The Commonwealth of Virginia has launched a new initiative that will make it easier for students to acquire the educational credentials needed to obtain a teaching license in Virginia.

State officials hope the new teacher preparation programs announced by Gov. Ralph Northam last week will encourage more people to consider a career in education. “Eliminating the barrier of extra years of schooling traditionally required for teacher licensure will encourage more students to pursue teaching careers,” Education Secretary Atif Qarni pointed out.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, there were “critical shortages” of qualified teachers in ten Pre-K-to-12 education specialties during the 2018-2019 school year, based on data reported by all of the commonwealth’s 132 school divisions.

The 10 areas were ranked based on an aggregate total number of unfilled teaching positions; positions filled by provisionally licensed teachers; or licensed teachers who were teaching outside their academic subject areas. Enrollment at teachers colleges nationwide was down last year as students sought degrees in more lucrative fields.

The shortages can be found in many teaching specialties, ranging from Pre-K to secondary Science and English. However, the biggest shortage of qualified professionals is in special education.

Longtime educators are not surprised that school administrators have the hardest time filling special-ed teaching slots. Some schools can’t even get substitutes when their special-ed teachers are out sick or have to take a day off.

An analysis of federal data last December by the Education Week Research Center found that the number of special-ed teachers nationwide decreased 17 percent over the past decade, while the number of students with disabilities remained fairly steady, declining just 1 percent over the same period. But when even veteran special-ed teachers are calling it quits, frustrated by a job they say is becoming impossible, there’s clearly a problem that an expedited licensure process will not fix.

Teaching was once considered a good, steady professional job (with summers off!), but it has now become one that fewer Virginians are eager to pursue. Common factors that contribute to the statewide shortage of teachers in general include: lower pay compared to peers with similar education levels; lack of administrative support; lack of respect from students and parents; heavy workloads, including a crushing amount of paperwork and data collection; and administrative tasks, tests and meetings that take time away from actual classroom teaching.

In addition to that, special-ed teachers also have to contend with students’ often complex physical, mental, emotional and medical conditions; heavy caseloads; sometimes contradictory regulations; rigid curriculum requirements; Individualized Education Programs (IEP) that can be challenged in court; and other teachers and parents who don’t reinforce specialized learning strategies in the classroom and at home, or who excuse serious behavioral issues that impede learning—not only for the special-ed students themselves, but also for their general education classmates.

It’s not unusual for a special-ed teacher to be kicked or scratched by a student and threatened with a parental lawsuit all on the same day. Or for one special-ed teacher to be responsible for children in multiple grades with completely different learning disabilities and curriculum requirements.

No wonder the rate of burnout is higher for them than for other educators, and why half of all newly minted special-ed teachers will leave the profession within five years.

Federal law requires that all children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education in the least-restrictive environment possible. That’s a laudable goal, but the way it is being implemented is clearly having a deleterious effect on the very people who are supposed to make that happen.

Streamlining the teacher licensure process is fine, but it’s a Band-Aid solution that will not keep all those newly minted teachers in the classroom once they find out what they’re up against.

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The Free Lance-Star

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