Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID)
Special Education and Vocational Rehabilitation Services

                                   Keeping Quality Teachers
The Art of Retaining General and Special Education Teachers

Making the Case for Teacher Retention

     Teaching touches the lives of all children from a variety of backgrounds, including those from families that exhibit a wide range of cultural and linguistic diversity. Teaching also touches the lives of children with varying ability levels, including those with disabilities. It is the profession in which we have a chance to provide opportunities that might otherwise be lost. Sometimes, we have the opportunity to change the course of future events for many children who come to school with significant disadvantages, such as poverty, parental and societal neglect, as well as intellectual, social and physical disabilities. It is a profession, however, that loses thousands of dedicated members each year, putting those most vulnerable children and youth at risk of failing to realize opportunities afforded to them through quality education.

    Understanding why teachers leave is the first step in getting them to stay. Teachers leave when they encounter environments that lack essential professional supports: 1) support from school leadership, 2) organizational structures and workforce conditions that convey respect and value for them, and 3) induction and mentoring programs for new and experienced teachers (Ingersoll, 2001; Johnson, Birkeland, Kardos, Kauffman, Liu, and Peske, 2001). Yet, because of the complexity of the issues embedded in retaining high quality teachers, administrators find addressing these essential issues to be a daunting task. This document is intended to assist administrators in planning, implementing and evaluating a high quality teacher retention initiative that will keep the best teachers in the hardest to staff disciplines and teaching in the most challenging classrooms.

     While good teachers are needed in all settings, there are particular fields of teaching and geographic areas in which it is more difficult to recruit and keep qualified professionals. For more than 25 years, the American Association for Employment in Education (AAEE) has consistently reported that the areas of greatest need in education-related disciplines nationwide include teachers and related service personnel in special education, mathematics and science (AAEE, 2003). While there are other areas of need in particular geographic areas of the country, these three teaching disciplines are especially difficult to staff in urban and rural schools. In particular, urban schools with high poverty rates are challenged in their at­tempts to recruit and retain qualified teachers. In high-poverty high schools, almost thirty percent of all classes are being taught by teachers who did not major in the subject they are teaching, and in high-poverty middle schools, more than fifty per­cent of classes face the same problem (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2002).

     Special educators, the professionals in greatest need in public schools today (AAEE, 2003), work daily to deliver on the promises of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), yet the complexities of the profession and the environments in which they often work conspire to convince them to leave. Across states of the Northeast, twenty-eight percent of all special educators were undecided about remaining in the field or intended to stay only until something else comes along (Westat, 2002a). The Study of Personnel Needs in Special Education (SPeNSE) cited unmanageable workloads, the interference of paperwork with teaching, and teaching children from four or more disability categories as reasons given specifically by special education teachers who intended to leave as soon as possible (Westat, 2002b). Other reasons for leaving included unsupportive school climates, minimal professional development opportunities, non-licensure or certification status, administrative burdens associated with IDEA, caseloads with multiple areas of disabilities, and role conflict or dissonance (Billingsley, 2003). Boe, Cook, Bobbitt, and Weber (1998) noted that six percent of all special education teachers leave the teaching field each year with an additional five percent of special education teachers transferring to another field of teaching.

     As a result, administrators face a chronic shortage of licensed special educators, in addition to math and science teachers, in an era of increasing accountability for all teachers to be highly qualified and for all students to make adequate yearly progress. Yet, never was the effectiveness of a special education, math or science teacher more important than in today’s educational arena. Therefore, this document, while applicable to all teachers, will focus on retaining teachers in the hard to staff teaching positions, particularly the various positions within special education teaching. Issues presented here, along with retention strategies for implementation and recommendations for action, can be applied to any teaching field, but because of the enormous challenges they face, teachers who work with students with disabilities in a variety of settings are given additional consideration.

     The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future has challenged the nation to improve teacher retention by fifty percent by 2006 (NCTAF, 2003). The operational aspects of this challenge are daunting, particularly given the overlay of retention challenges within special education, and the math and science disciplines. The goal does provide, however, an opportunity to focus on workforce development more clearly. Two issues that are fundamental to visualizing a successful retention program in a school or district — increased student achievement and realized savings in replacement costs for teachers who previously would have left — are discussed more explicitly in the next two subsections.

Retaining high quality teachers increases student achievement.

