ERIC Identifier: ED455660
Publication Date: 2001-06-00
Author: Coleman, Mary Ruth
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Disabilities and Gifted Education Arlington VA.
Conditions of Teaching Children with Exceptional Learning
Needs: The Bright Futures Report. ERIC Digest E613.
In the school year 1996-97, approximately 4,000 special education teaching
positions remained unfilled in the United States, and nearly 33,000 positions
were staffed by teachers not fully qualified in special education (US Department
of Education, 1999). Special education teachers leave the field at about twice
the rate of their general education counterparts (Cook & Boe, 1998). Because
this situation has a direct impact on the quality of services delivered to
students with special needs, attracting and keeping qualified special education
teachers has become a major concern to the education community. This digest
summarizes the findings of a study commissioned by the Council for Exceptional
Children (CEC) to identify the variables that affect a special education
teacher's ability to succeed and desire to continue in the field.
THE BRIGHT FUTURES REPORT
In 1998, CEC appointed a
Presidential Commission on the Conditions of Special Education Teaching and
Learning. Its charge was twofold:
* Identify the obstacles and barriers that obstruct high quality teaching,
* Develop an action agenda to ensure that every student with exceptional
learning needs is taught under optimal conditions for learning.
Because children with exceptionalities are taught in a variety of settings by
a variety of educational personnel, stakeholders for this study included both
general and special educators. A pilot web survey was posted, focus groups were
held across the country, a major literature review was completed, and a national
survey was conducted to identify current conditions.
VARIABLES THAT AFFECT A TEACHER'S ABILITY TO
Several themes that influence the conditions of teaching were
identified. A sense of collegiality and professionalism, an environment of open
and frequent communication, a climate of support, the availability of resources,
and a clarity of roles and responsibilities all contribute to a sense of
satisfaction for a job well done.
SPECIFIC BARRIERS THAT OBSTRUCT QUALITY PERFORMANCE
addition to these themes, specific aspects of teaching students with
exceptionalities include caseloads (class size and composition), paperwork, and
time for planning or collaboration.
Caseload (class size and composition) was the primary concern of special
education teachers. Teachers reported that being assigned a large number of
students, combined with an extended caseload for consultation with students
whose primary placement is in general education, has made their job
overwhelming. General education class sizes are in some cases smaller than those
in special education. Often, one teacher is expected to teach multiple subjects,
on multiple grade levels, to students with multiple exceptionalities. It is not
unusual for a special education teacher to prepare more than 50 lessons per day
to address her students' direct instructional needs (Coleman, 2000).
It is not surprising that paperwork was the second major concern for special
education teachers, for it follows directly from the issue of caseload and class
size. The typical length of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for students
with exceptional learning needs is between eight and sixteen pages, and IEPs are
just the tip of the iceberg. Extended paperwork involves much more, including
forms for the system or state, minutes from all meetings, reports for students
who are evaluated but not placed, medical assistance applications, telephone
logs, progress reports, notes to parents, curriculum reports, discipline
records, child abuse reports, applications for vocational services, and
transition plans. It takes special education teachers between one and two days
per week just to manage the paper trail. With all this paperwork, the need for
technology and clerical support is acute, yet special education teachers report
that they are often the last to receive computers and rarely have the
Time for consultation and planning was also ranked as one of the top three
concerns for special education teachers. Special educators report feeling
isolated--there are few opportunities to collaborate with colleagues and time
for consultation and planning is non-existent. The growing number of students
with exceptionalities being served in general education classrooms has magnified
this frustration. Logic would have it that the students with the most intense
needs would receive the most concentrated forms of "team" planning,
communication, and collaboration to meet those needs. For students with
exceptionalities, however, this is not the case.
An extension of this issue is the importance of administrative support. When
administrators are knowledgeable and supportive, teachers feel that their load
has been lightened, but when this is not the case, problems emerge. The findings
from the survey showed that the teachers' perspectives differed significantly
from that of administrators on all of the dimensions assessed. Teachers reported
greater concerns, more frustration, and a growing sense that their plight is not
understood. Administrators were much more positive regarding the conditions of
teaching, essentially indicating that things are not that bad. This finding was
troublesome in part because teachers who leave the field cite a lack of
administrative understanding of and support for their work as a key factor in
their decision to leave.
