Special Education Teachers In Demand Opportunity to make a positive impact

03/30/2013  |  DENNIS L. McELHOE, PH.D. and EVELYN WINGATE, M.P.A.
advanced degrees in education

As our nation continues to struggle with low student achievement, particularly in reading, math and science, articles can readily be found on nearly a daily basis in professional publications, newspapers and on the Internet discussing the need for expanding the number of teachers qualified in STEM education. While it is, of course, vital to the nation’s future to investigate ways to raise the overall achievement levels of our schools, it’s important to also consider the field of special education, which over the past three decades experienced growth in the population of students with special education needs that far outpaced the rate of growth in the general population of K-12 students nationwide.

Special education encompasses a number of areas related to physical, emotional or mental disabilities. Among the most recognizable areas of Special Education are Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), due to a nearly 600 percent increase in children diagnosed with autism over the past dozen years, and Academically and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) which refers to children who demonstrate the ability to perform at exceptionally high levels of accomplishment academically in comparison to their peers and therefore receive accelerated instructional services, but because of social or emotional issues may also require some remedial services.

Although it is estimated that 10 to 15 percent of K-12 students in the United States are currently participating in some level of special education activity, in recent years the number of children identified with special education needs has actually declined somewhat as states have begun to implement intervention initiatives designed not only to identify students at-risk, but also institute strategies designed for full classroom inclusion thanks to enhanced instructional strategies. As a result, children who were previously referred to special services are joining their general population classmates, or depending on the severity of their disability, provided with individualized instruction.

However, Dr. Lee Sherry, Chair of the Department of Special Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, noted that while integration into the general population is proving to be effective, the explosive growth in the number of students identified as having autism has unfortunately been accompanied by a high turnover among special education teachers — the highest in K-12 education — many of whom exit the field before reaching their fifth year in the classroom, further compounding the ever increasing demand for qualified personnel. Although children diagnosed with mild forms of autism may receive their instruction in the general classroom, their inclusion requires general educators to become knowledgeable of the instructional strategies and practices needed to successfully work with these students. Combined the previously discussed high turnover among special educators, the need for teachers qualified to work with students with special needs is critical.

Additionally, the requirements of “No Child Left Behind” have resulted in significant reductions in the number of lateral entry and regional alternative licensing centers as school districts throughout the nation hire fewer and fewer teachers who are not qualified as special educators. Combined with the retirement of the Baby Boom generation, Dr. Sherry predicts that the shortage of special educators will become acute in coming years.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Job Outlook predicts that employment opportunities in the field will grow by at least 17 percent though the end of this decade. Without significant growth in the number of qualified teachers, parents of students with special education needs could find their children increasingly being taught by inexperienced teachers or those who hold only a provisional teaching license.

Of course, every good teacher began his or her career with little or no experience and many who began their careers with provisional licenses have gone on to become great teachers. While ideally all teachers are committed to make a positive difference in the lives of their students, the role of special educator has typically required more research — validated education and training at the graduate level in order to achieve a positive impact on students with special needs.

The role of the special educator is itself evolving from one of specialization, focusing on remediation by type of disability, to one that focuses on the student and his or her specific learning and behavioral needs as well as life skills. Licensures that were previously category specific e.g. Learning Disabilities, Cognitive Disabilities and Emotional/Behavioral Disabilities are being replaced throughout the nation by generic licensure categories such as Mild/Moderate, Severe/Profound, and General/Adaptive. Combined with the ever increasing demand for special educators, this more generalist approach expands ever greater the opportunities for those interested in entering the field and while a career as a special educator isn’t for everyone, for those who choose the field, the experience can be very satisfying. Additionally, the increased identification of those with Autism Spectrum Disorder has broadened the teaching requirements for not only special educators but the general classroom teacher as well, making the demand for educational opportunities at the graduate level even greater.

Although most of those admitted into a master or graduate certificate program in Special Education at UNC Charlotte are currently employed teachers or traditional graduate students, a growing number of those admitted are working adults with educational backgrounds in psychology, human services and communications among other fields, seeking a second career and an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of students with special needs. Many come to our programs with a current master degree and are seeking their second or hold a current baccalaureate in education and are pursuing a graduate certificate. With an average age of 36, these individuals bring a wealth of real life experiences that when combined with the experiences they will gain in their graduate certificate or master programs can truly make a positive impact in their newly chosen career.

Colleges and universities throughout the nation are committed to providing quality graduate degree and certificate programs to meet their states’ special education teacher licensing standards and the individualized needs of special populations within public and private schools. As we’ve discussed here, the need for qualified educators is great and that need will continue to grow for quite some time. In light of the continuing and expanding demand for highly qualified special educators, institutions increasingly are offering their programs completely online or via hybrid delivery, providing opportunities for those living in remote areas of the nation or who are working full-time to successfully complete their studies in this vital area of K-12 Education.

For those interested in truly making a positive impact on the lives of our nation’s young people, whether they are current educators seeking new challenges or second career seekers looking for a way to make a truly positive difference, the field of special education provides excellent and diverse opportunities. The time is now, the need is great. Why wait?

Dennis McElhoe Ph.D. is Director, Credit Programs at UNC Charlotte. Evelyn Wingate, M.P.A is Associate Director of Credit Programs at UNC Charlotte. For more information www.distanceed.uncc.edu
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