     The individual achievement of children is highly dependent on the effectiveness of the teacher, and the impact of ineffective or unqualified teachers across years dooms children to instructional losses that cannot be regained (Sanders & Rivers, 1996). University of Tennessee researchers W. L. Sanders and J. C. Rivers found that within grade levels, the most dominant factor affecting students' achievement was the effect of the teacher, and that this effect increased over time. Likewise, Darling-Hammond (2000) reported that inexperienced teachers, i.e., those with less than three years of experience, were typically less effective than more senior teachers, though these effects tended to level off after five years. Kati Haycock (2002) of The Education Trust drew from the 1998 Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) High School Restructuring when she noted that within one academic year in BPS’s high schools, the top third of teachers judged to be effective produced as much as six times the learning growth as the bottom third of teachers. Murnane, Singer, and Willett (1989) noted that “research suggests that teachers make marked gains in effectiveness during their first years in the classroom. Consequently, reducing the frequency with which children are taught by a successive stream of novice teachers may be one step toward improving educational quality” (p. 343). Steff, Wolfe, Pasch, and Enz (2000) reviewed the literature on the life cycle of a teacher and the time it takes for a new teacher to become proficient. They concluded:

"The apprentice phase begins for most teachers when they receive responsibility for planning and delivering instruction on their own. This phase continues until integration and synthesis of knowledge, pedagogy, and confidence merges, marking the beginning of the professional period. Typically, the apprentice phase includes the induction period and extends into the second or third year of teaching" (p.6).

If we are committed to making sure that no child is left behind, school districts across the country will need to develop successful strategies both to support new teachers and to keep veteran teachers in place.

                                                        Alliance for Excellent Education, 2002

     Teacher retention initiatives are most often based on this recognized need to keep in classrooms those teachers who are qualified and utilize effective teaching strategies, demonstrated by increased student achievement year after year.

     While some of the dynamics of retention cannot be controlled, e.g., family moves, birth of children, retirement (Billingsley, 1993), investing in resources that effectively address the reasons for teacher attrition increases the likelihood that a high quality teacher who increases student achievement will stay in the field. Special educators have indicated that they were more likely to stay in teaching when their workload was manageable, their school was supportive of staff and students, and paperwork did not interfere significantly with their teaching (Westat, 2002b). Retaining staff in special education, math and science, particularly in urban and rural areas and in the early years of their professional lives when they are most vulnerable to leaving the field, is a district's first step in developing high quality, hard-to-replace teachers who can increase achievement of all students.

Retaining qualified teachers makes good “cents”!

         Addressing teacher retention in the midst of high attrition may seem costly and out of reach for school districts trying to cover the costs of mandated instructional programs needed to increase student achievement. Yet, the costs of teachers leaving — termination processes, hiring substitutes, recruitment and hiring processes, orientation, and initial professional development — are costs that cannot be ignored. Resources that could be spent on building an experienced and high quality education workforce are drained off for efforts such as these (Norton, 1999).

        The Texas State Board of Educator Certification discovered through its Cost of Teacher Turnover study (Texas Center for Educational Research, November 2000) that the cost associated with teacher turnover:

“…represents a cost to public education beyond the expense of operating schools and is a wasted expense that does not contribute to the education of Texas children…High teacher turnover is a burden of cost and inefficiency to the Texas public school system, and turnover may also affect student performance, particularly in schools where the turnover rate is consistently high” (p. 1).

The impact of ineffective or unqualified teachers across years dooms children to instructional losses that cannot be regained.

     Using one industry employee-turnover model and its own empirical data, the Texas study concluded that the cost of teacher turnover could be estimated conservatively as twenty percent of the leaving teacher’s annual salary. Using other employee turnover models, estimates for teacher turnover costs were as high as fifty percent to two hundred percent of the leaver’s salary (Texas Center for Educational Research, 2000; Norton, 1999).

 In planning for a teacher retention initiative, administrators must also consider district-wide policies and practices designed to reduce costs for salaries, such as early retirement initiatives and the subsequent reduced costs of salaries for less experienced teachers. Human resource departments in local school districts are usually staffed with the same number of employees, whether teachers are staying or leaving, therefore some fixed costs will prevail, regardless of the “state of teacher attrition” within a district. Once all of these factors are accounted for, a yearly reporting mechanism should be put in place that clearly demonstrates the savings in resources that accrue when unintended attrition is lowered. The use of lower turnover cost savings can then be focused on teacher retention activities. One source of funding to assist in planning for recruitment and retention initiatives can be accessed through the timely implementation of the Title II of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which encourages local districts to develop and implement mechanisms to assist schools to effectively recruit and retain highly qualified teachers, principals and specialists in core academic subject areas.

