BU Today

Campus Life

What Will It Take to Keep Special Ed Teachers?

SED researcher is trying to stop an alarming exodus

Nathan Jones, assistant professor of special education, Boston University School of Education, SED

Nathan Jones’ first piece of advice for schools that want to retain their best special ed teachers: involve the principal. Photo by Frank Curran

Nathan Jones knew three things about the Mississippi Delta when he arrived there to teach special education at a middle school in Phillips County, Ark.: it had given birth to the blues, segregation had festered there, as it had in most of the South, and it had been—and still was—comparatively poor. Four months into his first classroom assignment, Jones learned something else that would define his time in the region called “the most southern place on Earth.” The native New Yorker was on his own. During the first phone conversation with his supposed mentor, she announced that she had retired—months ago.

Jones had taken a job that nationally had a 10 percent first-year attrition rate. And he’d done so in one of the poorest counties in the United States. Of course, he should have had a mentor: it was mandated by the government. Just as the other teachers he worked with should have completed customized Individualized Education Programs rather than using the same form for every student and a lot of correction fluid.

“At the local level, you had these well-intentioned state policies breaking down,” says Jones. “And no recourse.”

After three years of making do, he decided to do something about it. He earned a PhD at Michigan State University and became a specialist in the implementation of education policy.

Now a School of Education assistant professor of special education, Jones focuses his research on the development of guidance and mandates, particularly in special education, that don’t break apart in the classroom.

Tracking troubles

One area where regulators really need some help, he says, is teacher evaluation. Some states do a good job of grading teachers, others don’t. North Carolina, for example, has long had a relatively consistent approach to collecting performance data and is therefore well placed to track educators year after year. In contrast, Michigan, he notes, has been riven by political disagreements and therefore hampered by a “hodgepodge system.”

When it comes to quantifying the performance of those teaching students with disabilities, things get even messier. There’s been “very little guidance” for administrators from states or the feds, he says. And that leads to frustration: good special education teachers don’t get credit for their work; struggling ones don’t get the help they need to improve.

Figuring out the best way to evaluate special education students—and therefore, the professionals teaching them—isn’t simple, so that lack of guidance means very few schools are in a position to quantify how their children and staff are performing. While 12 percent of K-12 students are given special education services, 58 percent of them spend more than three-quarters of their time in general education classrooms. If you’re tracking a teacher’s performance based on test scores (the value-added model of assessment), how can you be sure which teacher’s impact you’re measuring? Besides, says Jones, students with disabilities don’t do as well, on average, on state tests, and the lower (or higher) an exam score, the greater the chance for measurement error. Even watching teachers at work (the observation model) might not tell you very much about their effectiveness—the rater will probably work from a general checklist that doesn’t help separate teachers who go the extra mile for students with disabilities from those who don’t.

help on blackboard

One in 10 special education teachers resigns after just one year.

It’s the kind of muddled situation that Jones is working to repair. In a paper published last spring in Educational Researcher, he and colleagues from the research nonprofit Educational Testing Service proposed some fixes. Their suggestions range from new observation protocols with a “subset of items specific to teaching” students with disabilities to a “roster validation system” that ditches complicated labor division calculations so “both the general education and special education teachers receive 100 percent responsibility [for the value added scores] of their shared students.”

Bearing in mind his lack of mentoring in the Delta, Jones is keen to ensure that his recommendations remain rooted in the experiences of frontline teachers. He’s recently undertaken a new project to study what happens when a state takes an “observation system thoughtfully developed in a research context and suddenly says to principals, ‘You need to do this,’” he says. Over a three-year period, Jones will follow principals in Los Angeles as they implement an updated version of the Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument, an observation system currently used in about half the states. The study team will watch, survey, and interview principals—and test their abilities as raters.

“I think a lot of people are looking to L.A. to see what happens when you put principals through this training and what happens to these observation systems when they get implemented in a high-stakes context,” says Jones. “L.A. is serving as the bellwether for what happens across the country.”

More lessons from the Delta

Before taking on the L.A. project, there was one other problem Jones had to solve. He didn’t want rookie special education teachers to be thrown into the classroom, as he was in the Delta, without the right support. “Beginning special ed teachers really crave social relationships in their schools,” he says, “but they infrequently have access to them.” The job is demanding and “you see high rates of stress and burnout among special ed teachers,” even among those with a personal motivation—a family member with a disability, for instance—for trying to tough it out.

That state of affairs leads many to quit. Jones says that when he joined the field, some studies showed beginning special ed teachers leaving at twice the rate of their general ed counterparts. Today, more sophisticated research has moved the rates closer together. Either way, he notes, with one in 10 teachers resigning after just one year, the attrition level in special education is alarming.

In a study of teachers in eight districts in Michigan and Indiana, he found that improved relationships could be tied directly to retention. “For special education teachers in particular,” he and two colleagues wrote in the journal Exceptional Children, “perception of colleague support was a strong predictor of retention plans.” The researchers recommended that schools “facilitate productive relationships between general and special education faculty” and “differentiate special induction support for beginning special educators.”

Jones’ advice for schools that want to retain their best special ed teachers? First, involve the principal. “There is increasing evidence that for beginning teachers,” he says, “the quality of one’s relationship with the principal is a key factor in making plans to stay in teaching.” Next, he says, schools need to give their new special ed teachers a customized induction, spelling out clearly the curricular expectations. Finally, he argues, schools have to strengthen the relationships between special and general education faculty by giving them more opportunities to work together and by encouraging them to share responsibility for students.

Andrew Thurston can be reached at thurston@bu.edu.

A version of this story appeared in the summer 2013 edition of @SED.


