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Why there’s a special education and STEM teacher shortage and what can be done

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(NEW YORK) — Jahsha Tabron, the 2022 Delaware teacher of the year, taught special education for more than two decades and cherished what she called the “winning moments” of growth in her students.

“[Where] you have a nonverbal student who is now able to speak in simple sentences … that’s why you stay,” she recently told ABC News.

But Tabron, now Brandywine High School’s dean of students in Wilmington, Delaware, said her field can be a tough sell for future candidates.

“When we’re talking about why we don’t have a lot of people joining the profession, we’re looking at the immense workload that comes along with being a special education teacher,” she said.

Tabron’s concern about a staffing shortage is widely shared. A nationwide survey conducted by ABC News this school year found that much of the country doesn’t have enough educators — and that in many cases, districts suffer from a lack of subject matter experts, too.

Two parts of the subject matter pool are particularly strained, according to local education officials: special education and science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

Teachers and experts who spoke with ABC News cited the need for more money for students with disabilities and those who educate them; inadequate diversity in STEM; and underwhelming pipeline and recruiting efforts, particularly in more rural districts and for teachers of color, as major obstacles.

Special education has always been one of the most underfunded yet vital teaching positions in public schools, the experts said — pointing to a perpetual desire for more financial support, either at the local or federal level, to help instructors doing such specialized work.

The experts said that STEM teachers are overwhelmingly white — according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 79% are non-Hispanic or white — even in public schools that are majority non-white, so they do not adequately reflect the students they teach, which creates an added pressure on bringing in more candidates. There’s also a focus on increasing diversity in special education instruction.

By the numbers

For a recent report on teacher staffing across the country, ABC News reached out by phone and email to the overarching education departments in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

At least 40 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands — 42 out of 53 surveyed — reported ongoing teaching shortages.

According to an updated analysis, conducted this spring, the most acute shortages are in special education and STEM teachers.

Those findings are reinforced by research from NCES’ School Pulse Panel, which started collecting information during the summer of 2021 to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and educators.

The monthly NCES survey found 78% of K-12 public school principals reported that it was somewhat or very “difficult” to fill a position with a fully certified teacher for special education at the beginning of the current school year. About three-fourths of public schools also reported it was somewhat or very difficult to staff physical science (78%) and mathematics (75%) teachers.

ABC News’ reporting found that 31 state education associations, agencies and departments identified special education challenges as one of their greatest needs during the 2022-2023 school year.

What’s more, over the course of the school year, almost a third of the country — or 17 state education agencies — also told ABC News one of their greatest challenges has been filling teaching positions in STEM.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a speech last year that collaboration is the key to raising the bar for education across America. He also spoke of teacher shortages in bilingual education, special education and STEM — saying they impact low-income and students of color the most.

‘We have a real problem’

The federal government’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) recognizes that many states are facing staffing challenges and is committed to trying to fix the system as a whole, according to OSEP Director Valerie Williams.

“There’s data to support that we have a real problem,” Williams told ABC News. “Going forward, we’re going to aim to focus not just on increasing the numbers but also on diversification of the profession and finding ways for how we can get people from minority backgrounds interested in becoming teachers and get them into the pipeline.”

President Joe Biden’s 2024 budget proposal — which has been criticized by conservatives for, they say, reducing economic growth by bloating the government — is touted by supporters as addressing the gap in special education teachers, “investing $304 million to train and retain [them], specialized instructional support personnel, and paraprofessionals,” according to a Department of Education spokesperson.

A recent House Republican proposal to reduce federal government spending has been criticized, too, though conservatives have pushed back on claims it would cut school funding — calling that made up.

Tabron, in Delaware, said special education is one of the most challenging positions in a school as it not only has general instruction responsibilities but also juggles needs and disciplines that most teachers don’t face.

“It’s not regular teaching,” she said. “You have special ed teachers who are doing the regular part of teaching, which is the planning instruction, the differentiation, the accommodations and modifications. But in addition to just that part of your job as a special education teacher, you are also responsible for creating individualized education plans (IEP) for all of your students.”

She described special education teachers as akin to scientists, because they’re required to know how their students’ brains work.

During the onset of COVID-19, many teachers’ workloads were exacerbated by school closures and remote teaching, Tabron said. Now, she said, those who have stayed are working with the same amount of pre-pandemic resources — but their role has expanded to account for a recent increase in students who see the value of IEPs and special services.

“There was a need for special education teachers before the pandemic,” Tabron said. “The need just increased afterwards.”

‘Our country really needs to step it up’

Connecticut science teacher Carolyn Kielma is raising awareness around the challenges in STEM staffing, too. The self-described “STEMinist” said all it takes is for people to have a drive and passion for teaching.