     A teacher workforce that is well trained, engaged in continuing professional development, and committed to staying in the state, district and school will result in all students receiving appropriate instruction and increasing their achievement. Administrators assuming leadership of a retention effort as part of a long-range plan for developing the district’s teaching force is an important first step. Appendix 1-1 provides a model of a strategic action plan that could be considered for use in a teacher retention initiative. With a focus on actively supporting teachers to remain, those reclaimed turnover costs could be targeted at ameliorating conditions that special educators, in particular, have given for leaving the profession.

Teacher retention happens at the school level.

Research on new teachers’ attitudes, values and responses to conditions found in their first and second years of teaching conducted by Susan Moore Johnson and her colleagues (2001) at the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers has reported similar findings by others in the field. These findings have indicated that new teachers make their decisions to stay in teaching based on the level of support and acceptance they receive at the building level. Research on why teachers leave the profession or migrate to another district or state has indicated that addressing retention through professional development activities that: 1) improve organizational structures and working conditions, and 2) improve professional supports through targeted leadership preparation are most effective in retaining high quality teachers. In addition, the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, reported that districts that are developing induction and mentoring programs with well designed assessment and support components are producing positive retention trends for all teachers (Berry, Hopkins-Thompson, & Hoke, 2002). Therefore, this document concentrates on the following three areas in assisting local school districts to reduce teacher attrition and improve professional development for all teachers.

1.   Building a Framework: Improving Working Conditions

        The climate within a school building and the workforce conditions it encompasses act as either a support or a deterrent for teacher retention (Westat, 2002c; Ingersoll, 2001; Gersten, et.al., 2001; Johnson, et.al., 2001). Workforce conditions that encourage the capabilities and emphasize the worth of individuals contribute to retention (Council for Exceptional Children [CEC], 2001, p. 40). School climates and working conditions that include teacher decision making practices regarding both instruction and school governance issues, enforce student discipline policies, incorporate professional development opportunities, strive for teaching assignments aligned with certification and background, and provide extra compensation for difficult and time-consuming duties facilitate the sharing of knowledge and skills among new, mid-career and more experienced teachers. These schools are also more successful in retaining all teachers than school buildings that leave these functions up to the happenstance of building alliances or impromptu conversations in the teachers' lounge.

        In particular, special education teachers are more likely to not only stay in their teaching position when building-level conditions are supportive of them professionally, but they are more likely to stay in teaching, per se (Billingsley, 2003). Likewise, the availability of material resources for all teachers, but especially special educators, impacts feelings of satisfaction and self-efficacy (Boyer & Gillespie, 2000; Billingsley & Cross, 1992). These feelings play an important role in a teacher's decision to stay, move on to another assignment, or leave the field of teaching, and special education in particular, altogether. School districts with policies that provide for equitable distribution of resources to all teachers have a greater opportunity of retaining all teachers, especially in hard-to-fill positions.

     Research on the impact of teachers’ salaries also indicates that, although salary is not the reason that teachers generally come into teaching, it can be a significant factor in a teacher's decision to move to another district, assignment or profession (Southern Regional Education Board, 2002). A special education, math or science teacher who encounters poor working conditions, including low pay and lack of support from school leaders is more likely to leave than one who finds a climate of collegiality and supports that are both material and financial.

2.   Building a Framework: The Role of the Administrator in Teacher Retention

        Research indicates that administrative leadership is the most important factor in determining the climate of a school, and there are specific leader activities that allow all teachers to feel supported in their work. Not only do these activities and supports facilitate the maintenance of professional relationships within a school, they also provide needed resources for effective teacher practice (Bateman & Bateman, 2001; Gerlach, 2001; Evans, 1999; Goor, Schwenn, & Boyer, 1997; DiPaola & Walther-Thomas, 2003; CEC, 2001).

