Friday, April 6, 2007

Attrition Factors for Special Educators

Factors in Retention and Attrition of Special Educators

Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education (COPSSE)—a partnership between the University of Florida (UF) and Johns Hopkins University (JHU)—uses insights from research to address special education personnel issues. COPSSE research is funded by the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education [#H325Q000002]. Helen Thornton serves as the project officer.

Billingsley, B. S. (2003). Special education teacher retention and attrition: A critical analysis of the literature (COPSSE Document No. RS-2). Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education.
U. S. Office of Special
Education Programs

(My personal comments are in italics.)

In the link above, you will find the most recent (April 2003) literature review of special education teacher attrition factors. The SDHC’s projected plan of teaching 300 minutes (or 1 planning period) for next school year will compound and increase the risk factors that have been found to effect special education teacher retention and attrition.

Many of the same factors contribute to the attrition of both general education and special education teachers. The issues below are on the working conditions, unique to special education teachers, and are found on pages 22- 28 of the article. The numbered items (italicized) are the issues I have addressed to the board, district administration, and CTA over the past several weeks. The citations document research findings for the numbered items, as an “abstracted” summary of this body of research.

Research in the past four years has continued to focus on working conditions and support systems as the areas of most concern in order to improve retention of special educators and reduce attrition rates.

This is a link to the author’s 11/2006 Power Point presentation:

“As Gersten et al. (2001) asks: “Does the job, with all it entails, make sense? Is it feasible? Is it one that well-trained, interested, special educational professionals can manage in order to accomplish their main objective—enhancing students’ academic, social, and vocational competence?” (p23)

1. ESE teachers complete 5 hours a week of ESE paperwork (exclusive of case management tasks). This is in addition to lesson planning.

“In particular, findings from the largest study investigating paper work, Paperwork in Special Education (SPeNSE, 2002) suggest that paper work problems are significantly related to special educators’ intent to leave teaching, after many other work condition variables are controlled. “ (p23)

“Morvant et al. (1995) found that only half of the special educators in their study agreed that their work load was manageable, 68% felt they had too little time to do their work, and almost one-third found conflicting goals, expectations, and directives a frequent source of stress.” (p23) (17 years ago)

2. Lesson planning time demands, incorporating inclusive practices (accommodations and modification for differentiated instruction), have greatly increased over the years.

“In an investigation of teacher burnout, Embich (2001) concludes that teachers who work
primarily in general education classrooms are at more of a risk of burnout than teachers who work in more traditional settings (e.g., resource, self-contained classrooms). Embich states that responsibilities of those who team teach have expanded and include a wider range of services (e.g., teaching, work in regular classrooms, collaboration) than those working in resource or self-contained models. These team teachers are often involved in working where they are not wanted and in areas in which they have had little preparation. (p25)”

“Moreover, research suggests that collaborative environments have the potential to benefit teachers by preventing burnout, heightening teachers' sense of efficacy, and improving teachers' knowledge base (Brownell, Yeager, Rennells, & Riley, 1997).” (p35)

3. If we could offer teachers collaborative planning time, not only would we provide for the instructional needs of our students in an inclusive environment, but the process itself may reduce other factors that have shown to increase teacher attrition rates.

Case load sizes are a large factor in teacher attrition. For this coming year (2007-08), for ESE “units,” our consultative students did NOT count. These students do receive services in addition to their paper work as part of the spectrum of services. With the recent unit reductions, case loads will increase greatly for next year, even if spread equitably among all ESE teachers at school.

“Although there have not been any clear quantitative findings relating attrition to numbers of students taught, in qualitative studies, teachers consistently report problems with case load and give case load issues as reasons for leaving (Billingsley et al., 1993; Billingsley et al., 1995; Brownell et al., 1994-1995; Morvant et al., 1995; Schnorr, 1995). (p26)”

4. The changes in the types of students we serve have greatly changed. We are now serving students with 2-4 different exceptionalities in non- categorical case loads for ESE teachers. In addition, the demographics and at risk factors of all our students have dramatically changed over the years.

“As some states move toward non-categorical and inclusive programs, such comparisons across disability may make less sense today. A recent national study of special educators revealed that 80% of teachers work with students with two or more exceptionalities, and 32% of teachers work with students with four or more different primary disabilities reported in A High-Quality Teacher for Every Classroom (SPeNSE, 2002).” (p26)

“Miller etal. (1999) did not find a link between satisfaction with student relationships and attrition. Billingsley et al. (1995) found that student issues were a less important factor in attrition than other types of problems, e.g., inadequate administrative support, case load, and role problems. Westling and Whitten (1996) stated that, “Teachers who planned to leave were not doing so because of the students they were teaching or the type or severity of their disabilities” (p. 330). Morvant et al. (1995) suggested that 83% of teachers felt satisfied with their accomplishments with students, 85% felt they were making a significant difference in their students’ lives, and 96% enjoyed their students.” (p26)

Teachers seem to not attribute the diversity of their students as the cause of their stress levels, but the lack of time and supports to prepare adequately for the student differences.

