Editorial: Schools contend with shortage of special education teachers for summer school

What is this problem? Why is it occurring?

Despite a story for WJLA by Heather Graf 11 May 2021 that documented a pending problem with finding qualified teachers, parents in schools around Washington, DC, are upset that they are suddenly learning about delayed summer programs because local education agencies (LEAs) are contending with a shortage of qualified teachers for those summer programs. Ms. Graf's story, headlined "How a summer school teacher shortage is impacting students in Arlington County," was predicated on a message from the Arlington Schools to parents; the message, which covered more than just special education services, explained the predicament and offered comfort about the attendant consequences of not offering needed services.

Josh Rosenthal of Fox5DC TV, also covered the Arlington announcement about problems with securing sufficient faculty members for summer programs. The story, "Summer school teacher shortage in Arlington," also appeared 11 May 2021.

More recently, Hannah Natanson and William Wan of the Washington Post reported Fairfax (VA) public schools had too few special education teachers to provide summer services to the students with disabilities who deserve those services. In a story with a dateline on the afternoon of 26 June 2021 and entitled "Lacking teachers, Fairfax delays summer school for hundreds of students with disabilities," Ms. Natanson and Mr. Wan reported that, in an email message to parents the Fairfax LEA said summer programs slated to begin just a few days later for 1200 students "will tentatively be delayed to the end of July to buy time to find more teachers."

How widespread is this problem?

As Ms. Natanson and Mr. Wan explained, the Fairfax LEA is one of many experiencing a problem with finding faculty and staff for summer school special education programs. They noted that "in the Washington region, Arlington Public Schools had to cut its summer program from 5,000 to 3,000 students after not enough teachers agreed to work through the summer." In his earlier coverage, Mr. Rosenthal noted that, in contrast, at least two other LEAs surrounding DC (Loudoun, VA, and Montgomery, MD) had plans, at least at that time, to provide regular summer school programming.

Staffing summer school been difficult in other areas of the US (maybe the entire Earth, even if the southern hemisphere is in winter?), not just these two northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. Here are links (some may be behind fire walls—sorry) to other examples (please drop additional examples in the comments):

  • Jennifer Lewke of Rochester, NY, TV station WHEC, reported that "There is a major staffing shortage among teachers and specialists for local summer school programs and it is likely to impact students with special needs the most."

  • On 15 June 2021, Karen Ann Cullotta of Chicago Tribune had an article headed, "Summer school? Parents and teachers are just saying no, despite COVID-19 learning loss and federal relief funds to pay for it." Although she examined many aspects of the topic, Ms. Cullotta devoted some space to the shortage of special education teachers:

At Wilmette School District 39, officials are still looking to hire a few more teachers to staff an expansive summer school program that begins in early July, said Kristin Swanson, administrator for student and special services.

“It’s definitely been challenging finding teachers, because it’s been a tough year, and a lot of people have told us they really need the time off. ... Everyone needs a little break,” Swanson said.

  • As Shayla Girardin of ABC30 reported, LEAs in the Fresno (CA) area are hoping to use stimulus resources to address the needs for summer school for studens with disabilities. In "Local school districts provide resources for special education students," Ms. Girardin reported that the Fresno LEA is "investing $1.7 million in their exceptional need students. This included hiring additional special education staff and psychologists"

Why are there shortages?

Madeline Will of Education Week took an analytic approach to the problem of securing faculty members for summer school; her analysis is not specific to special education, but it reflects important concerns about the teaching force. In, "Summer School Is More Important Than Ever. But Teachers Are ‘Fried’ and Need a Break," Ms. Will explained,

Across the nation, teacher morale has plummeted over the course of the pandemic, EdWeek Research Center surveys show, as teachers have been asked to take on new, demanding roles while trying to attend to students who are disengaged or traumatized from living through a pandemic and economic downturn. An EdWeek survey conducted in early April found that 76 percent of educators say that teacher morale is lower now than it was prior to the pandemic.

Ms. Will's report raises important questions about developing and sustaining a well-qualified faculty for special education. Her report has multiple notes about "burn out" and other explanations for the problem.

