Due to statewide teacher shortages, many of California’s approximately 800,000 special education students are being taught by teachers who haven’t completed teacher preparation programs or have received only partial training.
There were more special education teachers with substandard credentials than in any other subject area in 2017-18, the most recent year for which data is available. About 60 percent of first-year special education teachers were working without a full special education teaching credential, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
That year, the number of first-year special education teachers without full credentials totaled 5,196. That is the highest number in a decade, said Desiree Carver-Thomas, a researcher with the Learning Policy Institute, a research and policy organization based in Palo Alto.
Special education students, in some instances, need teachers with deeper knowledge of medical and psychological issues, said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and the State Board of Education, in a previous interview with EdSource.
Underprepared teachers are more likely to suspend or expel special education students or to use other exclusionary discipline, Darling-Hammond said.
“The lack of teachers adequately prepared on the behavioral and academic side can make for a torturous experience for the students,” she said.
To earn a full special education credential, teachers must have a bachelor’s degree, pass credentialing tests and complete a teacher preparation program in a specialty area like early childhood special education, physical and health impairments, visual impairments, deaf and hard of hearing, language and academic development, mild/moderate disabilities or moderate/severe disabilities.
But the majority of the first-year special education teachers without a credential — about 3,000 of the 5,000 or so underprepared teachers — are working with short-term staffing or provisional intern permits that require only a bachelor’s degree, the completion of a basic skills test and as few as nine semester units of coursework in a combination of special education and what is called “general education” — classes for students not in special education.
Districts can hire these teachers only if a credentialed teacher is not found after a job search that includes distributing an announcement of the job opening, contacting college and university placement centers and advertising in print and electronic media.
About 2,100 of the special education teachers who started teaching in 2017-18 had an intern credential. These teachers are required to have 120 hours of preparation, typically in classes over the summer before they enter the classroom. That’s far less than the preparation a teacher in a regular credentialing program would receive. Those with intern credentials are expected to earn a full credential within two years.
Districts and the state have turned to intern credentials as an imperfect response to teacher shortages in key areas such as special education. The credential is viewed as a way to attract mid-career people in other professions and those who don’t have the time or money to spend a year or two in a post-graduate program to earn a full teaching credential.
Districts are undertaking a range of strategies to deal with the shortage of teachers, including paying bonuses and recruiting teachers while they are still undergraduates. Spearheaded by Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state this year is also investing $90 million to cover tuition fellowships for aspiring teachers who commit to teach subjects with chronic shortages, including special education.
The governor’s proposed 2020-21 budget includes $900 million to help recruit and train teachers, particularly those who want to work in special education, math and science where there are dire teacher shortages.
It is too soon to know whether these efforts will produce their desired results. The reality is that California schools have struggled for years to hire enough special education teachers. According to a Getting Down To Facts survey in 2017, nearly 8 in 10 California schools were looking to hire special education teachers and 87 percent of principals reported that finding them is a challenge. To meet the need, many school districts have had to place some of their least prepared teachers in special education classrooms.
Students are referred by teachers, parents and others for evaluation to determine if they need special education services. If a range of diagnostic tests determine a student has a disability that requires special education services, an individualized education program, or IEP, is drawn up that outlines what they should learn in a specified period of time and what services they need.
The shortage of special education teachers can be explained, in part, by some of the same factors contributing to an overall shortage of teachers, Carver-Thomas said.
Declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs and teacher attrition have contributed to the shortage over the years. Teacher turnover currently accounts for 88 percent of the demand for new teachers overall, according to a Learning Policy Institute report. But the report also found special education teachers leave their jobs at higher rates than other teachers, as do underprepared teachers.
Special education teachers interviewed for this story said the primary reason they have left or have considered leaving their occupations is the overwhelming workload. Other factors include the stress of working with high-needs students and demanding parents.
President of the California Association of Resource and Special Educators Nica Cox retired early from her job as a special education teacher at Granada High School in Livermore because the growing responsibilities of her job left her no time to relax and little time for family.
During her years in special education, Cox said she had “coached many a teacher off the ledge, ready to throw in the towel.” Now, Cox said she continues to hear stories from teachers about the difficulty of completing all the paperwork and meeting required deadlines.
