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Special educator retention — April 2019


Could you provide information on special education teacher retention? Specifically, why special education teachers leave teaching, and strategies for retaining them in the classroom.


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on special education teacher retention. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

Research References

Andrews, A., & Brown, J. L. (2015). Discrepancies in the ideal perceptions and the current experiences of special education teachers. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 3(6), 126–131. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The field of special education continues to have lower teacher retention rates compared to general education. As a result, concerns over the quality of special education teachers’ professional experiences have risen. Both general and special education teachers have their ideal views of the profession, including ample classroom facilities, available resources, and supportive administration; however, many factors can cause teachers to have less than ideal experiences in the field. The purpose of this study was to examine special education teachers’ ideal perception of teaching compared to their current experiences. The researchers conducted a causal comparative research study using the Perceptions of Success Inventory for Beginning Teachers (Corbell, Osborne, & Reiman, 2010; Corbell, Reiman, & Nietfeld, 2008). The study included a sample of 14 participants employed as special education teachers in one school system located in the southeastern United States. A series of paired sample t-test analyses were conducted. The results revealed special education teachers’ current experiences were rated significantly lower than their ideal perceptions in 7 out of 8 scales (i.e., colleagues, administration, classroom, success, resources, workload, and parents). This research could provide administrators with insight into what special education teachers view as essential, or ideal, for effective teaching. Then, administrators can better determine how teachers’ current experiences are or are not meeting the teachers’ expectations.”

Billingsley, B. (2004). Special education teacher retention and attrition: A critical analysis of the research literature. The Journal of Special Education, 38(1), 39–55. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The lack of qualified special education teachers threatens the quality of education that students with disabilities receive. Attrition plays a part in the teacher shortage problem, and efforts to improve retention must be informed by an understanding of the factors that contribute to attrition. Specifically, the author provides a thematic analysis of studies investigating factors that contribute to special education teacher attrition and retention. She addresses four major themes: teacher characteristics and personal factors, teacher qualifications, work environments, and teachers’ affective reactions to work. Following this thematic review, a critique of definitional, conceptual, and methodological approaches used to study special education attrition is provided, as are priorities for future research.”

Brunsting, N. C., Sreckovic, M. A., & Lane, K. L. (2013). Special education teacher burnout: A synthesis of research from 1979 to 2013. Education and Treatment of Children, 37(4), 681–711. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Teacher burnout occurs when teachers undergoing stress for long periods of time experience emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of personal accomplishment (Maslach, 2003). Outcomes associated with burnout include teacher attrition, teacher health issues, and negative student outcomes. Special educators are at high risk for burnout as their working conditions align with many factors associated with burnout. In this review, we updated the literature on special education teacher working conditions by reviewing studies (N = 23) that (a) included a quantitative measure of burnout and (b) focused on special education teachers as participants. An analysis of the studies reviewed provided a clear base of support for the association between burnout and a range of variables from the individual, classroom, school, and district levels. Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) Ecological Model supplied the organizational framework for the range of variables. Teacher experience, student disability, role conflict, role ambiguity, and administrative support were particularly salient factors in special education teacher burnout. Important gaps in the research are discussed, future directions for researchers are outlined, and implications for teachers and other practitioners are provided.”

Rude, H., & Miller, K. J. (2018). Policy challenges and opportunities for rural special education. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 37(1), 21–29. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article reviews current developments in state and national policies that affect rural special education. A brief overview of the federal role in rural education is provided, with emphasis on the implications for the provision of special education services in rural communities. A variety of challenges are identified, including (a) the variable contexts of rural communities and the associated problems with the identity of rural education, (b) influences of rural poverty and accompanying decline in economic development in many rural communities, (c) ongoing personnel shortages in rural schools that pose unique dynamics for recruitment and retention of rural educators, (d) the disparities in available resources targeted for education in rural communities in comparison with urban counterparts, and (e) the influences of increased learner diversity on schools in rural America. A number of promising practices that address the challenges are identified, including attention to comprehensive statewide systems of educator identification, preparation, and ongoing support for educators and schools located in rural communities across America. A set of recommendations for policymakers and policy implementers is offered for consideration to advance the improvement of special education programs and services for learners in rural communities.”

