October 26, 2023

October 2023 Research Rundown

By Madie Spartz

Building a strong pipeline of special education teachers is a hot topic in education policy in Minnesota. On the one hand, schools across the state are facing special education teacher shortages. On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Education sent a directive earlier this year calling for changes to training and licensure standards for special education. To inform the conversation, this month’s research rundown will focus entirely on the topic of the special education teacher workforce. 

The latest Teacher Supply and Demand Report from PELSB, which paints the picture of the teacher workforce in Minnesota, shows that districts continuously cite special education positions as the hardest to fill. Special education remains one of the areas with the highest proportion of Tier 1 and 2 teachers, meaning their licenses are limited unless they seek further training, which can drive teachers out of the classroom. Furthermore, the report shows that one-third of new teachers in Minnesota leave the profession within five years.

Given the overall teacher shortage in the state and specific strain on the special education workforce, we are highlighting research specific to those issues. Stakeholders across Minnesota need to work together to create and implement policy solutions to address this crisis, including drawing on the latest research, some of which is highlighted below. 

Promises and Limitations of Financial Incentives to Address Special Education Staffing Challenges

Brookings Institution, September 2023

This report analyzes the effectiveness of financial incentives in drawing special education teachers to the classroom and retaining them in the profession. A large number of states have implemented such policies in recent years, and there is a lack of consensus on their effectiveness among researchers and practitioners. 

The report highlights recent research from Hawaii that suggests new salary increases helped attract special education teachers initially, but weren’t effective in keeping them in the classroom long-term. Notably, the researchers found that the reduction in vacant special education positions came almost entirely from general education teachers moving to special education after the salary bump was introduced. Therefore, they concluded that such a policy could effectively “tap into a hidden reserve pool” of qualified teachers. That said, other strategies that consider working conditions and support are essential for longer-term retention.

Why This Matters in Minnesota

Over 38% of all licensed teachers in Minnesota are not currently teaching in a public or charter school classroom. While teachers have many reasons for leaving the classroom, both personal and professional, that number suggests that, similar to what the authors found in Hawaii, there may be a “hidden pool” of qualified teachers in Minnesota that could help fill the gap in special education positions. The research suggests that salary incentives could be effective in recruiting some to return—or incentivizing current teachers to shift their focus—at least in the short term, but more is needed to retain teachers for the long haul.


Self-Efficacy, Burnout, and Intent to Leave for Teachers of Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

Hammill Institute on Disabilities’ Behavioral Disorders, October 2023

This article explores the relationship between levels of burnout & self-efficacy among teachers and the rates at which they leave the classroom. The authors looked at three features of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism or depersonalization, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. They defined self-efficacy as a teacher’s view of their own effectiveness, and noted that while the research is mixed, it can act as a protective factor in teacher retention. The authors note that this is the first longitudinal study to ask these questions, meaning they collected data on the same individuals repeatedly over time.  

They found that all three dimensions of burnout in the fall predicted teachers’ intent to leave in the spring. Notably, while we might expect high ratings of self-efficacy to reduce burnout, the authors reported that other factors, like working conditions, play a bigger role. This means that a positive self-assessment may not protect teachers from burnout if they face a negative school climate. The researchers suggest that school leaders take a proactive role in assessing teacher wellbeing, rather than waiting for a crisis to intervene. Furthermore, the authors stress the importance of improving working conditions to retain special education teachers.

Why This Matters in Minnesota

While this study pulls from a national sample, there are still strong lessons for both district leaders and policymakers in Minnesota. Namely, emotional wellbeing and high self-efficacy are important for educators, but they probably can’t outweigh the effects of a challenging workload or struggles with leadership, which is the most commonly cited reason for teachers leaving the classroom in Minnesota. Any policy aimed at bolstering the special education workforce needs to take school climate into account.


Teacher Preparation, Classroom Structure, and Learning Outcomes for Students with Disabilities

Annenberg Institute at Brown University, October 2023

This study investigates the effect of teacher licensure, education, and experience on outcomes for students with disabilities. Furthermore, the author examines different classroom configurations and their impact on students, looking at co-teaching models and inclusive classrooms settings, where students with disabilities are integrated into the general education classroom.

The study finds that students with disabilities do not experience significant differences in learning outcomes when they have a teacher with a special education certification vs. a teacher with a general license. The author concludes that licensure barriers might actually inhibit schools from recruiting candidates that can best support students with disabilities. 

On the other hand, the author reports that students with disabilities achieve higher learning gains when placed in inclusive classrooms, rather than self-contained special education classrooms. This is a significant finding when you consider staffing needs: each self-contained class must be staffed by an additional teacher, and the author suggests that more inclusive classrooms could ease the strain on the special education workforce. Finally, the study showed modest but positive learning outcomes in classrooms with co-teachers.

Why This Matters in Minnesota

There is a serious crunch on the special education teacher workforce in Minnesota. As these positions go unfilled, school & district leaders need support in creating innovative policies to address the shortage. This study points to which strategies may be more or less impactful—for example, a focus on well-run, inclusive classrooms. It also highlights the most important (but often least-discussed) stakeholders in these conversations: special education students. By exploring teacher workforce policies that put student success at the center, we can facilitate meaningful change for Minnesota students and their families.


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