5. The plan of teaching 300 minutes will ACTUALLY reduce the number of ESE teachers.

“Excessive and prolonged work problems lead to negative affective reactions, such as increased stress, lower job satisfaction, and reduced organizational and professional commitment. The combination of multiple, interacting work-related problems (e.g., too many students, too much paper work, too little support, and the lack of needed resources) clearly weakens the teacher’s ability to be effective and therefore reduces their opportunities for the positive intrinsic rewards that are important to teachers (Billingsley et al., 1995).” (p26-27)

“Morvant et al. (1995) stated that almost 80% of those who planned to leave indicated that they felt under a great deal of stress on a weekly or daily basis, compared to just over half of stayers. They also report that leavers indicated significantly more frequent stress than stayers due to: (1) the range of students’ needs and abilities; (2) bureaucratic requirements; and (3) conflicting expectations, goals, and directives.” (p27)

And the final concluding paragraph of this literature review of the past 10 years of published research on special education attrition factors (my highlighting):

“Work Environment factors associated with staying include: (1) higher salaries; (2) positive school climate; (3) adequate support systems, particularly principal and central office support; (4) opportunities for professional development; (5) reasonable role demand; and (6) manageable case loads. Problematic district and school factors especially low salaries, poor climate, lack of administrative support, and role overload and dissonance lead to negative affective reactions, e.g., high levels of stress, low levels of job satisfaction, and low levels of commitment. These negative reactions can often lead to withdrawal and eventually attrition.” (p28)

The Executive Summary of this report can be found at:

“Policy makers and administrators interested in reducing attrition must facilitate the development of better work environments for special educators. Addressing issues such as teacher role overload and the need for critical supports (e.g., administrative support, professional development) must be addressed to ensure that teachers can be effective in their work. Focusing on one or two aspects of teachers’ work lives will probably be insufficient to substantially reduce attrition. For example, providing beginning teachers with formal induction programs is not likely to be effective in the end unless their work assignments are also reasonable. A holistic look at creating positive work environments should not only reduce attrition behavior, but should also help sustain special educators’ involvement and commitment in their work.” (Final paragraph from the Executive Summary)


What are the major best practice recommendations schools systems can implement to reduce special education teachers’ attrition rates?
Provide time for effective planning.
Provide time for paper work and case management.

What else should we be doing to keep our ESE teachers, especially our newer ones?
Offer sufficient building level support.

“Special educators, like general educators, must engage in educational planning,
understand the curriculum, and become familiar with school routines. Special educators have numerous additional responsibilities and concerns related to working with students with significant learning and behavioral problems. A few qualitative studies have documented the concerns experienced by beginning special educators, e.g., managing paper work, making accommodations for instruction and testing, developing and monitoring IEPs, scheduling students, and collaborating with teachers, paraprofessionals, parents, and related services personnel” (Billingsley & Tomchin, 1992; Boyer & Gillespie, 2000; Kilgore & Griffin, 1998; MacDonald, 2001; Magliaro & Wildman, 1990). (p20)

“Singh and Billingsley (1998) suggest that the principal enhances commitment through fostering a collegial environment.” (p20)

2. A full-time ESE Specialist is vital for offering the support needed for ESE teachers, especially the newer ones, to experience success and reduce attrition rates.

Offer continuing professional development AND the time to implement new skills
(planning time).

“Special educators devote considerable time to continuing professional development, averaging 59 hours in 1999-2000 as reported by A High-Quality Teacher for Every Classroom, (SPeNSE, 2002). Although school districts support staff development, they do not reliably incorporate best practices, e.g., engaging teachers in the learning process, allowing time to plan now to implement new skills.” (p.22)

COPSSE Home Page:

Abstracted from the above linked sources in March 2007
By Gayle C


Goader said...

Nice bit of work. I hope you don't mind if I plug it on a couple other blogs.

I have written a commentary based on the information from your post and my own experience as an ESE teacher. I want to link your post to my commentary, which I will do shortly.

Here are some exerpts from the commentary I wrote:

“Last year, when I transferred, I began teaching the district’s version of co-teaching called FUSE, which stands for Florida Uniting Students for Education. The ESE teacher floats into a general education classroom and teaches with the general education teacher.”

“The master schedule needs to give the two teachers a common planning period. Pre-planning along with continuous readjustment planning is the key to successfully co-teaching.”

“Unless the principle makes a concerted effort with the entire school, co-teaching is doomed to be education’s bastard child.”

“In most cases when meeting to plan it is the ESE teacher who goes to the general education teacher.”

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all you are doing to fought for us and encourage us to do the same. For every meeting I have attended or letter or e mail I have written -- you have done five. You have helped educate and motivate far beyond those at our school. We need mpre like you in leadership positions.

How many other department heads from our school--or any --are speaking up for those in their departments? Are THEY losing a planning period, also? If they were cut to one planning period, maybe some of them would "get it" and begin to try and improve things instead of sitting on their assets and watching the show as the rest of us try to save the kids. (Sorry about the editorializing).I really do want an answer. PT--ESE teacher--GHS

Sisyphus - The Rock that Keeps on Rolling... said...

Thank you for recognizing my efforts, as I have said before, I feel it is a duty to speak up. As far as department head stuff, I do not get that additional supplement; that issue was a different rock I was rolling last year. I get the ESE specialists' supplement and my principal calls me the "acting department head". The district seems to not have a problem with that; I am extremely cheap labor, using the calculator posted on my blog, I earn $18.80 per hour.

Yes, there are SOME department heads who have spoke out. Mike Schutz, from Plant City HS, math, is the one example that I know. I have been at the last 2 school board meetings, and there were 2 others, that I know about. DHs, at my school, would have 5 out of 8, one period lunch w/duty, one planning, and one DH. DH SHOULD be more worried, they have to write lesson plans, or get them from someone else when a long-term sub is in a position. With so many teachers looking at other employment options next year. it could be even uglier.