Professional Development for Teachers of Students with Disabilities

Nationally, 13 percent of all public school students receive some type of special education services.[1] Douglas County schools fall just below the national average, with approximately 7,000 of its 60,000 students receiving special education services.[2] There is a dearth of well-trained special education teachers in our country, and while research is limited in this area, it suggests a need for better preparation, professional development, and in-school supports.

McLeskey & Billingsley suggest that effective, research-based practices for teaching in special education exist but that there is little evidence that those practices are widely used. [3] One reason may be the lack of pre-service preparation and in-service professional development around special education practice. Another reason is the challenge facing many districts of keeping well-qualified special education teachers on staff. Research indicates instability in the special education teaching profession, with one in four special education teachers leaving his or her position each year. They also found evidence that poor working conditions such as heavy caseloads and lack of administrative support make it challenging for special education teachers to use evidence-based practices but that more research needed to be done to better understand how working conditions impact those teachers.

Mader reviewed several studies that showed how poorly teacher education programs prepared many teachers for supporting special education students.[4] General education teachers only took an average of 1.5 courses on inclusion or special education, and many teachers did not feel adequately prepared to implement individualized instruction. Inclusion has a demonstrated benefit to special education students, but teachers need time, support, and training to ensure that inclusion is effective. While change is needed in preparation programs to include more special education training, it is incumbent upon schools and districts to compensate for inadequate training through ongoing professional development.

A report by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and the National Center on Learning Disabilities suggests that learning to meet the instructional needs of students with disabilities should begin in initial teacher preparation programs.[5] For all teachers already in the profession, states and districts should implement programs to ensure that all teachers are skilled in instructing diverse students. Too frequently, teacher preparation and licensure limits teachers to working with certain populations, and those teachers perceive themselves (or are perceived) as only being able to work with certain students. This can limit the number of teachers who feel qualified to work with students with disabilities, challenging a school’s ability to provide the least restrictive environment to those students. By ensuring that all teachers are equipped to teach a broader range of students, schools can better support those students and create stronger classroom communities for all learners.

Nearly all states have a shortage of special education teachers.[6] Too often, special education vacancies are filled with underprepared teachers. Carver-Thomas suggests strategies to build a pipeline of special education teachers to help fill shortages. One way is to offer scholarships or forgivable loans to teachers who earn special education certifications and a commitment to teaching in that field for a minimum number of years. Another strategy is to support “Grow Your Own” programs to recruit not only high school students but also community members and paraprofessionals into teaching. Teacher residencies can offer teacher training with a commitment to teach in high-needs schools and subject areas. States and districts can also offer incentives to help attract and retain experienced special education teachers.




[3] McLeskey, J., & Billingsley, B.S. (2008). How does the quality and stability of the teaching force influence the research-to-practice gap? Remedial and Special Education, 29(5), 293-305.

[4] Mader, J. (2017). How teacher training hinders special-needs students. The Atlantic,

[5] Blanton, Mugach, & Florian.

[6] Carver-Thomas, D. (2017). The special education teacher crisis: Who’s teaching our most vulnerable students? Learning Policy Institute,