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The special-ed problem

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The shortage of teachers in Idaho has generated particular problems in some areas, notably in special education, as one special-ed teacher reports here.

By Levi B. Cavener

As a parting gift before the new year, the Idaho Board of Education released a painfully grim picture for teacher recruitment and retention in its ironically named “Teacher Pipeline Report.”

That report details a current a woefully inadequate current mechanism to attract and retain qualified teachers in the Gem State that is anything but a pipeline delivering the necessary flow of new talent.

A few takeaways: One third of newly certified teachers in Idaho leave to teach in greener pastures outside Idaho; one in ten current Idaho teachers will call this year their last–much higher than the national average; of teachers quitting, three out of four are doing so before retirement age.

And while recruiting and training highly qualified teachers of all kinds across grade levels and content areas is concerning, let’s narrow this discussion to a persistent trend that is plaguing Idaho’s schools: the ability to find and retain special education educators.

It is an open secret that finding qualified special education teachers–particularly in rural areas–is just about as easy as electing a Democrat to a State office. Good luck!

In fact, since the 2013-2014 school year, the number of new Special Education certification awards has grown by only 32 to a depressingly low 292 annual certificates. Hardly the type of bumper crop that would even put a dent in the statewide shortage of SpEd teachers.

Add to that stormy picture that the average special education teacher has an astonishingly low career lifespan, with an especially low teacher retention and high attrition rate in comparison to other teaching positions.

It has become an especially ugly cycle. Each year, the surviving special education teachers are tasked with their already overflowing plates to teach the brand new special education staff–often arriving brand new to the teaching profession, let alone to special education, through programs like ABCTE and Teach for America–to teach the new teachers after the diaspora at the end of the previous academic year.

For those schools who were not able to fill the positions, the remaining special education teacher was likely tasked with teaching a paraprofessional how to lead the classroom since a teacher could not be located. All the while, their own caseload and paperwork duties increase exponentially without another teacher to share the weight.

This is in no way intended to disparage our paraprofessionals who work miracles in the classroom each day in the midst of a staffing crisis. However, keep in mind the paraprofessionals cannot complete the bushels of paperwork required for special education students on the teacher’s caseload.

The result is that many special education teachers spend far more time typing on a keyboard completing IEP documents and eligibility reports than they should be spending instead of teaching the kiddos who need excellent instruction the most.

And to be fair, this is a national problem. But in a state that is the first to be last in wage compensation to our neighborhood, the added burdens to the resource teachers are simply too much too handle.

It is time the state addresses this problem as the crisis that it is. A starting point in addressing the problem is tasking that fresh data containing average certified special education teacher to special education student ratio from each school and district be placed in the legislators’ hands.

It is past time this issue receives the attention it deserves, both for the benefit of exceptional children and for the teachers working with them.

Levi B Cavner is a special education teacher living in Caldwell, Idaho.
 

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