Photo: Diana Lambert/EdSource
Tamara Camp looks at some of the reading materials she used in her classroom while reminiscing about her career as a special education teacher.
This story was updated on Jan. 10 to include information from the proposed California budget for 2020-21.

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.

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  1. RLW 6 months ago6 months ago

    Excellent article. There is a major problem in education with regard to credentialing. When states adopted Race to the Top, many passed statutes to ignore anything but the basic entry bachelor degree. As a 34-year educator who started teaching in my early twenties with four advanced degrees accredited and from schools of education, I have experienced it - even with my more recently earned doctorate. Districts have gone from site-based local decision making … Read More

    Excellent article. There is a major problem in education with regard to credentialing. When states adopted Race to the Top, many passed statutes to ignore anything but the basic entry bachelor degree. As a 34-year educator who started teaching in my early twenties with four advanced degrees accredited and from schools of education, I have experienced it – even with my more recently earned doctorate.

    Districts have gone from site-based local decision making to top-down management and there is no opportunity for using advanced training nor will they pay for it. Positions that would have required a background in a specific area years ago now, if administrative, are filled with an earned masters in general management unrelated to curriculum knowledge or subject. Curriculum design is handled by beginning teachers, who although taught only to differentiate and follow a curriculum suddenly meet the need at districts for such an advanced task.

    I have written and spoken to state officials that only support the district initiatives in my state of Florida. Other states are similar. This trend is not just impacting special education but education as a whole. It has become non-personal, no deviation. Some of my younger colleagues still idealistic that they will offer their ideas will soon learn that the personal element is quite limited as they gain more understanding to need. It minimizes education and this saddens me as an educator.

  2. Sharon Kuhlmann 11 months ago11 months ago

    Well researched, amazingly written and very informative article. I enjoyed it very much. Parts of it made me angry and sad to think the most need for these wonderful special needs children aren’t being met because of funding. Funding should be there and only the proper credentialed teachers should be hired, no excuses. I thank every special needs teacher for giving everything they have for just the fulfillment of trying to make a special needs students life better.

  3. Frank G 11 months ago11 months ago

    Special education as a whole seems to be in need when it comes to mathematics. Special education teachers need to know the mathematics they are trying to interpret for the students. Yes, many of these teachers can ‘do the math’ but there is more to teaching than just showing someone how you do it.

  4. Tamra Boulden 11 months ago11 months ago

    I enjoyed your article both as a special education teacher and one concerned with teacher shortage, training and development in general.

  5. CarolineSF 11 months ago11 months ago

    Years of so-called education "reformers" bashing and blaming teachers, disdaining them in favor of policies based on the whims of billionaires, and rigid dictates over their classroom activities have contributed to this teacher shortage, and children are suffering because of it. A basic principle at the heart of the so-called education "reform" movement is to blame teachers, and media is heavily guilty too (remember the L.A. Times' giant project applying the Times' own rubric and … Read More

    Years of so-called education “reformers” bashing and blaming teachers, disdaining them in favor of policies based on the whims of billionaires, and rigid dictates over their classroom activities have contributed to this teacher shortage, and children are suffering because of it. A basic principle at the heart of the so-called education “reform” movement is to blame teachers, and media is heavily guilty too (remember the L.A. Times’ giant project applying the Times’ own rubric and publishing a rating of every teacher in LAUSD?). Again, this harms children.

    Some of EdSource’s funders are driving the anti-teacher frenzy, which isn’t stopping. I don’t know what to suggest, but it’s something you all need to own up to and soul-search about.

  6. Paul R 11 months ago11 months ago

    There are multiple issues with special education in California and we need to solve this problem with multiple solutions to get even halfway to meeting the needs of all of our children. Background: I am finishing up a master of arts in education, in early childhood education with just edits on my field study to complete, and my wife is pursuing two master's degrees. One is in special education for early childhood education and … Read More

    There are multiple issues with special education in California and we need to solve this problem with multiple solutions to get even halfway to meeting the needs of all of our children.

