California’s Special Education Teacher Shortage

California is in the midst of a severe and deepening
shortage of special education teachers. The field of special education has long
been plagued by persistent shortages of fully certified teachers, in large part
due to a severe drop in teacher education enrollments and high attrition for
special educators. As a result, students with the greatest needs are frequently
taught by the least qualified teachers.

To better understand the nature of the shortage in California and what can be done about it, the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) has released a new study, “California’s Special Education Teacher Shortage.” The report is part of a series of research briefs examining special education in California produced by Policy Analysis of California Education (PACE).

The LPI researchers were assisted by members of CTA State Council’s Special Education Committee, who served as participants in a focus group and provided valuable expertise.

The report finds that:

  • Increases in demand for special education teachers coupled with declines in teacher preparation enrollments and ongoing high attrition have contributed to the severe shortage of special education teachers in California.
  • About two of three teachers entering special education in the state hold a substandard permit or credential, which are issued to candidates who have not completed the testing, coursework, and clinical experience the CTC requires for preliminary credentials. Filling teacher shortages with underqualified individuals means that both students and teachers are struggling.
  • Declines in teacher preparation enrollment in special education have not yet been reversed. Administrators in TPPs note that lack of financial aid can be a barrier to enrollment for all teachers, including those in special education.
  • At 9 percent annually, teacher attrition is higher in California than the national average, and special education teachers leave at an even higher rate, especially if they are underprepared.
  • Teacher attrition for special education teachers is associated with inadequate preparation and professional development; challenging working conditions, including large caseloads and overwhelming compliance obligations; and inadequate compensation to live in high-priced communities and handle student debt loads.

The report makes the following policy recommendations:

  • Strengthen the pipeline into special
    education teaching with recruitment incentives for high-retention pathways.

    High-retention pathways into teaching — such as teacher residencies and
    grow-your-own programs that move paraprofessionals into teaching — have proven
    successful for recruiting and retaining diverse educators.
  • Improve the quality of and access to
    Better prepared teachers are both more effective and more
    likely to stay in teaching. As California updates licensing expectations for
    special education teachers and works to increase the number of newly
    credentialed teachers, it will be important to build and expand the capacity of
    teacher education programs, as well as support new program designs that provide
    more intensive preparation and student teaching and ensure strong mentoring so
    that new teachers have the greatest possible chance for success.
  • Expand and strengthen professional
    Studies show that intensive professional learning experiences
    are highly valued by special education teachers and associated with increased
    teacher efficacy and lower probability of attrition. The state can support the
    retention of current special education teachers by providing meaningful
    professional learning opportunities that help them meet the needs of students
    with disabilities, such as job-embedded coaching, mentoring, and ongoing
  • Improve working conditions for special
    education teachers.
    Poor working conditions, including large caseloads and
    overwhelming responsibilities outside of instruction, may contribute to the attrition
    of special education teachers. California’s caseload caps are currently very
    high and are frequently waived, so that resource specialists, for example, can
    be responsible for 32 students or more, far above the levels of many other
    states. The state and districts can consider how to revise caseload
    expectations and provide additional administrative supports in order to help
    lighten workloads for special educators and ensure that they have the time
    needed to comply with federal and state requirements and to work effectively
    with students with disabilities. They can also improve working conditions by
    supporting special education training for general education teachers and school
    and district leaders in order to improve their understanding of the needs of
    students with disabilities and their capacity to support these students and
    their special educator colleagues.
  • Increase compensation. National data
    suggest that adequate compensation can help districts retain special education
    teachers. In 2019, California increased state funding for special education and
    signaled an expectation for additional increases in 2020, which are reflected
    in the governor’s January 2020 budget. These investments can help relieve the
    fiscal pressure felt by districts, putting them in a better position to
    increase support for their special education teachers through higher salaries
    that recognize the costs of living, as well as their training and workload.
    Such investments can also support strategies like college loan repayment tied
    to retention and housing subsidies.

Learn more about “California’s Special Education Teacher Shortage” by Naomi Ondrasek, Desiree Carver-Thomas, Caitlin Scott, and Linda Darling-Hammond.