        The Philadelphia Education Fund study (2001) noted that schools that had a low turnover of teachers had principals whom demonstrated the following skills and management styles:

  • implementing a strong induction program that reflected the principal’s personal involvement in meeting with new teachers, having her/his office open for conversations, assigning new teachers classroom rosters that were not heavily weighted with challenging students, and providing mentors early in the school year;

  • overseeing a safe and orderly school environment with active support for teachers on disciplinary issues;

  • maintaining a welcoming and respectful administrative approach toward all staff, the children, their parents and school visitors;

  • developing the leadership skills of school staff; and

  • providing materials and supplies to all teachers in a consistent, timely and inclusive manner.

        A management style grounded in respect for all in the school environment, along with strong communication and interpersonal skills and effective organizational strategies, encourages all teachers to feel supported and gain a commitment to the school and to their responsibilities.

        Effective administrators also recognize that special education teachers often feel isolated and uncertain of their role in the organization of the school. There are specific aspects of administrator support that are important to special education teachers. Special education teachers know they are supported when a school’s mission and goals are inclusive of all children and when they have been involved in development of these goals. Special educators know they are supported when the school principal or leader participates knowledgeably in the development of a student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) or in the resolution of a discipline issue, basing decisions on IDEA. All teachers know they are supported in teaching children with disabilities when school leaders develop professional evaluations that document specific knowledge and skills that are used in the instruction of children with unique learning needs.

     Professional development resources can be used to promote an “inclusive” administrative leadership that values the tasks of all teachers in the following ways: 

  • development of essential beliefs that all children can learn and principals are responsible for the learning of all children in their building;

  • careful consideration of the impact of disabilities on student performance, referral-to-placement procedures, confidentiality procedures, standards for high quality special education teachers, and discipline procedures;

  • collaborative planning and decision making, including the coordination of effective teacher supports; and

  • informed advocacy for inclusive schools.

Administrative supports for teachers of students with disabilities, as well as teachers of all students, assist in the development of collegiality and collaboration among those who are too often left out of the day-to-day communication and support networks. Involvement of all teachers in these components of a school’s culture is necessary to promote interrelationships within a school’s professional environment that will result in more effective informal methods of professional training and, eventually, higher teacher retention.

3.   Building a Framework: Induction and Mentoring Programs that Work

        Successful induction programs include mentoring or coaching that is individualized to the needs of the teacher, the classroom and the subject/level assignment. They provide continuing assistance and ongoing guidance by an expert in the field, support development of knowledge and skills, provide opportunities for reflection, acculturate the new teacher into the profession and the school, provide opportunities for new teachers to observe and analyze good teaching, and include assessment of the program’s value to new teachers and its impact on student learning (Odell, 1989, in Fidelar & Haselkorn, 1999; Berry, et.al., 2002).

        In Learning the Ropes: Urban Teacher Induction Programs and Practices in the United States, Fidelar and Haselkorn (1999) concluded that the median attrition rate for new teachers in induction programs across the 10 urban districts they studied was seven percent which compared favorably with national estimates showing nine percent attrition during a teacher’s first year and twenty-three percent within the first three years (p.115).  

        In her book, Mentoring Programs for New Teachers: Models of Induction and Support, Susan Villani (2002) provides detailed descriptions of 17 mentor induction programs. In addition to providing information about establishing, implementing and evaluating these initiatives, program directors provided substantial evidence that the programs enhanced retention.

        Glendale Union High School District in Glendale, Arizona reports that the percentage of teachers who remained in the district for 10 years increased from thirty-two percent to fifty-five percent after a mentoring program was established in 1991. This suburban school district with a twenty-five percent Hispanic population mentors all new teachers for their first three years.

In urban Columbus, Ohio, which has a sixty percent African American population, the Peer Assistance and Review Program is conducted in affiliation with Ohio State University and has been established for 15 years. Data collected in five-year increments shows an eighty percent retention rate for the first two increments. During the third increment, retention was sixty-seven percent. This compares favorably with a national retention rate of only fifty percent within the first five years of teaching (U.S. Department of Education, 2000).

        The New Teacher Center at the University of California Santa Cruz reports that ninety-four percent of teachers who have been mentored over the last 10 years through the Santa Cruz New Teacher Project are still in education seven years later. Of those, eighty-eight percent continue to teach in K-12 classrooms.

