National crisis: Not much training for some special-ed teachers

The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Andy Tonies, who is returning for a second year at Bradley Tech High as a special ed teacher, prepares his classroom for the first day of school. He came up through the Milwaukee Teaching Fellows, which is part of the New Teacher Project in Milwaukee. (Photo by Angela Peterson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Standing at the front of a large, darkened room in a Capitol Avenue office building in late July, teacher-trainer Betty Menacher clicked quickly through a presentation on a highly technical but essential topic – how to assess students’ reading. Her audience was a group of career-switchers who within weeks would be using what they’d learned during this five-week crash course in tackling one of education’s most difficult challenges: teaching special-education students.

Menacher knew she had little time and a lot to cover. So, as the clusters of soon-to-be teachers took notes, she pushed through a five-slide summary of the main components of reading. Switching from “vocabulary” to “fluency,” she paused. “I know we’re going through this really fast. I kind of want to stop on each one,” she said. “But we don’t have time.”

Fast forward to September 1st, the first day of school: those individuals will join others with no previous teaching experience or traditional training who’ll also be teaching in special-education classrooms in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

Special education has been a critical shortage area in MPS for years, exemplified by the fact that not one special-education teacher was included in the 482 layoff notices that went out in June. In fact, the district has hired 52 new, fully certified special-education teachers since then, said Karen Jackson, MPS director of human resources.

There aren’t enough fully licensed special-education teachers to go around, so the district leans on alternative-route teacher certification programs that allow teachers to work toward full licensure while teaching with “emergency” credentials.

The method still fuels debate about whether teachers who come up through these programs are as prepared to work with special-education students — an area MPS has provided substandard service in for years, according to a federal lawsuit — as those who come up through traditional, four-year education schools.

This year, the district is employing 17 special-education teachers from the Milwaukee Teacher Education Center program, 24 new special-education teachers from Teach For America (nine special education teachers in last year’s inaugural TFA corps will continue teaching on emergency permits), and 20 new special-education teachers from The New Teacher Project (33 of the project’s Milwaukee Teaching Fellows will continue in their second year of special education teaching on emergency credentials).

MPS also pulls from a fourth alternative track program that provides training to credentialed teachers who don’t have a background in special education, Jackson said.

Representatives of emergency-credential programs say that the intensive summer training covers enough ground and that they offer a full support system throughout the school year to ensure the teachers-in-training are successful.

Other experts and advocates argue that a few weeks of preparation over the summer — and even less time for teachers who start training in the winter — isn’t enough to help individuals, regardless of their passion and motivation, deal with the often profound needs of special-education students.

“My view is that you need the extensive training,” said George Giuliani of the National Association of Special Education Teachers. “Even though the need for special-education teachers is there, I am in no way an advocate” of these programs.

A national shortage

All told, about a quarter of Milwaukee’s about 1,100 special-education teachers last year held emergency licenses, reflecting a large national problem in finding, training and retaining such teachers.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there’s a national shortage of 45,000 highly qualified special-education teachers, although determining who counts as highly qualified isn’t straightforward. About 11 percent of special-education classrooms in the U.S. aren’t led by a highly qualified teacher, the department noted in 2008.

According to the federal government, “highly qualified” means the instructor is licensed for the grade-level and subject for which he or she is teaching. Teachers on emergency credentials in core subject areas are considered highly qualified only if they: have a major, minor or have completed Wisconsin’s Praxis II content test in the subject area they are teaching, are enrolled in an approved teacher-training program that will be completed in three years, are given high-quality professional development by the district and are overseen by supervisors or mentors while teaching, according to the state Department of Instruction.

MTEC teachers-in-training take a pre-test before a lesson on informal reading assessments on July 27. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

Jackson, the human resources director, explained it this way: teachers on emergency credentials are considered highly qualified “if they meet the criteria, have an emergency license, passed the Praxis and have a degree.” Attrition in these positions is high, with one out of seven special-education teachers quitting each year.

Nearly one in five Milwaukee students receives special-education services. Yet, the city’s special-education students lag behind their counterparts elsewhere in the state. In 2009, only 17 percent of Milwaukee’s sixth-graders receiving special education were proficient or advanced in math and only 15 percent achieved those levels in reading. Statewide, 37 percent of students with disabilities were proficient or advanced in math and 44 percent were at those levels in reading.

In recent years, however, Milwaukee hasn’t been able to attract enough fully trained teachers to meet those students’ needs. “There’s no doubt that there’s a challenge filling special-education positions,” said Pat Yahle, director of special education for the Milwaukee Public Schools. “The more challenged the students are, the more challenged the teacher is.”