Theoharis, R., & Fitzpatrick, M. (2013). Should I stay or should I go? Revisiting influencing factors of SPED teacher attrition & retention: A review of the literature. Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals, 159–167. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Evidence continually reports that special education (SPED) teachers stay in the field three-to-five academic school years before leaving the profession. A systematic review of historical-to-current literature revealed that personal, employment, and external factors were the three most prevalent variables that influenced attrition and retention (A&R) rates of SPED teachers. Although A&R has significant implications for student learning outcomes, the focus of this article is on analyzing these casual factors in an attempt to revisit and revitalize this important issue.”

Research References: Strategies for retaining special education teachers

Berry, A. B., Petrin, R. A., Gravelle, M. L., & Farmer, T. W. (2011). Issues in special education teacher recruitment, retention, and professional development: Considerations in supporting rural teachers. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 30(4), 3–11. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This study sought to obtain a current picture of special education teacher recruitment and retention in rural districts and to understand the professional development needs of rural special educators. Surveys, administered through telephone interviews with a national sample of special education administrators and teachers, confirmed the difficulties in hiring appropriately qualified teachers. Additional demands of the position may place teachers at risk for attrition. The authors identified important areas of professional development to support rural teachers in their positions: (a) working with paraprofessionals and parents, (b) low-incidence disabilities, (c) emotional and behavior disorders, (d) classroom management, (e) skills in collaboration and inclusive practices, and (f) curriculum content.”

Bettini, E. A., Cheyney, K., Wang, J., & Leko, C. (2015). Job design: An administrator’s guide to supporting and retaining special educators. Intervention in School and Clinic, 50(4), 221–225. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Special education teacher attrition has numerous negative impacts for students and schools. Administrators play an essential role in supporting special educators, but they seldom receive adequate preparation to provide this support effectively. The authors synthesize job characteristics theory, an area of research conducted by organizational psychologists. This theory is used to provide practical suggestions for administrators interested in supporting and retaining special educators.”

Billingsley, B. (2004). Promoting teacher quality and retention in special education. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37(5), 370–376. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Qualified special educators are needed to carry out research-based practices in schools. The shortage of special educators, the high numbers of uncertified teachers, and high attrition rates threaten the practice of science in the schoolhouse and, consequently, the education that students with disabilities receive. If teachers are to use research-based practices to benefit students with disabilities, care must be directed toward teachers, what they do, and the complex conditions in which their practice occurs. In this discussion, I focus on four factors that are important to special education teacher retention—responsive induction programs, deliberate role design, positive work conditions and supports, and professional development. These retention-enhancing factors also serve to cultivate qualified special educators by providing the conditions in which they can thrive and grow professionally.”

 Cancio, E. J., Albrecht, S. F., & Johns, B. H. (2014). Combating the attrition of teachers of students with EBD: What can administrators do? Intervention in School and Clinic, 49(5), 306–312. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Students with emotional/behavioral disorders (EBD) can present intensive needs, requiring the intervention and instruction of well-trained and qualified teachers who work with them in the classroom. However, schools face serious shortages in the field of special education, particularly for staff who work with this population of children (McLeskey, Tyler, & Flippin, 2003; ‘Study of Personnel Needs in Special Education,’ 2000; Texas Center for Educational Research, 2006). School personnel not only must focus their efforts on the recruitment of special educators but must work to keep the individuals who are credentialed and performing well in the field. When factors can be identified that are associated with intent to stay in or leave the field, it is important to consider strengthening those positive factors and working to minimize or eliminate the negative factors. Support from principals of teachers has been cited as one of the most important factors for both general and special educators’ retention (Correa & Wagner, 2011; Darling-Hammond, 2003). Special education teachers having 1 to 5 years experience in the classroom have been found to be the most vulnerable for attrition (Albrecht et al., 2009; Billingsley, 2005; Van Acker, 2009). This article provides an overview of the role supervisors (i.e., principals, special education supervisors, director of special education) can play in retaining qualified teachers of students with EBD.”

Emery, D. W., & Vadenberg, B. (2010). Special education teacher burnout and ACT. International Journal of Special Education, 25(3), 119–131. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Special educators are a high risk group, prone to low job satisfaction, low self-efficacy, and increased stress and burnout. The attrition rate of special educators is particularly high, contributing to an overall shortage of qualified teachers throughout the United States. While the problems of special educators are widely discussed in the literature, scant intervention research has targeted this population, and what has been done suffers from design limitations, lack of a guiding theoretical framework, and a focus on symptom reduction, rather than mediating psychological processes. Acceptance and commitment therapeutic (ACT) interventions hold promise for addressing special education teacher burnout.”

