It is crucial to provide special education teachers with learning opportunities that will help them succeed in making a difference in students’ lives

What matters most for our special education teachers?

It is crucial to provide special education teachers with learning opportunities that will help them succeed in making a difference in students’ lives

We all know the problem. There is a frightening shortage of special education teachers and it’s getting worse. Even prior to the pandemic, 98 percent of school districts and 49 states reported that they had a shortage and a recent RAND report found that six months into the pandemic over one-third of school leaders were experiencing special education teacher vacancies.

Compounding the problem, the number of students receiving special education services is predicted to increase sharply as students who are overdue for evaluations seek help and others who have fallen behind during COVID will need additional assessments and revised services. Increases in diagnoses, particular in children diagnosed with autism, are also having an impact. Today 1 in every 44 children in the US have autism and students with autism now account for 11 percent of all students in special education, more than double the rate of a decade ago.

The Special Education Legislative Summit Council of Administrators of Special Education has called for “all hands on deck” in addressing the shortage. Speakers at the Summit highlighted three crucial areas that need to be addressed: competitive pay, stronger recruitment, and more effective professional development. But what does effective PD look like for special educators? Is it different from what other teachers need? What works? What kind? How much? And, most importantly, what types of PD will support these educators and keep them from leaving the profession?  

We now know a great deal about what types of PD can not only support our special education teachers but help them thrive. In this new era of inclusive education — a positive development — we still need to focus on helping special educators by affirming the passion and caring that led them to enter the field in the first place. The big takeaway is that we need PD that helps these teachers affirm their professional identity, develop deeper understandings of the norms, language and routines of their profession, and helps them succeed in what matters most to them — making a difference in the lives of their students. Specifically, they need learning opportunities that are classroom-embedded, specialized, ongoing, and flexible.

Classroom-Embedded PD

Special educators report that they have had good training experiences outside of the classroom, but they also say that when the time comes to implement this new knowledge into their classrooms there is a big disconnect. The theories taught are important, but practical strategies for executing them into daily classroom experiences are missing.

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Classroom-embedded PD helps teachers immediately apply and practice what they are learning directly to their classroom experiences. As they try out new skills they can receive immediate feedback, reflect on their teaching, and continuously adjust and improve their practices in real time. Expert facilitators need to have a deep understanding of each school and classroom’s unique challenges and culture and use data-based strategies to target specific needs, model evidence-based practices, and provide opportunities for hands-on work to build teachers’ skills, knowledge, and confidence.

Specialized Learning Opportunities

Special educators report on PD experiences that are overly generic and are aimed at the larger school or district environment and fail to provide them with what they need to be effective in reaching their specific goals within their own unique classrooms. Professional learning needs to be connected to the curriculum with specialized and relevant content that will serve to develop and deepen teachers’ ability to effectively implement the curriculum.

PD that focuses on strategies connected to specific curriculum content directly transfers into more effective teaching practices. Learning can drill down to focus on immediate and specific needs such as implementing data management systems and reviewing the fidelity of an implementation. Trainers can also step in and help teachers create individualized assessments, progress monitoring and progression planning as well as develop recommendations for tailoring IEP goals to align with student capacity and grade-level standards.

Ongoing Support

The majority of special education teachers report that their PD experiences were brief and typically take place during conferences. These one-off sessions present few opportunities for reflection, fail to deepen skills or pedagogical knowledge, and infringe upon the teachers’ time for planning.

Darling-Hammond and her colleagues report that the duration and intensity of professional learning has a clear and positive association with student achievement. They found that PD programs that included an average of 49 hours per year resulted in a 21 percent increase in student achievement. They emphasize that the number of hours spent and the duration of time — typically spreading out PD over the course of a school year — are crucial to seeing significant improvement in teachers’ abilities and student success.

Flexible Options Using Technology

Intentional use of technology can provide flexibility, facilitate access, and save schools and teachers time and money. Teachers andschool administrators report that they want the flexibility of virtual PD, but they also find that in-person options result in greater engagement and learning. We know that in-person training lends itself to being classroom-embedded and tied to specific curricula — all factors outlined above that result in effective outcomes. At the same time, in person is expensive, sometimes difficult to implement, and lacks the flexibility of online options.

But perhaps we can have our cake and eat it too? Webinars and videos that supplement classroom-embedded PD can serve to deepen learning. In addition, some promising new technologies can provide options that can approximate classroom-embedded PD. One example is eCoaching and BIE (Bug-in-Ear) technologies that have been shown to effectively provide performance feedback to teachers and specialists without a coach being physically present. Rural schools, in particular, could greatly benefit from this type of learning experience due to the challenges of getting trainers out to remote areas.

It is important to reduce pay disparities and create more robust recruitment strategies for special educators, but the bottom line is that if these teachers find that they don’t have the support they need to be effective in the classroom, they will continue to leave. Let’s focus on what matters most and provide them with learning opportunities that we know can help them succeed in making a difference in their students’ lives.

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