How Close Are We to Solving the Sky-High Special Education Teacher Turnover Rate?

Special Education teacher turnover is a key contributor to the shortage of Special Education teachers nationwide. Between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, one study found the Special Education teacher turnover rate to be 11% higher than that for general ed teachers. At the same time Special Educators are 72% more likely to transfer schools than their General Education colleagues. More recently, 44% of a national sample of elementary, middle, high, and combined-grade schools, participating in the School Pulse Survey in 2021-2022, reported rates of Special Education vacancies double those of other positions.

COVID-19 compounded the myriad challenges school leaders already faced, including recognized misalignments between Special Education teacher preparation and actual classroom needs. As schools scrambled to respond and weeks of online learning became months and even years, students fell behind or their progress languished, those who would have been referred for evaluation with in-person learning were not, and support provided was frequently inadequate in this new learning reality.

Such challenges did not make schools any less responsible for complying with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It was up to them to ensure services students needed to succeed were available. Educators, administrators, and school staff have continued to adapt, implement stopgap measures, and, overall, respond as best they can. For Special Educators in particular, the result has been even greater responsibilities and requirements on their time, a backlog of students in need of their support, and added stress.

Certain challenges, such as the misaligned Special Educator preparation pipeline and teacher salaries, may be out of the hands of many Special Education and Transition leaders. However, it is important to remind ourselves of the challenges that contribute to the high special education teacher turnover rate. Doing so can highlight opportunities for Special Education and Transition leaders to positively support staff and, ultimately, their students.

Key takeaways:

  • Special education vacancies remain unfilled at double the rate of other positions. Turnover rate is 11% higher than in general education.
  • Role overload, complex classroom dynamics, and feelings of undervaluation are often cited as the main challenges of special educators.
  • The average teacher would forego a 12.5% salary increase to gain full-time support from a paraprofessional.
  • Other preferred solutions include high-quality EdTech solutions, better substitute teacher training and self-care practices.

The Biggest Challenges in Special Education Today: 3 Rs

The different challenges facing Special Education teachers and contributing to teacher turnover can be broadly categorized as the 3R’s: Roles, Responses, and Reactions. The 3Rs demonstrate how the difficulties that Special Education teachers encounter often interweave the professional with the personal.

1. Roles

Even someone with limited experience within the education landscape can recognize that Special Educators’ roles frequently include expanded responsibilities beyond those of their General Education counterparts. These additional duties can leave them feeling spread thin at the very least and often overloaded.

Take, for example, their role in IEP meetings: Special Education teachers attend as well as prepare and manage ongoing follow-ups: generating reports, gathering learning artifacts, communicating with team members, juggling schedules, speaking with parents. These responsibilities, often administrative in nature, are multiplied by each student with an IEP and further muddle roles that, evidence shows, teachers found poorly delineated in the first place.

General Education teachers are typically quite clear on who they will teach, what they will teach, and when they will teach. Special Education teachers, however, face a caseload of students and the “what” and “when” of supporting each student frequently requires negotiations with General Education teachers as far as teaching time, focus areas, and curricula.

This level of involvement is time-consuming and can be stressful leading to the low special education teacher retention rates we are experiencing.

2. Responses

The already-formidable challenges of classroom dynamics are further complicated for Special EducatorsThey commonly work with students facing constraints, stigma, and difficulties stemming from their disabilities, adding to the complexities of recalibrating support for students and responding to their individual needs.

3. Reactions

Decades of research has identified a variety of stressors for those in Special Education. These teachers report feeling overworked yet undervalued. They share how they often navigate these feelings while simultaneously experiencing isolation from colleagues. These are just a few of the reactions that contribute to the current sky-high Special Education Teacher turnover rate while also heightening risks for mental health problems, like anxiety and depression.

10 Things You Can Do to Address the Special Education Teacher Shortage Crisis

From fostering a supportive work environment to providing additional opportunities for professional development, explore 10 more actionable strategies for improving special education teacher turnover rates.  

10 Things Special Education Directors Can Do to Address the Special Education Teacher Shortage Crisis

Promising practices for tackling the 3Rs

Despite persistent challenges with Special Education teacher retention and the added obstacles COVID-19 presented, promising practices are available to Special Education and Transition leaders, their schools, and classrooms, and should inspire optimism.

Instructional support

Yes, a pay raise would likely be a great step towards turning the tide on turnover across Special Education. Unfortunately, salary increases are often not within the control of Special Education and Transition leaders.

According to the Fordham Institute, however, the average teacher would be willing to give up a 12.5% salary increase to gain full-time support from a paraprofessional. If full-time support of a co-teacher was offered? That number jumps to 16.6%. And under ESSA, paraprofessionals can tap into funds for professional development, alongside other school personnel, preparing them tomaximize their support of Special Education teachers.

In reality, the costs of bringing either a paraprofessional or co-teacher onboard are higher than what teachers are willing to forego salary-wise, and, again, creating positions may be beyond the realm of what Special Education and Transition leaders are able to do. Thus, alternatives for reducing the special education teacher turnover rate and are within these leaders’ purview become important to consider.

EdTech

High-quality, evidence-based technological solutions are one such alternative. As the US Department of Education Office of Educational Technology (OET) has underscored, educational technology is a resource to support personalized learning alongside offering other benefits. To support leaders in making decisions grounded in evidence when it comes to selecting the right education technology for their schools, OET offers an EdTech Evidence Toolkit complete with case studies and collaborative activities to turn guidance into action.

When budget constraints derail hiring or purchasing, schools can also consider leveraging one of the national service programs such as AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps Seniors, just as 12,000 schools nationwide already have, to provide additional support closing learning gaps and practicing important skills.