        Rochester, New York has had its Career in Teaching Plan since 1986. This urban district of 38,000 reports that, over the last 15 years of its mentoring and induction program, the average retention rate is eighty-seven percent. Rochester also has evaluated the impact of intern teachers on student achievement in English Language Arts (ELA). Its Education Testing and Research Department concluded, “The ELA longitudinal study offered tantalizing evidence that the mentor program is an effective intervention in improving student performance” (Villani, 2002, p. 112).

        The Systematic Teacher Excellence Preparation Project in Montana is implemented through a National Science Foundation grant to Montana State University — Bozeman. Given the rural nature of Montana, the program is telecommunications-based. An early career teacher is matched with an experienced teacher who is, preferably, teaching the same subject or specialty area. At the end of the third year of the program, ninety-six percent of the first cohort of teachers to be mentored through the program was still in the teaching profession.

        While special education teachers face many of the same challenges that their general education colleagues face as new teachers, they also confront unique issues. Among these are implementing administrative requirements associated with development of IEPs; developing modifications and accommodations to the general curriculum that allow students successful access; establishing professional relationships with paraprofessionals; using complicated assistive technology to help students gain knowledge and skills; and coordinating complex medical procedures that need to be provided (Boyer & Gillespie, 2000).

     Whitaker (2000) found that beginning special education teachers who had mentors that they rated as effective were more likely to remain in special education. These mentors had the following characteristics.

  • They were special educators.
  • They met with the new teacher frequently.
  • They provided emotional support.
  • They conveyed system information related to the teaching environments and to special education.
  • They informed the new teacher of materials and resources.

“. . . the key to addressing shortages lies …in schools and classrooms where teachers must find success and satisfaction. It is there they will decide whether or not to continue to teach.”


The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers,

Harvard Graduate School of Education

     Professional standards for new special educators (Council for Exceptional Children, 2003) include, as a minimum, a one-year mentorship during the first year of special education practice. Mason and White’s Guidelines for Mentoring New Special Educators (in press) provides organizational suggestions, activities, evaluation and examples to guide districts in establishing a mentorship program for new special educators or expanding a current induction program with mentors to meet the needs of new special educators.

Not only do good induction and support programs retain teachers, but they also attract teachers. Harvard's Next Generation of Teachers reports that teachers entering the field are attracted to districts that offer specific professional development programs that increase their professional knowledge and skills, rapidly integrate them into the culture of the school, and support their professional growth as successful educators (Johnson, et.al., 2001). As a result, school districts now market their professional development programs to not only new graduates but also mid-career changers and teacher transfers.

Data supports the implementation of effective retention plans.

Retention plans that incorporate strategies for supporting the role of the administrator, improving working conditions, and providing mentoring and induction programs require human and financial resources. These resources are often in short supply in local districts. It is critical that the planning, implementation and evaluation of retention initiatives be built on a permanent data collection strategy or system than provides the contextual needs for personnel in the state or in a local district. Without accurate and timely information that informs policy development and subsequent activities, retention initiatives can be ineffective and inefficient, wasting valuable professional development resources. Taking the time and money to collect accurate information on the professional needs of new and experienced staff across time makes good sense, too!

        The following models of national and state data collection can be considered in developing plans for the design and use of a data collection system at the local level.

National Models of Data Collection

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) regularly collects data on schools and their staff. This data is included in the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/, collected every five years and the annual Projections of Education Statistics (U.S. Dept of Education, 2001), http://nces.ed.gov. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics provides national projections for various fields within education, including special education, in its Occupational Outlook Handbook. The American Association for Employment in Education (AAEE) has conducted an annual national study for the past 25 years that provides information on the demand for all teachers in regions of the country. The study is not only sub-divided into geographic regions but also reflects the needs for educators in 64 different categories of teaching, related service personnel and administrators. Special educators are represented in 16 categories. Ten of those 16 categories have consistently been in the top 20 categories for greatest demand.

In an effort to understand the dynamics of retention and attrition issues of special educators and how the work of special educators compares to that of general educators, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), funded the comprehensive SPeNSE study in 1998. This study provided extensive information on the special education and general education workforces during school year 1999-2000. Reports available offer analyses of data on teacher quality, recruitment and retention, role of paraprofessionals, paperwork burdens, and the licensure or certification status of teaching professionals. Interactive data sets can be searched by region of the country, district size, district poverty, and metropolitan status. The study explored supports that special educators find most effective and issues that drive them from the field. The SPeNSE data offers an administrator a broad view of the types of information that are potentially useful to collect for comprehensive personnel planning at the local level.

