Elementary education teachers edged out special education teachers in the tally of unfilled teaching positions handed out at the September State Board of Education. That list of vacancies is at best conservative, but if you consider the number of waivers granted to teachers to cover special education, that is easily the greatest shortage field and has been for over a decade. Why?
Before the 2003 “Redesign” of teacher education, special education was a field that a college student could pursue without taking any other teaching major. But across the U.S., some states were moving to special education being an add-on to a teacher license. In other words, you trained to be a math or English or elementary or other teacher, and then tacked on the special education endorsement afterwards. That seemed to be the wave of the future, so Kansas also changed to special education being an add-on. Kansas colleges and universities moved their special ed coursework to master’s level.
That was a bad decision. That nationwide trend did not continue, and for good reason. Many students who graduated from high school had seen first-hand the dedication of special ed teachers helping their classmates, and they went to college with the inspiration to go into special education to help others. But that had to be put on hold while they studied a content teaching field. By the time they finished that endorsement, years had passed and that inspiration was long gone. As veteran special ed teachers retired, the shortage grew dramatically.
Several years ago, the Kansas State Board of Education corrected this error and made special education again an initial endorsement. We would expect that the university education schools across Kansas would now be into their second year of training a new generation of special education teachers to soon reduce that shortage. We would be wrong.
The last decade and a half have seen a conversion from professionally-trained teachers in all fields to assembly line “teaching-the-standards” not only in K—12 but also in higher education. Rather than reinstating their prior effective undergraduate special ed teaching programs, the universities of Kansas are dragging their heels, whimpering over “what standards are we going to have to meet?” as if they can’t train teachers without a checklist from Topeka. We would not think much of a medical school that had to wait around to be told what to teach doctors, and rightly so. The elementary level special ed standards are now out, but the secondary standards are still being developed.
That means that there will not begin to be production of special ed teachers at the elementary level for 3-4 more years, and even later for secondary! Meanwhile, the Kansas State Board is faced with how to handle the Kansas special ed shortage NOW!
Some problems have no good immediate solutions. Past short-term fixes have often diluted down requirements or “lowered the bar.” But this is no time to approve programs that farm out special ed to questionable adjuncts in impersonal online programs. Inspired freshman special ed teacher candidates deserve fulltime qualified faculty teaching face-to-face, just as these special ed graduates will be teaching K—12 students face-to-face.
It is past time for Kansas higher education to step up to the needs of our special ed children. Kansas special-needs students should not be shortchanged with half-trained teachers.