Looking for a highly effective EdTech Solution for transition?

Strengthened relationships

Research on teacher well-being indicates that chronically high levels of stress do not necessarily lead to special education teacher burnout. Considering relationship models helps to connect how student behavior, emotional experiences that bubble up everyday in classrooms, and interpersonal relationships can be beneficial or detrimental to any educators’ well-being.

A key difference between those educators who suffer burnout and those who do not? Recognition of the importance of their work.

Take conflicts that erupt and discipline issues that arise in any classroom. When dealing with these inevitabilities is seen as meaningful and valuable despite the stress they precipitate, such occurrences do not automatically contribute to teacher burnout.

Closer relationships and better understanding of students, their families, and communities enable teachers to see their positive impacts more clearly. Learner-centered practices like incorporating student voice and choice in instruction and decision-making and acknowledging individual student needs help nurture these relationships, not to mention increase students’ own motivations. Instructional materials that include Family Connection resources in print and digital formats as well as activities that extend learning at home can underscore the importance of classroom-home connections and make them a reality.

Professional development to support implementation of such learner-centered practices should accompany intentionally seeking culturally-relevant instructional materials that prioritize student choice and voice. This combination can support students in seeing themselves in what they are learning and connect families with lessons to bring what is learned home. Both set teachers up for success when it comes to building positive relationships and, ultimately, their important contributions to students’ lives.

Focused roles

Reducing administrative burdens and improving the efficiency of progress monitoring increase teachers’ bandwidth to focus on why they likely entered their profession in the first place: to teach. Again, education technology offers an important avenue for doing so, with features including:

  • automatic grading of answers to objective questions
  • ready-made communications with parents and caregivers
  • digital formats for learning materials that can be used as-is or quickly modified as needed
  • capabilities to generate progress reports to have in hand at IEP meetings, easily share with support staff, and capture evidence of compliance.

As we know, the high special education teacher turnover rate means that positions regularly go unfilled or are filled by teachers who are not highly qualified. In such cases instructional materials designed to minimize planning requirements and enable flexibility for use in classroom schedules become indispensable. Such materials are also valuable when educators and staff lack specific expertise in a particular subject area.

Encourage special educators’ self-care

Self-care plays an important role in special education teacher retention. Having a self-care toolbox helps ensure that, when in the classroom, teachers have the energy, enthusiasm, and creativity to be at their best. Thus, it is important to provide teachers with a variety of practices and encourage them to put them into action. For example:

  • Promote a daily practice of recording victories, large and small, personal and professional.
  • Encourage teachers to safeguard their lunch breaks and planning time and respect the lunch breaks and planning time of their colleagues. And, when this seems impossible on a regular basis, encourage them to advocate for themselves and listen when they do so.
  • Underscore the importance of each educator and staff member having a trusted individual, in or out of school, who is willing to listen, offer encouragement, and celebrate their students’ as well as their own personal growth.

Empower teachers with self-care practices during Professional Development, normalize accessing expert support when needed, and recognize that a day away to relax and recharge may be exactly what is needed.

When a day away is needed, provide classrooms with effective substitute teachers by offering professional development. Such training is currently available in just 11% of school districts despite nearly all students spending a year of their school careers with a substitute teacher by the time they graduate. Further maximize their effectiveness by adopting instructional materials that can be easily used “out of the box” even with less experience or subject-matter knowledge.

More on special education teacher turnover and retention

The national attrition rate for special education teachers is reported to be 13%, which is double the rate of general education teachers​​. Additionally, 14% of teachers, including those new to the profession, expressed a strong likelihood of quitting, indicative of a concerning trend within the field​​.

The exodus of special education teachers is driven by several factors. A critical driver is burnout, exacerbated by the intensive demands of the job and a lack of adequate support. This burnout is said to negatively impact Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals, contributing to a 40% experience of burnout among teachers​​. Additionally, special education teachers at high-poverty schools often have less specialized training, which further challenges their retention​​. A survey from Ohio also underscored that over 72% of K-12 teachers across the state are contemplating leaving their jobs due to various stressors, a sentiment likely echoed by special education teachers as well​​.

Teacher turnover has reached worrying levels in several states including Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington, with the South noted as having a nearly 17% annual turnover rate​​. Particularly, Wisconsin witnessed a significant spike in teacher turnover rates in 2023, reaching a 15.8% turnover rate during the 2022-23 school year, marking a concerning trend in teacher attrition within the state​.

Next steps in the battle for special education teacher retention

It is important for Special Education Directors and Transition Coordinators to recognize the positive impacts that are within their control when it comes to minimizing Special Education teacher turnover rates and, thereby, the opportunities they have to positively impact their students.

Share your successes and collaborate to innovate for the betterment of the Special Education community. Tap into resources, evidence, and expertise to shape your decisions. By working together, each of our students can reach their potential.

And remember: You are not alone!

Ori Learning is here to help. Our comprehensive Transition Solution serves students in Grades 6-12 and ages 18-22+ with mild and mild/moderate disabilities to develop critical hard and soft skills for college, career, and community success, encompassing:

  • Employment Readiness
  • Social Skills/Emotional Wellness (2 curriculum options)
  • Workplace Safety
  • Financial Literacy

All our solutions comprise Universal Design for Learning (UDL)-aligned instruction, assessment, and progress monitoring, enabling instructional delivery via a flexible learning model and an implementation plan tailored to specific district needs and goals. Student voice and choice is prioritized, as is encouraging families to reinforce learning at home. 

Curious to find out more?

Request a personalized demo of our platform today to see what Ori Learning can do for your school or district.

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Jon Izak

Jon Izak is the founder and CEO of Ori Learning.