Finding a fix for Michigan’s special education teacher shortage
- Michigan school districts are struggling to find special education teachers, a problem national in scope
- Some states, notably Hawaii, have found success by offering higher pay for teachers in this specialty
- A state-appointed group is working on ideas to lessen barriers for college students hoping to enter the field
Michigan schools have long complained of a shortage of teachers in different specialties, but the problem is particularly acute in special education.
Across much of the state, the lack of staffing has resulted in teachers with no special education credentials instructing students with disabilities.
“I don't think people realize the urgency and how critical this is right now,” said Jeff Reinelt, a special education supervisor at the Cheboygan-Otsego-Presque Isle ESD at the northern tip of the lower peninsula.
“And it makes me uncomfortable because we have kids that have severe needs. And we have staff, (who) unfortunately, haven't had the training that they need. And trying to provide them with that training is difficult because of the lack of subs.”
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Compounding the problem, advocates say, is a lack of incentives to get more education majors to focus on the field. Getting a special credential — called an endorsement — to teach special education requires more credit hours than a typical college education degree. Historically, it has taken 4.5 to five years for education majors to get the student teaching experience they need in general and special education, said Mark Moody, a faculty member at Central Michigan University, who runs teacher preparation courses on special education.
That makes their college training more costly. And once they graduate, many if not most districts don’t offer a pay bump for the extra training.
Taking the shortage seriously
But that is beginning to change.
The city of Detroit recently began offering bonuses to attract more special education teachers. Several states, most notably Hawaii, have done the same and report positive results in filling open positions.
State lawmakers have also taken notice. Two years ago, Michigan’s Legislature budgeted $1.5 million to study how to “attract, prepare, and retain qualified personnel for children with disabilities.”
The group looked at the barriers to attract people to the field, including current teacher training programs and licensing requirements.
Laurie VanderPloeg, consultant for the group, now called Optimise, said the group focused on addressing the length and expense of training, and how teaching programs don’t always align with what students with disabilities need.
Madison Stone, a special education teacher at Lamphere Schools in Oakland County, works primarily with students with autism in kindergarten through third grade. She said it’s also important for schools to understand and acknowledge the value special education teachers bring to classrooms.
Stone pulls elementary students out of their general classroom to work on specific skills and also supports students in the classroom directly. She said the job is extremely rewarding but people often only see the challenges.
“It takes a lot of patience,” she said, “a lot of really knowing your kids to kind of figure out what makes them tick and kind of figure out like, what's going to trigger them and what's gonna work really well and what's gonna, maybe not work so well.”
More openings than candidates
In a survey of 46 out of the 56 intermediate school districts in Michigan, most districts selected special education teachers as one of their most critical shortages.
Michigan is hardly alone. In 2021, 48 states reported a shortage of special education teachers, despite a federal requirement that students with disabilities be taught by fully licensed teachers.
Lacking enough specialists, districts apply for temporary approvals from the state to put general education teachers in classrooms even though they haven’t yet earned the added credential. This can stretch school resources and, critics say, shortchange the education of the district’s most vulnerable students.
Eastpointe Schools in Macomb County uses third-party hires. The district has five speech therapists: three working inside the schools with two others who work virtually through a third party.
Lorena Rush, Eastpointe’s director of student support services, said she is searching for three more speech therapists, two teachers, three social workers and four paraprofessionals.
“It’s really, really challenging,” she said.
Marcie Lipsitt, a longtime education advocate for special education students and families, said the shortage has real-life implications for families. Students, she said, aren’t getting individualized instruction, and more are refusing to go to school or getting suspended.
“My fear after COVID was that parents were going to be so thrilled to have kids back to school, that they wouldn't care who is staffing the classroom,” Lipsitt said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
Melissa Hoffman has a fifth-grade son with autism and is chair of the parent advisory committee at Rochester Community Schools that focuses on special education. As of Friday, the district had seven openings for special education teachers and eight openings for special education paraprofessionals.
Hoffman’s son’s classroom has up to six students, she said, and is staffed by a long-term substitute who is not a certified special education teacher, which the principal told her over the summer would happen.
“I know he was working really hard to try and find somebody,” she said. “But the reality is there's more openings than candidates.”
