Archive for Sunday, August 27, 2006

Special education teachers in chronically short supply

August 27, 2006


Looking for a job as a special education teacher? Call Bruce Passman; he needs to quickly fill eight positions.

"It's a great concern to us," says Passman, deputy superintendent of Lawrence public schools. "We've had quite a number of vacancies over the last several years in special education that are becoming increasingly more difficult to fill."

Passman ticked off several reasons:

¢ Fewer people are going into teaching - and even fewer are considering special education.

¢ The job is difficult.

"Not to suggest that any teaching job is easier than another, but special education is very challenging," he said.

Those teachers often must split their time among different schools, he said. And they don't have as many other faculty in similar positions to consult with, he said.

¢ Schools face competition with other districts where salaries might be higher.

Special education instructor John Leonard teaches class at Lawrence High School. A shortage of special ed teachers concerns Leonard, pictured Friday, and other school officials.

Special education instructor John Leonard teaches class at Lawrence High School. A shortage of special ed teachers concerns Leonard, pictured Friday, and other school officials.

"When salaries are low, it just compounds the problem," Passman said. "They've been on the same (salary) schedule as all teachers. And it's a matter of longevity and training. ... It's been the same for special ed folks as it has been for all teachers."

Warm bodies

School administrators around the state are constantly calling Kansas University's special education department, looking for teachers, said Chris Walther-Thomas, who chairs the department.

"It's an incredible challenge," Walther-Thomas said. "I've been in two meetings today where the focus of the conversation has been, 'How do we meet these needs?' At this time of the year, I get telephone calls from districts across the state who are desperate - administrators who are desperate to find teachers," she said. "If they could have highly qualified, competent teachers, it would be their dream come true. Right now, they're looking for warm bodies."

According to a state Legislative Division of Post Audit report on school district performance, the worst teacher shortage through the state is in special education.

Chris Walther-Thomas, chair of KU's special education department, discusses teacher shortages in Kansas.


More than 17 percent of all special education positions statewide in the 2004-2005 school year were either vacant or filled by a teacher not fully qualified, according to the July report.

Low retention

Martha Gage, director of teacher education and licensure for the Kansas Department of Education, said there were about 3,700 special education teachers across the state.

Of those, about 500 were only provisionally qualified, and another 300 were on a waiver program.

Gage said two problems face special education.

One, the state isn't preparing enough teachers. And two, the retention rate for special education teachers is only about 40 percent, she said.

"You're not making any headway," she said. "You're just going to continue to have shortages."

One reason qualified teachers don't stay in special education is all the paperwork, she said.

"If they could just teach the kids, they would be fine," Gage said. "But it's all that extra paperwork, with IEPs (Individual Education Plans) and documentation that really causes them to be burdened more than the teachers in the general ed classroom."

'Not as much fun'

Deb Engstrom is entering her 32nd year as a special education teacher.

"Everyone has a passion for something. And I really, really love what I do," said Engstrom, who works at Lawrence High School.

Engstrom, who teaches students with severe disabilities, said there were several problems in attracting younger people to the field.

More on 6News

See more about the need for special education teachers on the 6News Nightcast at 10 p.m. tonight on Sunflower Broadband Channel 6.

"It's just not as much fun as it used to be," she said. "You're not going to get rich being a teacher. And in special ed, the paperwork is just incredible. So you don't really get to teach kids, but rather you're pushing paper."

Michelle Jensen, a Southwest Junior High School interrelated resources teacher, said this was her second year in special education.

Jensen teaches students with learning disabilities, including students with reading and math disabilities.

She works with about 15 to 20 students a day.

"It is very challenging, and you have a lot of diversity with all of the different disabilities and with working with teachers, parents and the students," Jensen said.

Despite the challenges, she finds it rewarding.

"I don't know if I'll last 30 years," she said. "But definitely in the next five to 10 years."

One in five


With more than a week of school under their belt, Lawrence Public School officials are still struggling to fill several vacancies. Enlarge video

Of the 10,000 students in Lawrence Public Schools, about 2,100 receive special education services, Passman said.

About 5 percent are gifted students, and a little more than 15 percent receive services associated with their disabilities, he said.

Special education statutes cover students with disabilities from ages 3 to 21 and those who are gifted from kindergarten through 12th grade, he said.

Students who have special education needs are provided services at their home school, he said. However, there are some "cluster sites" where students with the same needs, such as those with autism or emotional disorders, are assigned to get services.

From 1975, when the original law for special education went into effect, until the early 1990s, Lawrence's pools of applicants "were pretty good," Passman said.

But since then, the applicant pools have dried up, he said.

"Where we might have had 20 applicants for a resource teaching position, we only have five bona fide applicants today," Passman said.

Stretching people thinner

"You do whatever you can," Passman said. "One strategy is you just take your fairly limited resources and you divide them up further."

For example, he's short of a couple of autism teachers.

"And we just stretch those folks out thinner. Instead of consulting in a couple of schools, maybe they have four schools," he said.

Two teachers for the gifted might split the workload of three teachers. Or school psychologists might have four schools instead of three, he said.

"Another strategy that we've used is hiring substitutes that are not qualified in special education, in at least the teaching areas," Passman said.

The district has the option of hiring substitutes when they've tried all kinds of recruitment strategies and interviewed the entire pool and still come up shorthanded, he said.

Another strategy: hiring teachers still in training.

"We have some teachers who have agreed to take a special education teaching position that are not licensed and agree to go on what's called a waiver," Passman said.

