from the special education classroom. To accomplish this, we surveyed a random sample of 1,576 Florida special education teachers and then tracked them for a 2-year period to determine their career status.

In designing our study, we attempted to remediate sampling and conceptual problems identified in previous attrition research (Billingsley, 1993; Brownell & Smith, 1992). First, the majority of studies in special education did not compare current and former special education teachers. With few exceptions (Boe, Bobbitt, Cook, Whitener, & Weber, 1997; Metzke, 1988; Singer, 1993a), most researchers selected teachers who were dissatisfied with teaching, intended to leave the classroom, or had already left the classroom. Teachers who are dissatisfied or intend to leave may not do so; consequently, variables that correlate with or predict dissatisfaction and intention may not be related to a decision to leave. Studies of intention and dissatisfaction, therefore, may not provide accurate information about why teachers leave. Moreover, researchers who focused their work on leavers acquired no information about the systematic differences between former and current special education teachers; hence, we are unable to determine if stayers are affected by the same factors as leavers. …

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