THE GROWING GAP BETWEEN EXPECTATIONS AND RESOURCES
the major difficulties teachers face today is that their roles are changing in
response to the demands of a rapidly changing society and profession. Teachers
are facing expectations of greater collaboration, parent and student counseling,
and demands for content knowledge and accountability for students' learning. As
these changes unfold, there is a growing sense of urgency focused on the need to
prepare teachers for the new expectations. A reasonable response to this would
be to provide intense, ongoing personnel preparation, both pre- and in-service,
and for both general and special educators. Teachers report, however, that
little is being done. "Being unprepared" to meet the needs of students continues
to be a frequently cited reason for teacher attrition.
Teachers cannot do their best work without the appropriate tools. Both
special and general education teachers report that they often lack specialized
resources and materials for students with exceptional learning needs. To make up
for this deficit, teachers spend an average of $500 of their own money per year
on classroom supplies and materials. The need for high-quality, content-focused,
research-supported materials for teaching students with exceptional learning
needs is critical if students are to successfully master important curriculum.
While expectations of teachers have changed radically, little is being done
to prepare or support teachers to meet these demands. These issues are not
simple and there is no simple solution:
* General education teachers report growing numbers of students with
exceptionalities in their classes with little to no time for collaborative
planning with special education teachers;
* Teachers report feeling inadequately prepared to meet the needs of students
with exceptionalities, yet personnel preparation opportunities are limited;
* Paperwork is overwhelming special educators, yet they are the last to
receive the technology and clerical support needed;
* The role of special education teachers has changed and pre-service programs
have not kept pace;
* Students with exceptionalities are expected to master more of the general
curriculum-at higher levels-yet most special educators report little content
* The range and intensity of students' needs has increased, yet little has
been done to systematically support teachers in meeting these needs.
* The shortage of qualified special education teachers is critical, yet state
licensing processes are riddled with problems, creating major obstacles with
CREATING CONDITIONS THAT PROMOTE SUCCESSFUL SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHING
Creating conditions that allow students with exceptionalities to
be most successful will take a concerted and coordinated effort. The Commission
called upon the educational community to become partners in assuring three
outcomes: First, that every student with exceptionalities will receive
individualized services and support from a caring and competent professional.
Second, that every special and general educator has the teaching and learning
conditions to practice effectively. And third, that every instructional leader
establishes clear expectations for the use of effective and validated
instructional practices. To achieve this vision, the following recommendations
* Define the roles of special and general educators relative to students with
* Create the context for high-quality practice
* Leverage time with technology tools and clerical support to reduce the
* Standardize decision-making processes
* Create a career continuum in special education
* Develop cohesive professional licensure systems
* Provide systems supports.
The United States is facing a crisis in attracting and retaining qualified
special education teachers. This situation has a direct impact on the quality of
services delivered to students with special needs. By identifying the conditions
that obstruct quality performance and drive teachers from the field, the Bright
Futures Report has laid the groundwork for addressing this crisis.
Internet resources cited in this document were
current at the time of publication. Please note that Web addresses are subject
Coleman, M. R. (2000, October). Conditions for special education teaching:
CEC Commission technical report. Available online at http://www.cec.sped.org.
Cook, L. H. & Boe, E. E. (1998). How many qualified teachers are needed
for students with disabilities? Reston, VA: Available from the National
Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education (NCPSE), 1110 North Glebe
Road, Suite 300, Arlington, VA 22201-5704 (800-641-7824).
Council for Exceptional Children. (1999). Bright futures for exceptional
learners: An agenda to achieve quality conditions for teaching and learning.
Reston, VA: Available from the Council for Exceptional Children, 1110 North
Glebe Road, Suite 300, Arlington, VA 22201-5704 (800-CEC-SPED).