Research Teaching & Learning

California’s Special Education Teacher Shortage

New report examines crisis in special education

California is in the midst of a severe and deepening shortage of special education teachers. The field of special education has long been plagued by persistent shortages of fully certified teachers, in large part due to a severe drop in teacher education enrollments and high attrition for special educators. As a result, students with the greatest needs are frequently taught by the least qualified teachers.

To better understand the nature of the shortage in California and what can be done about it, the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) has released a new study, “California’s Special Education Teacher Shortage.” The report is part of a series of research briefs examining special education in California produced by Policy Analysis of California Education (PACE).

The LPI researchers were assisted by members of CTA State Council’s Special Education Committee, who served as participants in a focus group and provided valuable expertise.

The report finds that:

  • Increases in demand for special education teachers coupled with declines in teacher preparation enrollments and ongoing high attrition have contributed to the severe shortage of special education teachers in California.
  • About two of three teachers entering special education in the state hold a substandard permit or credential, which are issued to candidates who have not completed the testing, coursework, and clinical experience the CTC requires for preliminary credentials. Filling teacher shortages with underqualified individuals means that both students and teachers are struggling.
  • Declines in teacher preparation enrollment in special education have not yet been reversed. Administrators in TPPs note that lack of financial aid can be a barrier to enrollment for all teachers, including those in special education.
  • At 9 percent annually, teacher attrition is higher in California than the national average, and special education teachers leave at an even higher rate, especially if they are underprepared.
  • Teacher attrition for special education teachers is associated with inadequate preparation and professional development; challenging working conditions, including large caseloads and overwhelming compliance obligations; and inadequate compensation to live in high-priced communities and handle student debt loads.

The report makes the following policy recommendations:

  • Strengthen the pipeline into special education teaching with recruitment incentives for high-retention pathways. High-retention pathways into teaching — such as teacher residencies and grow-your-own programs that move paraprofessionals into teaching — have proven successful for recruiting and retaining diverse educators.
  • Improve the quality of and access to preparation. Better prepared teachers are both more effective and more likely to stay in teaching. As California updates licensing expectations for special education teachers and works to increase the number of newly credentialed teachers, it will be important to build and expand the capacity of teacher education programs, as well as support new program designs that provide more intensive preparation and student teaching and ensure strong mentoring so that new teachers have the greatest possible chance for success.
  • Expand and strengthen professional development. Studies show that intensive professional learning experiences are highly valued by special education teachers and associated with increased teacher efficacy and lower probability of attrition. The state can support the retention of current special education teachers by providing meaningful professional learning opportunities that help them meet the needs of students with disabilities, such as job-embedded coaching, mentoring, and ongoing support.
  • Improve working conditions for special education teachers. Poor working conditions, including large caseloads and overwhelming responsibilities outside of instruction, may contribute to the attrition of special education teachers. California’s caseload caps are currently very high and are frequently waived, so that resource specialists, for example, can be responsible for 32 students or more, far above the levels of many other states. The state and districts can consider how to revise caseload expectations and provide additional administrative supports in order to help lighten workloads for special educators and ensure that they have the time needed to comply with federal and state requirements and to work effectively with students with disabilities. They can also improve working conditions by supporting special education training for general education teachers and school and district leaders in order to improve their understanding of the needs of students with disabilities and their capacity to support these students and their special educator colleagues.
  • Increase compensation. National data suggest that adequate compensation can help districts retain special education teachers. In 2019, California increased state funding for special education and signaled an expectation for additional increases in 2020, which are reflected in the governor’s January 2020 budget. These investments can help relieve the fiscal pressure felt by districts, putting them in a better position to increase support for their special education teachers through higher salaries that recognize the costs of living, as well as their training and workload. Such investments can also support strategies like college loan repayment tied to retention and housing subsidies.

Learn more about “California’s Special Education Teacher Shortage” by Naomi Ondrasek, Desiree Carver-Thomas, Caitlin Scott, and Linda Darling-Hammond.

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