“Our country really needs to step it up in those careers if we’re going to have productive citizens in the future,” the 2023 National Teacher of the Year finalist said. “All students are gifted and all students have special needs. It’s our job to figure out what those gifts are and what those needs are and marry them into the best lesson plan.”

Experts, though, have told ABC News the STEM shortage is a “crisis.” They said not only is the field missing teachers but there’s also a dearth of aspiring applicants.

“We don’t have enough people [in general] going into STEM careers, and so the downstream effect of that is we don’t have enough STEM teachers,” said Arthur Mitchell, executive director of the STEM Equity Alliance.

Education advocates told ABC News that college graduates with education degrees have been declining for years. The University of California at Los Angeles’ Cooperative Institutional Research Program found only 4.3% of U.S. college freshmen intended to major in education in 2018, compared to 11% in 2000.

Mitchell said the absence of young teachers is hurting STEM teaching categories. However, he believes there’s a “neglect” problem in higher education and that institutions have to fully commit to recruitment and outreach.

“We’re looking for those who have an interest in STEM education and nurturing that,” said Mitchell, whose STEM Equity Alliance serves as a pipeline for teacher education. “And, by and large, there have been no concerted efforts — national concerted efforts — and very few statewide or local efforts to really put more STEM teachers in classrooms.”

Another problem? Rural areas are underserved

Upon graduation many teachers are hesitant to explore rural parts of the U.S., according to education officials around the country.

Colorado’s state education talent unit said that geographical barriers are straining their most rural, and already struggling, districts.

“Math and special education shortages can affect rural areas more acutely,” Colorado’s Associate Commissioner of Educator Talent Colleen O’Neil told ABC News in a statement.

“[Rural parts] sometimes have no candidates at all that apply for a position,” she added.

Along the Pacific coast, Siskiyou County’s Allan Carver said his district also faces these roadblocks because it is in the “sticks” of Northern California.

“There’s not a lot of people who want to live way out here where there’s no Walmart and those sorts of things,” said Carver, the Siskiyou Office of Education superintendent.

Working with a limited pool is something Southeast Arkansas Education Service Cooperative Director Karen Eoff understands as well as Carver.

According to the state’s department of education, Arkansas faces its worst staffing shortages in secondary math and secondary science. But from elementary education on up, Eoff said all subjects in the rural parts of her state are impacted.

“Keeping and attracting young people to this area is a problem — we have the largest teacher shortage in Arkansas,” Eoff, who oversees 15 school districts, told ABC News.

More — and more diverse — pipeline programs needed

Experts interviewed for this story suggested pipeline programs could be the key to preparing teachers to enter the field in the years to come.

Reach University, a job-embedded teacher apprenticeship program, has been one solution for places like rural Arkansas and California, which are far from their state’s largest institutions for training future educators.

In both Southeast Arkansas and in Siskiyou County in California, Reach University said it did an extensive analysis to define current vacancies by grade level and subject, across all open positions. In Siskiyou, they found slightly elevated vacancies in elementary education and math. Special education is “always” a constant need in his district, according to Carver.

“We’ve got to figure out how to take people who are already happy being in schools and help them become our teachers,” Carver said. “The Reach model, with the apprenticeship, was just a home run for us.”

Eoff’s office has used Reach since the beginning of the current school year to stem its shortages. Now, she said, it has 20 paraprofessional staffers in an apprenticeship.

“Reach has been one of our best tools because of the support, affordability, the ‘come alongside and we will help you’ approach,” Eoff said.

In response to former President Barack Obama’s 2011 call to increase the STEM teacher pool by 100,000 in a decade, education nonprofit Beyond100K used “radical collaboration” with more than 300 organizations to exceed that benchmark. The group said it helped prepare 108,000 STEM teachers — and counting — with a new target of 150,000 by 2032.

Part of Beyond100K’s focus, according to its 2022 trends report, is to add more teachers of color to reflect the students in their classrooms, especially Black, Latino and Native American teachers.

​”The work that we are doing now is very focused on racial equity and on creating belonging for teachers and for students,” Amber Hamilton, Beyond100K’s chief external officer, said.

Eoff, in Arkansas, stressed how instilling that sense of belonging into students of all ages and backgrounds will hopefully guide more candidates to the field.

“I think that the earlier we encourage kids to believe they can, in STEM programs, the better,” she said.

Meanwhile, as responsibilities from the pandemic grow, STEM and special education professionals agree the shortages will persist if more isn’t done to help them win.

“I think that would be awesome to ask teachers what they really need,” Tabron said. “Imagine someone asking you: What would make you happier here? What can I do to support you? Just you listening to that — I think would change my performance.”

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