National studies serve two purposes for local administrators: 1) the studies can be instrumental in bringing the need for teacher retention to the forefront of discussions on high quality teachers, and 2) they provide a template for developing a local district study of personnel needs by demonstrating the types of data that should be collected when considering policy and practice that will support teacher retention.

State Models of Data Collection

As states and local school districts have begun to implement the mandates of NCLB, collecting information on the teaching workforce to provide an adequate supply of highly qualified educators for all students has become a high priority for state and local administrators. States and local school districts need data collection systems that allow them to:

  • Predict numbers of personnel leaving positions and entering teaching by professional category, subject area and instructional level for use in planning recruiting activities and communicating with teacher preparation programs.

  • Collect information on professional development needs of specific categories of educators and respond accordingly in planning and implementing high quality induction programs and school leadership preparation.

  • Better understand reasons for attrition in their state or local district and barriers that exist to recruitment and retention.

  • Develop recommendations for addressing personnel needs through comprehensive recruitment and retention programs.

  • Articulate policy implications when working within state and local political arenas.

The Commonwealth of Virginia’s Report on Supply and Demand of Instructional Personnel in Virginia: 1999-2000, an annual study on personnel needs, reported on:


  • employment status of personnel by local districts and endorsement (certification) areas;

  • instructional personnel shortages by endorsement area and superintendents' regions;

  • perceived supply of instructional personnel by endorsement area;

  • factors contributing to teachers and administrators leaving their positions; and

  • demographic, societal and political factors impacting demand.

The Virginia study revealed that the most acute teacher shortages in Virginia continue to be in special education, science (physics/earth science) and mathematics. The eight special education endorsement areas combine to account for forty-two percent of the full-time equivalent (FTE) positions filled with unendorsed personnel.

An example of a well-developed study on special education personnel need is Texas’ 2001 Statewide Study of Special Education Professionals’ Personnel Needs (Texas Center for Educational Research, 2001). Data was collected in three categories to explore:

  • the current status of special education personnel needs;

  • critical issues for maintaining an adequate supply of qualified special education professionals; and

  • professional development needs of special education professionals.

Three hundred special education directors across Texas completed the survey, and 184 participated in in-depth telephone surveys. Data revealed that the highest teacher vacancy rates in single districts and shared service arrangements were for specialized positions, including teachers of students with emotional disabilities, severe disabilities and auditory impairments (Texas Center for Educational Research, 2001). The study also queried administrators about specific strategies used to address these shortages. Respondents reported that using more paraprofessionals, contracting for services, using personnel who were working toward full licensure or certification, and using alternative certification program interns were the most effective and widely used strategies. This type of survey can provide valuable information at the building level in a district and can serve as an important resource in formulating effective district-wide policy and practice.

The study also asked respondents to identify the destinations for special education teachers who left special education classrooms. Those who left indicated that they took a special education position in another school district, took a non-special education position in the same district, took a non-special education position in another school district, retired, or made a family move. Information with this level of detail can serve as a diagnostic tool for better understanding the dynamics that draw teachers away from those hard to staff assignments.

Clearly, a statewide study of local districts’ responses to these types of inquiries is the first step in planning an effective retention initiative for states and their local districts. Lacking strategically collected and analyzed data specific to place and position, administrators are designing retention initiatives that are less informed than they could be if they used this data.

For example, the Washington Education Association’s (WEA) 2002 ESA/Special Education Survey Report sought to document the work situation of those who stay and those who leave in the State of Washington, with the expressed purpose of encouraging the development of strategies to retain and regain special education staff.

The WEA survey collected information from 3,834 professionals who were identified on the surveys according to specialization within the field of special education. They reported reasons why they left the field; challenges of their work, caseloads and paperwork; quality of training activities they received; issues related to personal safety; and quality of support systems in place at the district and building levels.

When asked to list reasons for leaving special education, eighty-one percent responded that the amount of uncompensated work prompts persons to leave. Sixty percent of responders chose other administrative-related reasons including:

  • number of meetings that require participation,
  • meeting arrangements required,
  • report writing,
  • completing student forms required by the district, and
  • elements of work not related to student outcomes.

