What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 4)

This final piece focuses on the more immediate future. All three previous pieces (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) describe future scenarios in which special education teachers might become marginalized by policy or technology. These changes could be coming, but not just yet. Special education teachers will continue to have a vital and familiar role in schools for many years.

The Horizon Remains Distant

Those seeking to teach students with disabilities will find opportunities.

1. Jobs still are available.

Schools continue to hire special education teachers—plenty of them. Special education is a high-needs area and by most accounts will remain that way long enough for several cohorts of college graduates to find jobs. What about all those factors set to affect the role of special education teachers? They’re coming, but something else is happening and isn’t likely to stop: turnover.

Special education is a demanding career. People quit. Certain schools with large proportions of students receiving services are difficult places to work. More people quit in these schools. Certainly, new positions are created per population growth and a corresponding growth in students needing services, but turnover allows for positions to be available even after being filled just a year or two earlier. Add to this the apparently shrinking pool of undergraduates seeking to become teachers and you have a market in which jobs continue to be out there.

Safeguards exist, too. Thanks to teacher-student ratio mandates on caseloads, many special education positions are protected from budget cuts. In some states, special education teachers are hired from a different budget than general education teachers, which additionally helps to protect these positions. Unless these ratios change through legislation, many positions will be protected out of legal necessity.

Finally, don’t forget about the Baby Boomers who are retiring. That wave started a few years ago. Members of Generation X are still a long way off from retirement, but many have left the field by now out of frustration, leaving positions available for younger candidates and second-career types.

2. Schools will be slow to make changes.

Little happens quickly in schools. They aren’t known for being crucibles of change. Education law has a way of reacting to issues rather than anticipating them, and schools have a way of dragging themselves to comply with laws. If something is a recommendation rather than a mandate, don’t count on schools subscribing to it with any haste. For example, RtI models have existed for decades at this point and some schools are just now beginning to explore how to use these. Thus, some of the changing services I described in Part 1 aren’t going to materialize anytime soon in a way that drastically will cut into hiring. Delivery models will remain as they’ve been in many districts well into the next decade.

3. Students continue being identified.

Specific disability categories under IDEA have been growing, especially autism and other health impairments (ADHD falls under OHI). Questions remain as to whether these increases are due to actual increases in proportionate incidence, better evaluation tools, or overreactions by evaluating teams. Meanwhile, for every parent who opposes an evaluation because of a concern for the stigma identification might bring, another demands an evaluation and wants every possible service. Often the parent is right and the child needs something the school has been reluctant to provide. Other times, schools concede and placate the parents to avoid further legal entanglement. 

The reasons don’t matter for special education teachers looking for positions. They just need to know that growth (or at least stability) in identification means more potential teaching positions, even if these are with highly specific populations. 

4. And charters remain an option.

Those who want to teach students with disabilities do need to consider all the places where those students receive services. Urban districts have larger than average special needs populations, thus more special education jobs. Charter schools are most common in urban areas. Over the next decade, a larger percentage of the total population will attend charters. Prospective special education teachers willing to keep all options open must remember this.

I make no claim that this series of possibilities is exhaustive or certain. Some of it seems quite likely, but how any of it plays out could be much different than expected. Feel free to comment with any other ideas about what special education teachers might face in the near or not-so-near future.

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 4)

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 3)

In Part 3, I cover broader societal changes, some wrought by technology, that could alter the field and the role of special education teachers. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Long-Term Dynamics

Each of these starts somewhat small before ballooning.

7. As special education becomes more rote, teachers might decreasingly fit the scheme.

Visit a few special education classrooms and be prepared to see something potentially surprising. Students are likely to be using very dry, mechanical direct instruction reading interventions. Programs such as Corrective Reading and DISTAR are common phonics-based interventions for students with IEPs. This isn’t a matter of policy, but might lead to a different kind of change than those in Part 1.

Schools like to use direct instruction programs because they’re research-based and relatively cost effective. Many current special education teachers spend all day, every day “teaching” these explicitly scripted lessons. Does a person need a Bachelor’s degree to run a Corrective Reading lesson? Probably not. The programs require some skill to administer, but many paraeducators could do this for less. Some schools have gone that way already. Certified teachers still need to be in the room—for now.

Meanwhile, electronic programs such as IXL and Fast ForWord provide repeated practice and immediate feedback that benefit students with disabilities. Crucially, they require scant facilitation. In districts across the country, students with IEPs spend hours per week drilling on such programs. They don’t completely replace special education teachers—for now.

Why “for now?” These rote programs might continue to be the standard in special education indefinitely. Sooner or later, some elected officials and DOE bean counters will realize certified teachers aren’t needed for implementation. If paraeducators can run these programs with similar results and computer-based programs can do the same with an adult in the room to maintain order, will such considerations influence federal and state decisions about teacher-student ratios and the need for highly qualified special education teachers? Could not there be one or two technicians hired to write all the IEPs (implemented by general education teachers anyway) while the interventions are handled with large groups as described above? Wouldn’t this have great appeal in big-box schools? I guess we’ll see.

8. Special education becomes more remote.

Parents seeking to have their children with disabilities attend the safest, most controlled school environment can elect home as that environment. Various software, applications, and even cyber charter schools have enhanced homeschooling options. Cyber charters in particular have become popular among parents of children with disabilities. Special education teachers continue to be sought for distance education, but as software like that described in 7. becomes more intuitive and responsive, teacher-student ratios could grow. Uncertified tutors eventually might replace teachers in these scenarios.