The same is true nationally. Massachusetts granted almost 1,000 teaching waivers last year to allow districts to hire teachers who weren’t formally licensed to work with special-education students. At least 22 states have some sort of alternative-certification program for individuals with no previous teaching experience to enter special-education teaching, many of which require no more than a bachelor’s degree and a background check.

Teach For America and The New Teacher Project provide districts with even more options. About 900 TFA fellows, or about 12.5 percent of its corps, worked as special-education teachers last year. And The New Teacher Project will supply New York City with about 300 newly minted teachers to help fill the city’s 1,000 vacant special-education positions.

The Milwaukee programs say their rigorous selection processes ensure that only highly capable individuals are chosen. TFA is as selective as the nation’s Ivy League colleges. The New Teacher Project and MTEC both emphasize how hard the work will be ahead of time. “When I do an information session, I try to discourage as many people as possible,” said Sue Ristow, director of teacher certification for MTEC.

But general knowledge and intelligence may not necessarily help these new teachers reach students who have emotional, behavioral or learning disabilities. That’s why the summer training sessions are so important.

Traditional special-education teacher certification programs, although not exempt from criticism, typically take a year or more to complete and include coursework, observations and supervised teaching. Some states even require a master’s degree in special education before granting a license.

Individuals who go this route will take entire classes on individual disabilities, learning not only what the disability is, but how to manage it and, perhaps most importantly, effective strategies to teach students with it. For instance, courses on learning disabilities might feature whole lessons on complex concepts such as the structure of language and phonemic awareness, things Menacher had to cover in just one slide.

The Teach For America program focuses on reading instruction and assessing student learning. MTEC also places an emphasis on assessment techniques but doesn’t have enough room in its schedule to instruct recruits on how to teach reading.

The New Teacher Project’s program, Milwaukee Teaching Fellows, divides its six weeks into modules on preventing and handling disruptions, teaching students at different levels, and planning and delivering instruction. The program also spends many lessons on “big ideas” in education, such as differences in achievement between white and minority students as well as between those with and without disabilities. Special education has its own one-week module.

Trainees in all three programs teach summer school in the morning alongside a licensed teacher. But because of privacy concerns, they might not know which students in their classrooms, if any, have special needs.

Sue Endress, an advocate for Disability Rights Wisconsin, doesn’t doubt the abilities of the trainees; it’s the time-crunch that worries her. “To the credit of these people, they try really hard,” she said. “It must be frustrating for them to know, ‘If I had more training … then I could do so much of a better job.’ ”

In 2001, Disability Rights Wisconsin brought a lawsuit against MPS and the state , representing families of special-education students in what has become a class-action case that alleges the district failed to adequately identify and serve students with special needs.

Learning as they go

Knowing he could have benefitted from longer training doesn’t bother Darwin Peters, a 2009 Milwaukee Teaching Fellow who taught reading and writing to special-education high school students last year. “Nothing can really prepare you for the first year of teaching,” he said, noting that he was at least more qualified and a more stable influence for his students than the substitute he was replacing.

Peters and several other teachers say the format of their programs didn’t hurt their students. They tell of how they learned along the way and how they went from developing relationships with students to becoming more effective in raising their pupils’ performance.

But the picture painted by the research is less clear, with varying studies indicating that teachers who opt to go through alternative-certification programs perform worse, the same or better than those prepared in more traditional programs. Studies looking at training programs in general have noted that the more preparation and student-teaching, the better – for both general-education and special-education teachers.

Alexa Posney, Assistant Secretary for Special Education in the U.S. Department of Education, couldn’t comment on any specific alternative-certification programs, saying she’d want to know what kind of support system was in place for teachers after the training period. “I would want to have them working with a person who is fully licensed at the exact time,” she said. “That would give me the assurance that we are meeting the needs of the kids.”

All three programs say they provide such support through their staff and mentors. And Milwaukee’s Yahle thinks the supports are sufficient, saying that without them, hiring emergency-credentialed teachers would be “risky.”

Many teaching fellows also reported that they were given adequate help throughout the year. They said the experience was among the most challenging of their lives. Even so, they found it rewarding to be able to learn on the job.

“I’d do it all over again if I had to,” said Tiffany Miller, who taught in a self-contained classroom of emotionally and behaviorally disturbed high-schoolers. “Of course, knowing what I know now, I would change a few things.”

Erin Richards, an education reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, provided additional reporting.

A version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on September 1, 2010.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.


Sarah Butrymowicz

Sarah Butrymowicz is senior editor for investigations. For her first four years at The Hechinger Report, she was a staff writer, covering k-12 education, traveling… See Archive

Letters to the Editor

Send us your thoughts

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

No letters have been published at this time.