Aspects of special education that were encouraging to teachers and contributed to retention included work relationships with other special education staff and how successfully teachers were able to meet the needs of their special education students (WEA, 2002).

In 2002, the Oregon Special Education Recruitment and Retention Project conducted a study of recently hired special educators in Oregon. This survey resulted in the identification of:

  • incidence and perceived helpfulness of induction activities,
  • incidence and perceived helpfulness of initial support activities, and
  • incidence and perceived helpfulness of ongoing supports and working conditions.

The respondents in this study included persons new to the profession, experienced professionals new to the profession, and experienced special educators new to the state. The data proved consistent with research elsewhere, particularly when respondents provided perspectives on the importance of ongoing supports. Having a building administrator who was knowledgeable in IDEA and supportive of the special educator’s role was cited as important by eighty-five percent of respondents who had that support. Ninety percent of the same pool of respondents identified the availability and support of well-prepared paraprofessionals as important (Oregon Department of Education, 2002). These types of data are important to states and local districts in determining which supports and programs should be created or maintained.

Also in 2002, a statewide study of special educators who had been practicing in Utah for at least 10 years was undertaken by Utah State University. Results revealed activities and supports that respondents found helpful in keeping them on the job and in the field, including:

  • collegial, parent and paraeducators’ support;

  • paperwork support;
  • physical resources; and
  • professional resources.

Miller, Brownell, and Smith (1999) investigated Florida's special education teacher attrition issues through a large-scale survey of factors that predict leaving the special education classroom and factors that predict transferring to another school or district. Variables involved in decisions to leave the special education classroom were insufficient licensure or certification, perceptions of high stress, and perceptions of poor school climate. Those who had transferred to another school or district were significantly younger than stayers and cited perceptions of high stress and poor school climate.

Information of this nature informs policy development and helps to direct funds invested in support services as well. District and state administrators will find the time well spent and the results more positive when they use data to inform their teacher retention efforts.

        State and local school administrators need to work in partnership with communities, families, educators, higher education and school boards to keep high quality teachers in classrooms. This document is designed to facilitate development of these partnerships. At the state level, the document can provide a foundation for Comprehensive System of Personnel Development (CSPD) planning. At the local level, the strategies can become goals within School Improvement Plans. This document will enable school communities to provide all their students with the high quality, effective teachers that students need to reach their potential.

      Appendix 1-1 provides a resource for consideration in developing a teacher retention plan. The California Strategic Action Plan for the Recruitment, Preparation and Retention of Special Education Teachers outlines a series of recommendations for a statewide implementation plan for the preparation, recruitment and retention of special education teachers.



American Association for Employment in Education. (2003). Educator supply and demand in the United States: 2002 report. Columbus, OH: Author.

Bateman, D. & Bateman, C.F. (2001). A principal’s guide to special education. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

Berry, B., Hopkins-Thompson, P. & Hoke, M. (2002). Assessing and supporting new teachers: Lessons from the Southeast. The Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, NC.

Billingsley, B. S. (2003). Special education teacher retention and attrition: A critical analysis of the literature. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education. Retrieved on September 8, 2003.

Billingsley, B. S. (1993). Teacher retention and attrition in special and general education. A critical review of the literature. The Journal of Special Education, 27(2), 137-174.


Billingsley, B. S.; Cross, L. H. (1992). Predictors of commitment, job satisfaction, and intent to stay in teaching: A comparison of general and special educators. Journal of Special Education, 25(4), 453-471.


Boe, E. E., Cook. L. H., Bobbitt, S. A. & Weber A. L. (1998). Retention and attrition of teachers at the district level: National trends in special and general education. Reston, VA: National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education.

Boyer, L. & Gillespie, P. (2000). Keeping the committed: The importance of induction and support programs for new special educators. Teaching Exceptional Children, 33(1), 10-15.

Council for Exceptional Children. (2003). What every special educator must know: The ethics, standards, and guidelines for special educators. Arlington, VA: Author.

Council for Exceptional Children. (2001). Implementing IDEA: A guide for principals. Arlington, VA: Author

Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). Teacher quality and student achievement: A review of state policy evidence. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8(1), 1-45.

DiPaola, M.F., Walther-Thomas, C. (2003). Principals and special education: The critical role of school leaders (COPSSE Document No. 1B-7E). Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education.

