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Special education: Teachers

Special education teachers make up about 10 percent of the total teaching population and have lengthy job descriptions. For the most part, they spend their days teaching students of mild to moderate disabilities in a pull-out or special services classroom. But special education teachers also work closely with general education teachers, designing lesson plans and focusing instruction. They serve on IEP teams, design local accommodation policies, and develop the academic goals of special education students.

Qualifications for special education teachers vary from state to state. According to a 2004 state survey by the newspaper Education Week:

  • Thirteen states required special education teachers to have a degree or a minimum amount of coursework in special education
  • Fifteen states required special education teachers to pass an exam
  • Fifteen states required both
  • Eight states required neither
—Quality Counts 2004

 

There is also the question of subject-matter knowledge. According to the same survey, in 2004 no state required secondary-level special education teachers to have a specified amount of coursework or pass an exam in the academic subjects they teach. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) also raised the question. Under NCLB, special education teachers must meet the same requirements as other teachers to be labeled “highly qualified”: Have a bachelor’s degree, a state special education certification or license, and not be provisional. However, NCLB set up a number of requirements for special education teachers who were the sole teachers of core subjects. In this case, special education teachers needed to demonstrate subject matter competency either through a test or through a special state evaluation. A chart explaining the requirements is available athttp://www.nea.org/assets/docs/ideahqtchart.pdf.

The increase in special education enrollment has made it difficult for many school districts to find qualified special education teachers. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates the need for more than 70,000 new special education teachers by 2016 (U.S. Department of Labor 2007). States and districts have reacted to the shortage with various initiatives. More than half of the states have instituted recruitment incentives, such as tuition reimbursement or loan forgiveness, to help attract and retrain special education teachers. Another twenty states have established alternative route programs.


This piece is based on the full examination of special education prepared for the Center for Public Education by Ulrich Boser, a freelance writer and a contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report. His work has appeared in SmithsonianSlate, and the Washington Post.

Posted: October 15, 2009

©2009 Center for Public Education

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