9. Automation greatly alters the job market for students with disabilities.

Automation will benefit people with severe disabilities by making some services more accessible. It has the potential to increase autonomy, at least for people with physical and sensory disabilities. Technology in general has helped make the workforce more accessible to individuals with disabilities, but the next wave of automation could be different. Although the actual outcome is pending, it might create some new jobs in the wake of those it eliminates. The problem lies with the latter. Automated systems are poised to wipe out thousands of entry-level jobs currently available to students with mild learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, and autism. Adults with such disabilities already face limited job prospects. The concept of a universal wage might not be that much of a shift for them.

What does this have to do with teachers? There could be an acknowledgement as students with mild disabilities fail to find traditional entry-level employment that vocational education must change. Special education teachers will need to teach skills they haven’t traditionally taught, such as coding. While this is happening in some schools and is part of a history of shifts in response to markets, it presents another case of special education teachers being somewhat behind the content they’re expected to teach.

The changes described in 7. and 8. also relate to automation. Special education teachers might feel nervous as they see how effective and efficient advances in learning software are and will continue to be.

10. Advances in genetics change the incidence of disabilities.

Whether or not anyone wants this to happen, it will: genetic conditions that cause disabilities will be amendable. Parents will be able to deselect certain genetic anomalies, possibly leading to their elimination. If parents could nix the possibility of a child having a disability, wouldn’t they make that choice? Would it be unethical not to? The ethics of this are in dispute, including what message such desires send to people who have conditions targeted for deletion.

In a generation, special education teachers—especially those working with low-incidence populations—could see far fewer students per such advancements. Ironically, medical science had been allowing students with the most severe disabilities to attend school. The future could see a reversal as conditions are deselected. This might not stop at severe disabilities. Imagine if parents had the option of deselecting some trait found to increase the likelihood of ADHD or dyslexia. There is little reason to believe they wouldn’t. One might wonder who would be left to receive special education, or if definitions of disabilities would shift.

I have one more installment. It will detail some points that might actually help special education teachers, at least in the short term.

 

 

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 3)

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 2)

This installment continues my discussion of what special education teachers might face in the coming years. Part 2 examines larger scale changes to policy and protocol. See the first part here.

Changing Conditions

Working conditions for special education teachers will be shaped by forces beyond the walls of schools.

4. Defunding reduces resources.

Anyone aware of special education’s history knows that IDEA has been funded at a fraction of what originally had been envisioned. As of this writing, IDEA has not lost funding per the first budget of the Trump era. That doesn’t mean the current Department of Education won’t look for roundabout ways to scale back IDEA in the coming years. Should this happen, money available for interventions, testing materials, and even paraprofessional support could be in jeopardy. Such cuts are speculative right now, though. Cuts to Title II, which would affect funding for professional development rather immediately, are less speculative. Also quite real are attempts by state departments of education to cap percentages of students receiving services (Texas, for example).

5. Paths to certification become muddier.

The traditional path to teacher certification has included a Bachelor’s program in education (getting certified through a Master’s program could count here as well). This path has splintered to include alternates available through online universities and what amount to be internships or residencies through organizations such as Teach for America or Relay. Urban districts have been offering emergency certification paths for years in states that will condone these. Some states allow charters to employ high percentages of uncertified teachers or teachers with non-traditional types of certifications.

These paths still result in certifications, but they could change prospects for teachers following traditional paths. Those teachers going the way of a Bachelor’s in education might find themselves getting pinched out of jobs in schools that rely heavily on alternate certification paths to fill vacancies (think large urban districts and charter schools). This affects all teachers, but since urban schools employ a disproportionately large number of special education teachers, it hits them hardest.

In the same category would be the relative complexity of that traditional path. Some states have made certification more complicated and specific for special education teachers in recent years. This increase is meant to act as a filter, ensuring high-quality teacher candidates. It has worked too well in some colleges of education, resulting in a dearth of students making it to teacher candidacy. The testing requirements alone have caused some universities to consider shuttering their teacher preparation programs per the low number of students passing the tests.

6. Continued legal strife makes the field unwieldy.

The past few years have seen a decrease in the number of special education cases going to due process. Much of that drop has resulted from significant drops in a handful of specific states, but it’s still a drop. Schools could be getting better at complying with IDEA and various state regulations. Parents also might be catching on to the lack of actual damages that can be recouped through due process (in other words, they don’t get a cash settlement, which surprisingly isn’t obvious to all parents).

This doesn’t mean special education is now free of consternation. Consider the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County Schools and the prospect of reexamining educational benefit. The precedent set by this case seems poised to give parents more opportunities to apply pressure to schools on issues of service and progress. Schools could find themselves tripping over this precedent for years as they struggle to figure out how to satisfy educational benefit for low-incidence students. Attorneys representing parents are likely grinning. Administrators and special education teachers should be at least somewhat wary. The risk of inadvertently discriminating against a student isn’t going away.

In the next section, I’ll talk about broader societal and even scientific changes that could rock the very existence of special education.

What Does the Future Hold for Special Education Teachers? (Part 2)