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The ERIC/OSEP Special Project

OSEP, Ideas that Work

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Development funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs


SPeNSE: Discovering the Needs in Special Education Personnel

What are the qualities that make a good special educator? As districts attempt to meet the need for special education teachers, sometimes filling positions with less qualified candidates, the question takes on more urgency. Funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) as part of a national assessment of IDEA, the Study of Personnel Needs in Special Education (SPeNSE) analyzed conditions in special education services, qualifications of current special educators, and origins of nationwide shortages in special education personnel.

Now at the end of its five-year funding cycle, SPeNSE has published reports analyzing much of the data it gathered through over 8,000 telephone interviews conducted with administrators, preschool special education teachers, general and special educators, speech-language pathologists, and paraprofessionals during the 1999-2000 school year.

The SPeNSE study measured teacher quality across many areas: teacher experience, credentials, tested ability, self-efficacy, professional activities, and classroom practices. It also explored factors associated with intent to stay in the profession, including working conditions, preservice education, continuing professional development, and State and local policies. Two other related sets of data were gathered for analysis: paraprofessional and speech-language pathologist qualifications and support.

When teachers were asked to assess their knowledge, skills, and practices, information was gathered in the following instructional areas: facilitating inclusion, secondary transition, teaching limited English proficient students, teaching reading, and managing behavior. Results indicate that more than 90% of special education teachers work in regular elementary or secondary schools, though more than 80% of their instructional time is spent in special education settings. Eighty percent of special education teachers also indicated that the practices they use to support inclusion are used throughout their schools and that 96% of general educators teach students with disabilities or have done so in the past. "Furthermore," the study reports in its Key Findings, "most general educators said they received the support they needed to teacher students with disabilities to a moderate or great extent." This support came from special education teachers, special procedures for working with students, continuing professional development on the needs of students with disabilities, and assistance from paraprofessionals.

Among the factors that positively affect teachers, working conditions are indicated as a strong incentive for teacher retention, and school climate is associated with helping teachers manage their workload and increasing the likelihood of their staying in the profession. The Key Findings state: "It is possible that a positive school climate counteracts some of the stress associated with teaching students with disabilities, and consequently, promotes retention."

Complete analyses of data, fact sheets, and the report of key findings can be downloaded from the SPeNSE website (http://www.spense.org).

The Study of Personnel Needs in Special Education was funded by OSEP and conducted by Westat, Elaine Carlson, Project Director. Further information about the project and its findings can be found at the project Website, as noted above.

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Last updated: April 3, 2003

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