It’s an increasingly common classroom dilemma in Minnesota and nationwide: As increasing numbers of special-needs students enter public schools, more of those qualified to educate them are heading out the door and out of teaching.
In Minnesota, the special education student population has grown by 10 percent in five years, and it includes kids with more-serious behavioral and emotional problems.
At the same time, the number of educators with the necessary qualifications to teach them has dropped by nearly the same percentage. And special education teachers are quitting the field at higher rates than other educators.
Kids with special needs — like all students — deserve to be educated to the best of their abilities. That right is mandated by state and federal law. As the special education need continues to grow, the state, school districts and schools must do more to attract and retain well-qualified staff.
A recent Star Tribune story reported that more than 800 of the state’s 8,900 licensed special ed teachers quit during the most recent school year studied. Meanwhile, the state issued just 417 new licenses last year — the fewest in at least five years.
Teachers who quit the field or retire early cite several reasons for leaving, including lack of support from their administrations, more physically violent students and larger class sizes with more kids who need one-on-one help.
And a major reason for quitting the field is the mountain of required paperwork that must be done with special-needs students. Some staff members report spending more time filling out forms than actually working with kids.
Among the barriers to hiring additional special education teachers are the requirements for those licensed in other states. Some educators who want to work in Minnesota say that additional education and credit criteria to become licensed here are unreasonably restrictive and expensive.
The special ed teacher shortage is a national trend. School districts around the country are trying a variety of strategies. According to the Education Commission of the States, some are offering college loan forgiveness, college grants and hiring bonuses. Others provide scholarships to teaching assistants who want to pursue specialized teaching degrees or help with loans and down payments for homes.
Another strategy now in use in Minnesota allows for state waivers to allow teachers with other licensed specialties to step in and teach students with special challenges. But that approach can create other problems.
State and federal rules require certain licenses to teach students in many special education categories. In fact, new college credit licensing rules for teaching autistic students are set to take effect in 2015. It can be confusing to have increased requirements for some teachers while also allowing waivers for others.
To address some of the issues, state education officials are hopeful that a task force recently convened by the Legislature to examine paperwork and workload problems may be helpful.
The growing demands of special education require that state policymakers and school district administrators explore all avenues to attract and retain qualified teachers. Without proactive steps, the trends suggest that the problem will only get worse.