Evans, C. (1999). Navigating the dual discipline system. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

Fidelar, L. & Haselkorn, D. (1999). Learning the ropes: Urban teacher induction programs and practices in the United States. Belmont, MA: Recruiting New Teachers, Inc.

Gerlach, K. (2001). Let’s team up: A checklist for paraeducators, teachers, and principals. Washington, DC: National Education Association of the United States.

Gersten, R., Keating, T., Yovanoff, P., & Harniss, M.K. ( 2001). Working in special education: Factors that enhance special educators’ intent to stay. Exceptional Children, 67(4), 549-567.

Goor, M.B., Schwenn, J.O., & Boyer, L. (1997). Preparing principals for leadership in special education. Intervention in School and Clinic, 32(3), 133-141.

Haycock, K. (Winter, 2002). Closing the achievement gap: State policy levers. The State Education Standard. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Boards of Education, 6-13.

Ingersoll, R. M. (2001). Teacher turnover, teacher shortages, and the organization of schools. Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy. Seattle, WA: University of Washington.

Joftis, S. & Maddox-Dolan, B. (2002). New teacher excellence: Retaining our best. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Johnson, S. M., Birkeland, S., Kardos, S. M., Kauffman, D., Liu, E. & Peske, H. G. (2001). Retaining the next generation of teachers: The importance of school-based support. Harvard Education Letter Research Online. Retrieved on September 3, 2003 from http://www.gse.harvard.edu/~ngt/

Mason, C. & White, M. (in press). Guidelines for mentoring new special educators. Arlington, VA: Council   for Exceptional Children.

Miller, M.D., Brownell, M., Smith, S. W. (1999). Factors that predict teachers staying in, leaving, or transferring from the special education classroom. Exceptional Children, 65(2), 201-218.

Murnane, R. J., Singer, J. D., & and Willet, J. B. (1989). The influences of salaries and “opportunity costs” on teachers’ career choices: Evidence from North Carolina. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 325-346.

National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. (2003). No dream denied. Washington, DC: Author.

Norton, M. S. (1999). Teacher retention: Reducing costly teacher turnover. Contemporary Education, 70(3).

Oregon Department of Education. (2002). Survey of recently hired special education professionals in Oregon. Monmouth, OR: Oregon Special Education Recruitment and Retention Project, Western Oregon University. Retrieved on September 10, 2003.

Sanders, W.L. & Rivers, J.C. (1996). Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center.

Southern Regional Education Board. (2002). Reduce your losses: Help new teachers become veteran teachers. Atlanta, GA: Author.

Steff, B. E., Wolfe, M. P., Pasch, S. H., & Enz, B. J. (2000). The life cycle of the career teacher. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Texas Center for Educational Research. (2000). The cost of teacher turnover. Austin, TX: Texas State Board of Educator Certification.

Texas Center for Educational Research. (2001). The statewide study of special education professionals’ personnel needs. Austin, TX: Texas Education Agency.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2000). Progress through the teacher pipeline: 1992-93 college graduates and elementary/secondary school teaching as of 1997, NCES 2000-152 by Robin R. Henke, Xianglei Chen, and Sonya Geis. Washington, DC.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2001). Projections of education statistics to 2011, NCES 2001-083, by Debra E. Gerald and William J. Hussar. Washington, DC.

U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2002). Occupational outlook handbook 2002-03 edition. Washington, DC: Author.

Useem, B. (2001). How do effective principals keep their teachers? Philadelphia Public School Notebook. Philadelphia Education Fund. Philadelphia, PA.

Virginia Department of Education. (2000). Report on supply and demand of instructional personnel in Virginia: 1999-2000. Richmond, VA: Division of Teacher Education and Licensure.

Villani, S. (2002). Mentoring programs for new teachers: Models of induction and support. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.

Washington Education Association. (2002). Educational staff associate/Special education task force 2002 special education survey report. Seattle, WA: Author.

Westat (2002a). Study of personnel needs in special education. Retrieved on May 13, 2003.

Westat (2002b). Recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers. Retrieved on May 13, 2003.

Westat (2002c). A high quality teacher for every classroom. Retrieved on September 3, 2003 .

Whitaker, S. D. (2000). Mentoring beginning special education teachers and the relationship to attrition. Exceptional Children, 66, 546-56.

Districts that are developing induction and mentoring programs with well designed assessment and support components find these efforts are already producing positive retention trends for all teachers.

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