A waiver is a process approved by the Kansas Department of Education that allows the school district, once it has demonstrated the applicant pool has been thoroughly searched, to hire someone who isn't licensed.

That person agrees to go through a training program to begin the process of getting a special education background.

Using para-educators

Passman said the school district uses about 250 "para-educators" and 200 certified licensed special education teachers in its teaching staff.

"It's a fairly significant amount of our district employee force," he said.

Most para-educators are not licensed special education teachers, he said.

"We have the good fortune in Lawrence of actually being able to recruit and hire a number of para-educators who do have teaching licenses," Passman said. The district provides them with a minimum of 20 hours of training, he said.

So who is going into special education? Passman said it's a mix. Of teachers on waivers, most seem to be younger teachers with regular licenses interested in pursuing special education.

"We also get people at the other end of the spectrum who are in their 40s, even 50s, who have been in other careers and decide that they want to teach," Passman said.

Passman said when they couldn't fill special education positions, they often went to the teaching staff and encouraged some to enter the field.

"If you've got a teacher at a school who does a great job of working with high-ability kids, well, we'll want to talk with that teacher about having them consider going into gifted education," he said.


bmwjhawk 11 years, 8 months ago


The article isn't about special education teachers complaining about the "burden" of paperwork. It's about people NOT BECOMING special education teachers for several reasons, including paperwork.

Kommissar, in an attempt to be funny, hit on something... kind of... in that medical advances have allowed many children to survive past child birth and then must be educated. Also, state-funded hospitals are no longer around to house these children that the schools never dealt with in the "good old days."

So, the demand has REALLY increased over the last several years. How many kids with Asperger's or Autism were in your high school? How many are there now?

Also, ADD/ADHD is a label so easily slapped on any kid with a little spunk.

The problem is two-fold: an oversupply (perhaps an overidentification) of students AND, sorry to say it, undercompensation for a job people aren't beating dwon the doors to do.

How do you get more people to do an undesirable job: You either make it more desirable by changing the requirements OR by increasing the compensation.

bmwjhawk 11 years, 8 months ago

Or that.... either way, something needs to change.

usaschools 11 years, 8 months ago

Tanzer speaks of what he/she does not know. Have you ever worked as a special ed teacher? No, I didn't think so. Do you have any possible way to know how the extent of their paperwork compares with that of other jobs? No, you do not. I have worked as a sped teacher and I can tell you that the paperwork burden is ridiculous. However, that isn't why sped teachers complain about it. The complaints are because it takes time away from teaching children! There is absolutely no way a sped teacher can provide services utilizing best practices, comply with the time specifications of the Individual Education Plans (IEPs), AND get the paperwork done within their contracted duty day plus a couple of hours. The objection is that the redundant paperwork isn't considered when determining caseload size. Thus, the sped teacher if faced with a choice of complying with the paperwork timelines or complying with specified amount of service time. Of course, with all sped teachers I know, the kids win and get the time and this person spends a huge amount of time doing the paperwork after hours. It really is a huge burden.

Those who have no idea what they are talking about would do best to just keep quiet on topics like this. Don't pretend you have knowledge you can't possibly have; you might start believing your own bull.

flounder 11 years, 8 months ago

maybe if everyone realized that teachers should be the highest paying profession out there, then we might have decent public education. I still cant believe that trashmen make more money than teachers do. no offense, but last time i checked trashmen arent shaping the future of our world.

Jamesaust 11 years, 8 months ago

'"They've been on the same (salary) schedule as all teachers.'

Change the salary schedule, like any other employer would if there was a mismatch between supply and demand and forget the foolish, socialist 'everyone is paid the same' b/s.

Julia Rose-Weston 11 years, 8 months ago

Macon- do you know how many there are now? Do you know how many there were in the past? Your question seems rhetorical so I assume you have the information to make comparisons. But then your question doesn't make sense to me.

garrenfamily 11 years, 8 months ago

Tanzer You have NO idea what you are talking about. Were you actually a special ed. teacher - or a regular ed teacher??? UUUUGGGGGGHHHHHH! You really irked me off today.

kimmer 11 years, 8 months ago

I do have an idea of the paperwork on this subject. It is just as hard for the parents to deal with the paperwork and everything involved with children with special needs. We count on the school and teachers to follow the IEP's and listen to parents as to what works and doesn't work with their children. That does not happen many times. Some of the work by teachers and school could be lightened, if they would just work with parents and follow the ideas given out.

Himley 11 years, 7 months ago

I have eight and one half years as a special ed teacher with students with emotional and behavioral disorders, plus 20+ years as a counselor and psychotherapist.

I'm burned out. It's not the kids; I love them. It's the silly stupid bureaucratic paperwork that takes hours and hours to complete after I put in a full day with the kids. And it's all set up to make the teacher fail, because the teacher can't know all the rules, because they keep changing them. OK; I'm paranoid, but it's true.

There is no recognition of the quality of work with my students, no mention of my success at reducing violence, temper tantrums or discipline referrals to the office. Paperwork and test scores are the only measures of teacher accomplishment.

The idea that kids in special education should perform at the level of their non-disabled peers is a tragic farce endangers their and their teachers' self-esteem. Special Education is no longer special.

The only way they can get me to stay is to get me clerical support and pay me what I should be paid. Fat chance.

I'll miss the kids.

prioress 11 years, 7 months ago

Good teachers are saints; good special education teachers are saints with extra large halos. No one who hasn't spent a day trying to teach a grade school class has any idea what pressure and work is involved. Most parents can get to the point wheree 2-3 kids can sometimes drive them over the edge. Imagine the plight of the teacher..........

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