    Background:
    I am finishing up a master of arts in education, in early childhood education with just edits on my field study to complete, and my wife is pursuing two master’s degrees. One is in special education for early childhood education and a second in early childhood education. She is 90% done with the ECE degree and 70% complete on the Special Ed ECE degree. She has worked as a paraeducator and a special ed teacher. I am also familiar with many other students in the programs at SFSU where we are completing our degrees.

    Some ideas:
    1. Having to pass the CBEST exam is blocking many potential great ECE special ed teachers from becoming credentialed. I question whether the CBEST exam designed for primary and secondary teachers is an appropriate test for ECE special educators. My wife is one of them. In her first year she worked in a classroom as a paraprofessional. In her second year she worked as a special ed teacher with a waiver, this year she is back to being a paraprofessional. My wife is hard-working, caring and smart. She lived in another country until five years ago, but English was the language of instruction in school and university. Still, while her spoken and written English is good. she struggles with some things. Her degree programs are focused on teaching young children not adolescents so the classes while making her a better teacher don’t augment her skills like those planning to teacher elementary, middle and high school students receive. I am not advocating for no exam, just one that reflects what the teacher needs to meet the needs of the children.

    2. As Ms. Lambert notes in the article, some districts really do provide significant help for first year teachers, but others provide next to nothing. In her first year as a special ed teacher my wife had 5-6 one hour sessions after school with the teacher that was in the position previously. There was no on-boarding process before the year began, no observation; no additional training, nor did supervisory staff ever visit her classroom over an entire school year. That district struggles to fill special ed positions. No wonder. This year back as a paraprofessional since she can’t get by the CBEST. she is in a different district that does provide support. She is learning under a great teachers and has a principal who is involved and supportive of special education.

    3. Inclusion is going to become much more the norm. I founded an annual teacher training conference on helping children learn in nature. We always have international workshop leaders to expose participants to different ways of thinking. This year we had a special focus on inclusion and it was eye opening. In many other countries, all children with mild and moderate challenges are mainstreamed into regular classes. It’s not thought of as special education, but rather students needing additional support. And frankly all children are differently abled so this starts to address children’s needs much more holistically across a broader range. But, our colleges and universities aren’t prepared to make this shift yet, but they need to be. I see such a chasm between special education and conventional programs here in the U.S. and California specifically. Time to embrace best practices and adapt of educational programs to meet these new needs.

    San Francisco State recently began a certificate program between ECE and special ed ECE students where four classes in the other area could be taken as part of the program for their regular degree. It’s a start. What we really need though are joint master’s degree programs for school leaders that combine both elements so that our principals of tomorrow are fully able to meet the needs of all students Including what is now special ed and early childhood ed. At SFSU the ECE masters degree is 30 units and special ed for ECE with a credential is 50 units. Currently credit hours cannot be mixed so to finish both degrees she will need 80 units in a masters degree classes. Maybe this is insane don’t you think? Can we be smarter than this?

    4. Many districts pay a premium for specialties like STEM and special education while others don’t. Guess where the better teachers go?

    Replies

    • Saili S. Kulkarni 11 months ago11 months ago

      I'm a professor of special education in a special education teacher ed program. I agree with you about most of these points, Paul, especially our need for more teacher education programs that coordinate special and general education. Special education teacher education programs need to stop holding on so tight to our so-called claims of expertise and share this knowledge with those in general education. General education teachers need to acknowledge and accept that … Read More

      I’m a professor of special education in a special education teacher ed program. I agree with you about most of these points, Paul, especially our need for more teacher education programs that coordinate special and general education. Special education teacher education programs need to stop holding on so tight to our so-called claims of expertise and share this knowledge with those in general education. General education teachers need to acknowledge and accept that disability is part of the human diversity they will experience in classrooms and begin to work together with special education teachers to foster meaningful supports for all learners in the classroom.

      One thing that wasn’t raised that I will add is the need for a larger pool of special education teachers of color. Recent reports cite that our field is more than 80% white female. Standardized testing like CSET, in particular, may create barriers for first-generation students to get into the field, and the field itself has not created real opportunities to value and embrace equity and diversity by listening to the voices of teachers of color and those who actually have disabilities.