November 27 — 12:00 am, 2003

Teacher vacancies a problem for special education students

Although the 2003-2004 school year began with a host of new programs designed to address teacher shortages in Philadelphia, children in special education are confronting significant numbers of vacant special education teaching positions this fall.

Despite heightened efforts to recruit and retain teachers and avoid midyear vacancies, the number of vacant special education positions in the District is up slightly this November compared to last (21 vacancies compared to 18), according to District data.

Among the 21 vacant positions, the District’s vacancy list showed 14 open special education positions in District-managed schools and seven more in the schools managed by outside education management organizations, or EMOs.

Historic problems of turnover have continued to plague EMO-run schools. In November 2002, according to District figures, there were six unfilled special education positions in the 219 schools under District management. By contrast, there were 12 vacant special education teacher slots in the 45 EMO schools. In other words, more than one out of every four privately managed schools was lacking a special education teacher last fall.

While special education vacancies at EMO schools are down this fall, the overall rate is still higher in these privately managed schools. As of November 15, for-profit school manager Edison Schools Inc. still had a total of five special education vacancies at its 20 Philadelphia schools.

Alternative teacher certification programs like Teach For America, Transition to Teaching, and ACT are one way to ease pressing teacher shortages. These programs provide opportunities for college graduates from non-education fields to teach after or while completing teacher training.

This fall, new teachers from the Teach For America program are filling 15 special education positions.

"Special education is an area of high needs in our District, and any support from an organization such as Teach For America is greatly welcomed," said Tomas Hanna, the School District’s chief of teacher recruitment and retention. "The District is committed to ensuring the success of these teachers and ultimately the success of their students."

Unfortunately, this use of alternative certified teachers may not be entirely good news for special education students, who need teachers with more, not less, specialized preparation and experience.

Len Rieser, co-director of the Education Law Center, pointed out, "Every year, we get complaints from parents who have discovered that their child’s special education teacher is new to the profession. These can be difficult classes to teach, and brand-new teachers are at a disadvantage, especially since there is often not a lot of support."

The challenges faced by new teachers may be heightened for those entering the classroom through non-traditional programs. Mary Mikus, a special education advocate and parent, stated, "Especially with behavioral issues, underprepared teachers are not fully equipped to understand the disability that may underlie the behavior and select the appropriate response."

She added that these teachers may not understand all the legal issues, including writing IEPs, or have the preparation to work well with families.

In the report Once and For All, an analysis of teacher quality in Philadelphia by local nonprofit group Research for Action, the authors agree: "Alternative certification programs particularly ill-serve special education students who need well-prepared specialists, not newcomers who are less than fully trained, no matter how well-meaning they may be."

Other strategies to address the shortage in special education are critical. Hanna noted that the School District is still offering bonuses to special education teachers as well as additional mentoring through the Office of Specialized Services. He also said he is hopeful that a partnership with West Chester University and expanded recruitment efforts will result in the hiring of more certified special education teachers.

In the meantime, special education students remain at a disadvantage. This reality should be a "call to arms" for parents and caregivers of special education children.

This is a time to question who is teaching these students and what materials they are using in the classroom. Schools, instructors, and District leaders need to hear your voice, guidance, experience, and advocacy to best serve this underserved, and at times overlooked, population.

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