In the aftermath of the pandemic, we learned that two groups of students were exponentially affected by the shutdown of schools and by the remote learning structure: students of color and students with disabilities. This data brings new urgency to the need to recruit and retain a diverse, effective teacher workforce that is well-prepared and qualified to teach students with disabilities. Special education is consistently among the most cited teacher shortage areas across states, even well before the pandemic. A growing body of research demonstrates that academic and life outcomes improve for all students, and especially for students of color, when they learn from teachers of color, yet the racial and ethnic diversity of the teacher workforce has not nearly kept pace with the diversity of the students. A new study looks at the intersection of these groups, exploring factors that may enhance the retention of special education teachers of color.
This focus area is warranted for many reasons, not the least of which is that a gap exists between the percentage of special education teachers of color (18%) and students with disabilities who are students of color (47%). Further, past research has found that teachers of color leave the profession at higher rates than white teachers.
The study by LaRon Scott and colleagues adds important nuance to our understanding of retention rates for teachers of color. The authors conducted an online survey with over 700 respondents in the spring of 2021 to gather insight into special education teachers' intent to remain in teaching, whether their plans differed from their white colleagues, and what factors or supports influence their career intentions.
Results show that special education teachers of color report higher rates of intent to remain in the profession than white special education teachers. Factors or supports that mattered most for special education teachers of color include paraprofessional support, time, caseload, resources, and professional development. The analysis indicated large effect sizes, meaning these supports seem to explain a large amount of the variation in teachers' intentions to stay or leave teaching.
Special education teachers of color in urban schools also rated their levels of support higher than those in suburban or rural settings, indicating the potential for higher retention rates in urban schools. However, given the challenge the field is facing to retain teachers of color, the authors hypothesize that while intentions to remain in the field are higher for special education teachers of color than for white special education teachers, other factors may influence their ultimate decision to stay or leave the classroom, such as biases in teacher evaluations, anti-Black microaggressions, or school climate.
In general, little research currently exists focused specifically on special education teachers of color, so this study offers some valuable insights. While this study focused on teachers' intentions to stay in the profession, intentions to stay (or leave) do not always translate into actions, so more research is needed to learn whether these teachers remain in the classroom. However, this study breaks with assumptions based on past trends and suggests that, with the right support structures in place, special education teachers of color may want to stay in teaching for the long haul, with great benefits for students who need them the most.