One explanation for the shortages is that pay is inadequate—and I agreed with this idea. So, I applaud the efforts by some of the LEAs that have offered bonuses or overtime pay to attract teachers, but these policies have not resolved the shortage.

Teacher shortages in general

Getting teachers to teach summer school as a pandemic moderates is one thing, but that problem is exacerbated by the context of overall shortages of special education teachers. Simply examining analyses by US state education agencies illustrates the extent of the shortages.

Writing for Yahoo! News, Dan Goldhaber reported and analysis of the topic under the headline, "Teacher Shortages Vary by State, School and Subject." Mr. Goldhaber, who is associated with the US National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research ("CALDER Center" ) at the American Institutes for Research, noted that the problems of teacher shortages are too variable to talk about the topic generally: "teacher shortage." Among other factors, there is variability by state and—importantly for our purposes—area of licensure, especially special education.

A major part of the reason that there is a shortage of teachers qualified to teach special education is that the "pipeline" from teacher education programs and colleges and universities has not met the overall need for special education teachers for many years. THE US Department of Education maintains a data base about areas of shortage; a user can extract data about areas of shortage on a state-by-state and year-by-year basis. It does not show the magnitude of the shortages, just whether shortages have been reported. Some states reported relative demand; for example, in Virginia, the Department of Education ranks to top-10 areas of demand for credentialed teachers as follows

  1. Special Education

  2. Elementary Education PreK-6

  3. Middle Education Grades 6-8

  4. Mathematics Grades 6-12 (including Algebra 1)

  5. Career and Technical Education

  6. Science (Secondary)

  7. Foreign Language PreK-12

  8. English (Secondary)

  9. Library Media PreK-12

  10. History and Social Science (Secondary)

Some research

As Mr. Goldhaber indicated, educators do have valuable research evidence that bears on this topic. Here is just a smattering of studies:

  • Boe (2006) and Boe and Cook (2013) found that demand for special education teachers grew consistently after the passage of PL 94-142 (the original law mandating special education; later renamed "Individuals with Disabilities Education Act"), as one would expect because states and localities had to hire teachers for the children with disabilities for whom they were required to provide a free-and-appropriate education. However, the growth in that demand was still not sufficient to meet the needs of schools.

  • Dewey et al. (2017) examined alternative explanation for why the demand for special education teachers changed. Were early intervention efforts being effective, leading to lower demand? Was it simply that schools began to identify fewer students as having disabilities and, therefore, needed fewer teachers? They found that two major factors have contributed to the decline: (a) decreases in disability prevalence and (b) the ratios of teachers to students in special versus in general education.

  • Peyton et al. (2020) compared states that had consistently low and consistently high shortages of special education teachers. They reported that "low shortage states make greater investments in per pupil expenditures; have higher teacher salaries, generally; have greater preparation capacity; and produce more special education graduates. Taken together, our findings suggest that special education teaching is a relatively better job in low shortage states than in high shortage states."


In some ways, the anecdotally reported shortage of special education teachers for 2021 summer programs should be unsurprising. In many states, it is occurring in the context of overall shortages of special educators. In addition, there has been more than a year (for many teachers) of having to work under brutally punishing conditions which many teachers recognize as especially problemsome for their students. This catalog of adverse circumstances could be extended ("burn out"; pay problems; etc.), but when these circumstances are taken together, the combination makes one wonder why teachers even persist at all.



Boe, E. E. , & Cook, L. H. (2006). The chronic and increasing shortage of fully-certified teachers in special and general education. Exceptional Children. 72(4), 443—460.

Dewey, J., Sindelar, P. T., Bettini, E., Boe, E. E., Rosenberg, M. S., & Leko, C. (2017). Explaining the decline in special education teacher employment from 2005 to 2010. Exceptional Children, 83(3), 315–329. https://doi.org/10.1177/0014402916684620

Peyton, D. J., Acosta, K., Harvey, A., Pua, D. J., Sindelar, P. T., Mason-Williams, L., Dewey, J., Fisher, T. L., & Crews, E. (2020). Special education teacher shortage: Differences between high and low shortage states. Teacher Education and Special Education, 44(1), 5-23. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0888406420906618