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TNLI: Action Research: Professional Development: Keeping Them

What can be done or needs to be done to improve special education teacher retention?


Every year, 12% of the teachers in the field of special education transfer by choice to regular education teaching positions. This is a costly problem. The expense of recruiting replacements is one cost, but the cost to the students also needs to be considered. With high teacher turnover in special education, there is a loss in efficiency because teacher turnover affects student performance.

There is a need for an in-depth look at why veteran special education teachers have been able to remain involved and committed to working with students with disabilities for many years. The benefits of this investigation far outweigh the costs.

Many research studies have been conducted on teacher attrition and retention. Bonnie Billingsley has conducted the most comprehensive review of the factors that contribute to special education teacher attrition and retention. Her research points to the challenge of developing a qualified workforce and creating school/work environments that maintain special educators’ commitment and involvement.

The U.S. Office of Special Education Programs publishes online SPeNSE Fact Sheets. (SPeNSE is an acronym for the Study of Personnel Needs in Special Education.) Two important SPeNSE Fact Sheets reviewed for this action research focus on the need for high-quality teachers in every special education classroom and the amount of paperwork associated with special education.

Teacher questionnaires and personal interviews were used to conduct this action research. The minimum criterion for participants in this action research was fifteen years of continuous teaching in the field of special education. After the teacher questionnaire was completed, a personal interview was conducted. Attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions about school climate were the main topics of discussion during the personal interviews.

The Cape Henlopen (DE) School District Reduction in Force (RIF) list was used to determine eligible research study participants. Forty-eight teachers were listed on the RIF list as special education teachers with fifteen or more years of experience. After further investigation, it was found that only twenty-five of those forty-eight teachers were currently teaching special education students. That meant that 48% of the teachers listed under special education had transferred to teaching in the regular education population. When almost half of the teachers in a certified area leave that certification area for another field, there is a problem. A return rate of 60% was achieved for the completed questionnaire. Personal interviews were conducted with 100% of the participants who completed the questionnaire.

Questionnaire and interview participants listed these “C.O.R.E.S.” as the keys to a collaborative school climate that increases special education teacher retention: Connectedness, Optimism, Respect, Empowerment, and Support.


The following may reduce stress and burnout that lead to high attrition rates among special educators:

  • School administrators should reduce teachers’ role overload, restructuring their jobs and the expectations placed on them.
  • Policy makers should think “outside the box” when mandating programs to be implemented by special educators.

Full Study
Coming Soon!

Stephanie DeWitt

Special Education
Shields Elementary School

TNLI Affiliate:

If you would like to learn more about Teachers Network Leadership Institute--Delaware, please e-mail Michael Rasmussen.



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