6 Comments on What Will It Take to Keep Special Ed Teachers?

  • Ellen Chambers on 11.20.2013 at 7:14 am

    Another factor in special (and regular) education teacher burn out is the unspoken rule that you do not say or do anything that will impact the budget. For instance, if you have a student in your classroom struggling with reading, and you strongly suspect dyslexia or another type of disability, you do NOT suggest that the student be evaluated to determine the presence of a learning disability. Why? Because if a learning disability is identified it will have to be addressed. And that costs money. Money the school district does not want to spend. Instead, you bite your tongue and watch that student struggle. I have seen this so many times in my career as a special education advocate. Sure, some teachers will take parents aside and tell them “you didn’t hear it from me, but I think you should have Jane evaluated for a reading disability …” But that same teacher will not (cannot if s/he wants to keep the job) say the same thing at a formal Team meeting for the student.

    Here in Massachusetts, as in states across the nation, our students with special needs are failing at rates wildly out of proportion to their intellectual abilities. At least 90% of MA students with disabilities are as intellectually capable as their non-disabled peers, yet the achievement gap between these two student subgroups is enormous (47 percentage points) on MCAS testing. And that gap has been widening, not narrowing over time. While students with disabilities comprise 17% of the total MA student population, less than 2% are Adams Scholarship recipients. And the saddest thing is this: we already know how to teach these students, we simply refuse to act on that knowledge.

    Ellen M. Chambers, MBA

  • Anne Burke on 11.20.2013 at 8:11 am

    I think you are on the wrong track. Completely wrong track. There are Federal and State Laws and Regulations which are COMPLETELY ignored or interpreted to suit the administrator of the day. The Federal Gov’t has no funding for enforcement of it’s own laws and therefore they are meaningless. Here in MA, we have a head of the DESE who knows there is no enforcement or consequence to ignoring laws. Check out SPEDWatch. Find and speak to any parent of a child on an IEP and you are likely to hear horror stories. Speak to teachers with the promise of anonymity and you’ll hear words that make your skin crawl. You want to know how to keep Special Ed Teachers? It’s simple. Allow them to properly support the students they have been hired to teach. Don’t mislead them into thinking what a wonderful field special ed teaching is while you tie their hands behind their back and prescribe/demand unworkable solutions to issues at hand. So what if laws aren’t enforced, do it anyway! Teachers will feel supported and stay.

  • Amy Cohen on 11.21.2013 at 9:13 am

    I will share this article with my younger SPED colleagues who are so exasperated with how SPED teachers and SPED students are treated that they are wondering if they can do this for the rest of their lives. Of all of the SPED teachers I have worked with, about 80% have jumped ship and moved to general ed. Most can’t take the immense paperwork pressure, the pressure to close the achievement gap, and the hampering of strategies and techniques that we know work. There is a very strong movement to fully include students in order to “expose” them to curriculum level concepts and vocabulary and higher level thinking, but the reality is that many students with learning disabilities or language impairments can’t always learn in a large group with higher level language flying around at a pace that far exceeds their processing speed. They can to some degree, but not 100% of the time. They stop listening, become inattentive and embarrassed, and fall further behind. When I pull students into my resource room, which is quiet and small-group, they thrive. And they beg to come back because it’s the one place where they are taught at a pace that suits their learning needs.

    The other issue is that special educators should be allowed to “share” students within a school in order to provide a support system for the students and for the teachers. The teachers won’t burn out if they can bounce ideas off of each other about a student that they share and if they are not solely responsible for the progress that a student with severe skill deficits poses. The teachers will also learn from each other and be able to improve and increase their specialized techniques.

    The issue of how to evaluate special education teachers is a hot topic. Evaluating us by how our students perform on standardized measures, or even on curriculum-based measures, is not a valid way to assess our efficacy. Our students tend to make progress incrementally, and it is only after a few years that true progress can be seen. However, there are plenty of ways to judge whether a special educator is effective: how often do we see our students, do our plans have a systematic forward momentum, do we align with curriculum expectations as much as possible, do we use specialized teaching techniques that differ from what is offered in the classroom, does our analysis of a students’ needs match the data about that student, do we make an attempt to support what is happening in the general education classroom, do we attempt to collaborate with other professionals who see our students, do the IEP objectives that we generate for our students make sense, can we justify our choice of instructional activities, are our assessment tools valid, i.e.? To evaluate special ed teachers based on these kinds of variables does take effort, time, and training, but if the purpose is to truly evaluate us, then the effort, time and training is worth it, isn’t it? Moreso than the effort, time and training to evaluate us using ineffective tools?

    • Jamie Walker on 12.29.2013 at 4:32 am

      Yes, yes, and yes. I found myself nodding my head more and more as I went along, Amy.

  • Ellen Chambers on 11.22.2013 at 7:27 am

    Amy Cohen:

    Are you teaching in Massachusetts? Please contact me privately at emchambers@charter.net


    Ellen Chambers

  • Paul Howard on 05.19.2014 at 9:57 pm

    I am a Special Education teacher who works with non-verbal students in a self-contained classroom. My students require 100% adult supervision. When I first started teaching I said to myself, “The second you feel like a babysitter, leave!” It has been a very difficult road for me. If there is very little guidance for teachers like me. I had to seek out professionals who actually knew what they where talking about. I begged for professors from UNM to come and visit my classroom. After a while I convinced a few of them that I would follow best practices and evidence based systems. After a few years I felt like I could demonstrate growth overtime using data and other methods besides discussing “cute stories.” I am lucky that someone took interest in me and helped me along the way. When I look around at other teachers who work with this population, I am sad that there is little to no support. I have seen good people leave because of frustration. Not with the students but with themselves because they is very little support. I am not surprised to read some of the posts here. I wish there was a better way, but I do not know what it is.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)