The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted an ongoing shortage of special education teachers. An insufficient number of teachers have entered the field in recent years, and schools struggle to retain qualified professionals.
College of Education and Human Development assistant professor Allison Gilmour, PhD, is working to address these challenges through her research.
Gilmour, who was trained as a special education teacher, became interested in the quality of teaching through her own experiences in the classroom. "Students weren't adequately prepared," she said. "They weren't getting the services they needed because they had never had a teacher who was adequately prepared."
Now, Gilmour's research examines who becomes a special educator, where shortages are most pronounced, and what factors relate to the production and retention of qualified teachers. Understanding these issues can help improve outcomes and services for students with disabilities.
One recent study Gilmour co-authored with Temple student Justin Harper and graduate Nicholas Galea, EDU '20, examined trends in special education teachers' completion of qualified training programs. Although long-term trends suggest more people have completed special education programs on average, more recent years have seen a declining number of program completers. Additionally, the production of qualified special education teachers varies substantially by state.
According to Gilmour, "We have a real pipeline issue in which people are not going into teaching."
The aforementioned study suggests that these challenges may reflect educational policy changes that have increased expectations for teacher quality but threatened job security. As a result, prospective teachers may be less likely to enter the field. However, some states and districts are implementing initiatives such as financial incentives and improved training and resources that could potentially promote the successful recruitment of qualified special education teachers.
In another recent study, Gilmour and colleagues examined how changes in special education teachers' roles and responsibilities relate to attrition, finding that attrition decreased over time. Cooperation among teachers and strong administrative support were associated with lower levels of attrition.
Currently, Gilmour is investigating the relationship between special education teacher turnover and teacher quality. Recent findings have suggested that although teacher turnover rates have remained relatively stable, estimates may fail to account for special educators who transition to teaching in general education.
Together, Gilmour's research highlights key concerns related to special education preparation and retention. She emphasized two key research-informed takeaways: "First, when there is high special educator turnover, students with disabilities likely are not getting access to the services they need. Second, addressing this issue cannot be a quick fix."
Although states and districts have been attempting to address teacher shortages through financial incentives, research suggests that this approach will not be sufficient on its own. According to Gilmour, "The conditions in which teachers work also matter."
Consequently, Gilmour suggests a multi-pronged approach to supporting teachers. "We have to think about how their jobs are shaped within the school. That's something we've done really poorly."
This multi-pronged approach should not only take into account teachers' salaries, but also working conditions and opportunities for additional training and certification, mentorship, and professional development. There is also a need to recruit and train more teachers of color and people who will teach in their home communities. "People stay in teaching positions a lot longer if it's in the community that they are from," Gilmour observed.
Gilmour points to programs like the Temple Teacher Residency, which provides intensive training for members of the Philadelphia community, helping them develop the skills that will prepare them to teach in the city's highest-need schools.
The research on special education teacher recruitment and retention has helped to identify many important next steps that can help resolve educator shortages. However, Gilmour notes the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have exacerbated challenges for both students and teachers in ways that have implications for future research and practice.
"It's going to take a combination of policy interventions, different types of training programs, and thinking about the working conditions for special educators in schools to address this issue." Temple's ongoing efforts to train special educators so that they can provide high quality instruction in local communities support these needs in ways that will benefit both teachers and students.