For these students, “that teacher is a very pivotal important part of their lives” and not having a specialist “can really just throw everything off kilter.”
A new approach
How many more special education teachers are needed?
The statewide picture is unclear. Even though 13 percent of public school students receive services for a disability, the state does not track real-time shortage numbers, making it difficult to quantify the gap.
It’s also unclear just how many teachers are teaching under a temporary approval from the state. The Michigan Department of Education referred questions from Bridge Michigan about that number to the state freedom of information act process.
In the meantime, five Michigan universities are working to shorten the time it takes to produce special education teachers.
Central, Eastern, Northern and Western Michigan, along with Oakland University, are offering expedited teaching programs for special education. They do so by waiving the need for students who want to teach special education from student teaching in a general education setting.
Special education teachers’ pay ranges by district, with 2022 median pay at $62,950 per year nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In order to attract more college students to teaching in general, the state has provided grants for district “grow your own” programs, in which current district employees can take university classes to become certified teachers. There is also the Talent Together initiative, which pays school employees and community members to get teaching credentials. It’s hoped that some are interested in teaching students with disabilities.
Emma Booth, an Ingham Intermediate School District paraprofessional, will begin her Talent Together training in January.
She works with students in the Skills for Adult Independent Living (SAIL) to develop daily living and employment skills.
On a recent morning, she made a short trip from her classroom to the district office with three students. Students clean the breakroom, deliver mail to people’s offices and create a staff directory. They interact with district staffers and each other to complete their goals.
“The classroom I’m in right now is awesome and I am happy to come to work and don’t have any ‘Sunday scaries’ or anything,” Booth told Bridge Michigan.
In January, she will start a two-year program at CMU to get a master’s degree in special education with a state endorsement in cognitive impairment. She will not have to pay for the program.
Reinelt, of Cheboygan-Otsego-Presque Isle, said he has previously recruited people from local businesses and now, they have been accepted into Talent Together to pursue their special education teaching certification.
Statewide, 254 Talent Together participants are now working toward special education credentials.
Lipsitt, the special education advocate, said more can be done. She suggested that districts and the state offer full scholarships or loan forgiveness for college education majors willing to teach special education for seven to 10 years.
Rush, the director of student services in Eastpointe, said she would like to see more training for long-term substitute teachers on how to write an individualized education plan or how to handle students with behavioral concerns so they are better prepared to help students.
Hoffman, the Rochester parent, said it’s important for teachers to feel like it makes “economic sense” to become a special education teacher.
“I think people don't necessarily go into it for the money, they go into it for the love of the kids,” Hoffman said. “But at some point the love just doesn't pay those bills anymore.”
VanderPloeg, the Optimise consultant and a former special education director in the Kent Intermediate School District, said there is more the state can do to attract teachers to special education classrooms.
She noted that a “handful” of states have developed systems to collect supply-and-demand data. She hopes Michigan will embrace the idea.
For example, Colorado’s dashboard includes district and state level data on how many vacancies exist for every special education specialty, along with what type of credentials the people who fill these vacancies have. Virginia’s dashboard includes school-level vacancy data.
VanderPloeg would also like the state to streamline its credentialing process. The state currently requires teachers to have credentialing for different disabilities; for example, there are endorsements for both “cognitive impairment” and “autism spectrum disorder.” Each endorsement correlates with programs teachers are allowed to teach.
School organizations and university teacher preparation program leaders told VanderPloeg the system can result in teachers not having a broad enough range of skills to serve students with all types of disabilities.
VanderPloeg said California has made changes toward its state credential model where “there's a little bit more ownership on general education for the individuals with disabilities within their classrooms, because they have been better prepared to be able to not only accommodate, but to also instruct to those needs.”
“I think the better prepared general ed teachers are coming out, the more inclined they're going to be to help own and support not only the instructional but behavioral needs of the students within their general education classrooms as well.”
Heather Eckner, director of statewide education for the Autism Alliance of Michigan, is more cautious. She said there could be benefits to changing the state’s credential system but families are already experiencing distrust with the current system.
Families are “not feeling like their kids are getting what they need,” she said, and “I’m not sure we’ve done the work in our state to get to where we need to be.”
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