We all know the problem. There is a frightening shortage of specialist teachers and the situation is getting worse. Even before the pandemic, 98 percent of school districts and 49 states reported having a shortage and a recent RAND report found that six months into the pandemic, more than a third of school leaders had vacancies for special education teachers.
To compound the problem, the number of students receiving special education services is expected to increase sharply, as students who are late for assessments seek help and others who have fallen behind during COVID will need additional assessments and revised services. The increase in diagnoses, particularly in children diagnosed with autism, is also having an impact. Today, 1 in 44 children in the United States has autism, and students with autism now represent 11 percent of all special education students, more than double the rate a decade ago.
The Legislative Summit on Special Education Council of Special Education Administrators called for “everyone on deck” to address the shortage. Summit speakers highlighted three critical areas that need to be addressed: competitive compensation, more effective recruitment, and more effective professional development. But what does effective professional development look like for special educators? Is it different from others teachers need? What works? What kind? How many? And, more importantly, what types of PPs will support these educators and prevent them from leaving the profession?
We now know a lot what types of professional development can not only support our special education teachers, but also help them grow. In this new era of inclusive education – a positive development – we must always focus on supporting special educators by affirming the passion and care that led them to enter the field in the first place. The big takeaway is that we need professional development that helps these teachers affirm their professional identity, develop a deeper understanding of the norms, language and routines of their profession, and help them succeed in this that matters most to them – making a difference in the lives of their students. Specifically, they need classroom-integrated, specialized, continuous and flexible learning opportunities.
PD integrated in class
Specialized educators report that they have had good training experiences outside of the classroom, but they also say that when it comes to implementing this new knowledge in their classrooms, there is a big lag. The theories taught are important, but the practical strategies to put them into practice in daily classroom experiences are lacking.