“Think about the pressure and necessity of compliance: a general education teacher forgets to send home a progress report, no big deal,” Cox said. “If a special education teacher does it is a federal offense … literally. IEP compliance is federally mandated.”
Tamara Camp also retired early from her job as a special education teacher. She left Wilson C. Riles Middle School in Sacramento in 2013 due to health issues exacerbated by job stress.
Although the state does not require lower class sizes for special education day classes than for general education classes, most districts limit them to 12 or 15 students. Camp said she had classes with as many as 20 students and no classroom aide to help. Because the students in her class had a variety of needs, she was required to offer instruction tailored to each of them.
“That last year put me in the hospital,” said Camp, who has lupus, an auto-immune disease that can be exacerbated by stress. “I was in the hospital a week. You can’t take the stress anymore.”
Camp also managed a caseload of 20 students, most of whom she taught in her classes. It was her responsibility to test each of these students and to analyze the results annually. She also had to manage each child’s individualized education program and met regularly with parents and other teachers who worked with the child.
She finally quit teaching after a student who exhibited violent behavior was enrolled in her class, bringing back memories of a 1994 assault. That year Camp was working at a school in Diamond Springs when she was kicked in the head by a boy wearing steel-toed boots. The incident resulted in head injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder that took her out of the classroom for four years, she said.
Despite these difficult experiences, Camp, who retired at age 54, misses being a special education teacher.
“I absolutely adored my job, loved my job, loved being a teacher,” she said. “I would have done it another 30 years. I couldn’t do it.”
The shortage of special education teachers has become more acute as the number of special education students in the state has steadily increased, from 650,000 in 2000 to nearly 800,000 last year, according to the California Department of Education.
Teacher Janey Muñoz thought of leaving special education for general education classes a few times, but she never did. Instead, Muñoz spent 21 years as a resource specialist before retiring from Fillmore Unified in Ventura County in 2017. Resource specialists manage special education caseloads and sometimes teach students who spend more than half their time in general education classes.
State law allows resource specialists to have caseloads of up to 28 students, which Muñoz said was almost always the case for her.
“I almost never left school until 5 p.m. and went in on Sunday afternoons to finish up,” Muñoz said. “Sometimes you are finishing up lesson plans and sometimes IEPs.”
School districts face competition when hiring special education teachers. Willits Unified in rural Mendocino County can’t find enough fully qualified candidates for special education job openings despite adequate pay and affordable housing in the area, said Superintendent Mark Westerburg.
It is especially difficult to find teachers who have the proper credentials to teach emotionally impaired, autistic or deaf students, he said.
Officials at the 1,500-student district attend about six jobs fairs each year and post jobs on the websites EdJoin and Handshake. But even then, the district struggles to find fully credentialed teachers in special education. The district didn’t mince words in a post on EdJoin last school year: “Interns are encouraged to apply!”
But job fairs and online job postings aren’t enough, said Carver-Thomas of the Learning Policy institute. District officials need to go to universities to recruit students in teacher credentialing programs and be prepared to offer information about alternative credentialing routes for people pursuing other careers or working in other fields.
Larger school districts like the 50,000-student San Juan Unified in Sacramento, with well-staffed human resources departments, can be more proactive. San Juan Unified managed to hire special education teachers who were all fully credentialed this year because staff was able to forecast the number of teachers leaving and began looking for teachers early.
The district also contacts students still completing teacher preparation programs and offers them jobs in anticipation of future job openings, said Paul Oropallo, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources.
Districts may have to come up with other strategies soon. A quarter of the California special education teachers who were teaching in 2014 will retire by 2024 — a higher percentage than in any other subject area, according to a Learning Policy Institute report.
Strategies could include loan forgiveness or scholarships to cover the costs of teacher preparation, said the institute’s Carver-Thomas. Another strategy is to encourage prospective teachers to enroll in a so-called “residency” program in which a student teacher works under a mentor teacher for a school year, and gets paid while doing so, before getting their own classroom.
Teachers who have access to high-quality mentorship and support when they first begin teaching are more than twice as likely to stay in teaching, she said.