There’s a growing shortage in the U.S. of people qualified – or willing – to work in the field of special education.

According to the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services, there is both a shortage of professionals to fill available positions and a shortage of positions to meet the growing demand for America’s 6 million youth with disabilities who receive special education services.

The organization’s website features a list of “challenges” faced by special education that includes several hurdles (both physical and bureaucratic):

•Poor working conditions which lead to professionals leaving special education (including excessive paperwork, unmanageable workloads, inadequate support and professional isolation).

•Insufficient funding for incentive programs designed to attract and support new graduate students.

•Fewer qualified faculty and increasing higher education costs.

•Limited supply of qualified people willing to work in certain communities (including those in rural areas or that have high poverty or high crime).

Springfield-based Drury University (which recently signed a deal with the City of Houston to set up a satellite campus in a large building on Spruce Street) has made a unique attempt to address the situation by launching Missouri’s first and only master’s in special education program that’s 100-percent online: The Drury Alternative Track in Special Education (DATSE).

“There is a growing demand in the U.S. for teachers with certification in special education,” said Drury School of Education and Child Development Dean Dr. Shannon Cuff.

Cuff said that in a report published in June 2017 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education, a special education teacher shortage was identified in 91 Missouri counties (including Texas County). 



“Drury’s School of Education and Child Development is well-positioned to help districts in Missouri meet this demand with its 100-percent online program,” she said. “The program is a great fit for paraprofessionals or provisionally certified special education teachers who desire lead classroom positions. The convenience of taking online classes to fit a professional’s busy schedule, along with personalized support from dedicated and knowledgeable Drury University faculty, make this program an excellent option for those who wish to teach children with special needs.”

Tiffany Mooney, a special education teacher in the Cabool School District, is enrolled in the program. Mooney has been with the district for about three years, beginning as a substitute teacher in March 2015. After a recommendation by several cohorts, she applied for and was offered a paraprofessional position in special education in August 2015.

“When pondering with myself, I prayed about it and that is where I was led to,” Mooney said.  

Before completing her first year as a special education paraprofessional, some colleagues told Mooney she should make the move to becoming a special education teacher. She did in September 2018.

Mooney said her experience with special needs students has been eye-opening and rewarding.

She loves witnessing kids grasp the concept of a topic they’ve worked long and hard on, and the way they get excited over it.



“To see their big smile makes it all worth it,” Mooney said. “It might be something small to us but to them it’s big. In the special education field, you celebrate each milestone like it is the biggest thing ever.

“Being able to teach them something so simple and seeing the ‘light bulb go off’ for them gives you the best feeling ever, or to me it does, and to many other special education teachers I have worked with.”

Mooney has a nephew who has been diagnosed with autism. 

“Watching how he grew through his younger years of life made me want to help more like him,” she said. “Sometimes things are not easy and smooth sailing like people think it is for them. My nephew was probably the starting point that led me to the special education field.” 

Mooney said Drury’s DATSE program is ideal for her life path. She has four boys and spends hours following their interests in all types of sports.

“When I began looking at my options to further my education I needed something online,” Mooney said. “While looking at my options, I found many colleges and universities I was going to have to quit my job to do student teaching.  Drury offered courses that were 100-percent online for me to be able to attend and fit into my crazy schedule.”


The teacher shortage in the U.S. isn’t limited to special education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, public schools in 48 states and the District of Columbia reported teacher shortages in math for the 2017-18 school year, while 46 reported shortages in special education, 43 in science and 41 in foreign languages.

In a research briefing last September, the Learning Policy Institute (a national education think-tank with offices on both U.S. coasts) said, “currently, there are not enough qualified teachers applying for teaching jobs to meet the demand in all locations and fields.”

But related to special education, the shortage is growing fast nationally.


During the 2017-2018 school year, the Houston School District’s Exceptional Child Education Cooperative served more than 700 special needs students at 12 school districts in five area counties. That task was accomplished with 19 teachers, one secretary and director Jeremy Smith (who resigned in late March and whose last day with the district is at the end of June). 

Smith said he has definitely experienced difficulty with finding teachers.

“It is difficult to find teachers period, special education or otherwise,” he said. “Obviously, the more specialized the more difficult it is to find staff. Special Education teachers are very difficult to find. Individuals who can provide related services, such as speech language pathologists, are incredibly difficult to recruit.”

As studies have shown, the problem lies in the level of demand versus the number of available workers.

Freshmen graph
Freshmen graph

“The biggest problem in obtaining and maintaining teachers or related service providers is supply,” Smith said. “There are just not enough people with the appropriate certification, or they have the certification and they’re not interested in teaching. The other obstacle we face when trying to recruit speech language pathologists is that we are competing with the medical industry. This just complicates the issue with supply even more.”

Smith said the bureaucratic hurdles are indeed noticeable.

“There does seem to be more to keep track of now then there used to be 20 years ago when I got into the profession,” he said. “Teachers are certainly expected to do a great deal more and the days are not getting any longer.” 

Smith said the Co-op is actively trying to recruit speech language pathologists or speech language pathologist assistants.  

special ed
special ed

•49 states report a shortage of special education teachers and support personnel.

•12.3-percent of special education teachers leave the profession – nearly double the rate of general education teachers.

•51-percent of all U.S. school districts and 90-percent of the districts in high poverty areas report difficulty attracting highly qualified special education teachers.

* From the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services

The Drury Alternative Track in Special Education program is designed for people who have completed a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university with a 2.75 or higher cumulative grade point average and who wish to obtain a Missouri teaching certificate in mild/moderate disabilities. For more information, log onto http://www.drury.edu/education-masters/drury-alternative-track-in-special-education.

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