Jones, N. D., Youngs, P., & Frank, K. A. (2013). The role of school-based colleagues in shaping the commitment of novice special and general education teachers. Exceptional Children, 79(3), 365–383. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “We compare beginning special and general education teachers’ access to school-based colleagues. Our findings demonstrate that colleague relationships are critical for the experiences of beginning teachers, as are the school organizational norms that these beginning teachers experience. For special education teachers in particular, perception of colleague support was a strong predictor of retention plans. Similar results were seen with respect to their perception of the level of collective responsibility among the faculty. Taken together, these results suggest that schools and districts should make efforts to facilitate productive relationships between general and special education faculty, as well as to differentiate induction support for beginning special educators.”

Leko, M. M., & Smith, S. W. (2010). Retaining beginning special educators: What should administrators know and do? Intervention in School and Clinic, 45(5), 321–325. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The experiences that beginning special education teachers encounter moving from the pre-service environment into the first year of classroom teaching put them in a uniquely tenuous position that could lead to leaving the classroom after only a few years of teaching. District- and school-level administrators can influence the retention rates of beginning special educators by encouraging a welcoming and supportive school climate that facilitates collaboration among teachers, other school personnel, and parents. Administrators can promote induction by focusing on the instructional and material needs of beginning special educators that match their varied teaching assignments. Assigning a mentor who is knowledgeable about special education practices and policies and who is available for brief but frequent meetings will help reduce confusion, frustration, or lack of confidence new teachers may feel as they begin their teaching experience. Providing beginning special educators with opportunities to advance their knowledge through professional development can promote a sense of preparedness in a variety of teaching situations. Administrators can reduce beginners’ stress levels by monitoring caseload and paperwork burdens. Noting the difficulties of filling special education positions in their schools, administrators have at their disposal multiple and effective strategies to retain practicing special education teachers, especially those new to the profession. Focused and individualized attention on beginning special education teachers, who are most vulnerable to attrition, can improve the retention of their services over a long period of time and ultimately improve the services for students with disabilities.”

Pugach, M. C., Blanton, L. P., Correa, V. I., McLeskey, J., & Langley, L. K. (2009). The role of collaboration in supporting the induction and retention of new special education teachers (NCIPP Doc. No. RS-2). Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, National Center to Inform Policy and Practice in Special Education Professional Development (NCIPP). Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The purpose of this literature review is to explore the role of professional collaboration within the school context as a means of improving the quality and retention of beginning special education teachers (SETs). The assumption underlying the review is that the local school context in which new SETs work should also function as the primary source of induction support for GETs and SETs alike. As such, the audience for this review is both general and special educators, school building administrators, and central services staff in both general and special education, all of whom have interconnected responsibilities for the success of new SETs and whose actions can directly contribute to their professional longevity. With this assumption in mind, two questions guide this analysis: (1) If the school is viewed as the major context within which induction takes place, what aspects of the school as a community need to be taken into consideration when building strong induction policies and practices for SETs?; and (2) What is the relationship between capacity building for induction at the school level through a variety of collaborative practices that treat SETs as fully participating members of the school’s learning community and any discipline-specific support related to the unique role and needs of special educators, and how might general and special educators’ efforts in this regard intersect to create effective connections and an appropriate balance between the two? Drawing on the literature from both general and special education, four major issues are addressed, which include: (1) How are novice SETs situated within the concept and practice of schools as PLCs?; (2) What roles do building principals play in creating school communities that support the induction of SETs?; (3) What professional development practices might best serve as vehicles for improving the quality of new SETs’ practice?; and (4) What is the role of co-teaching or teacher teaming as a collaborative enterprise for the induction of SETs? Each section of the paper explores one of these issues as related to support for the induction of SETs. Literature from general education that has direct applicability to building capacity for the induction of SETs at the school site through collaboration, as well as literature that addresses SETs more directly, is included. The paper includes charts of empirical studies that have informed the review as well as recommendations for practice and research. The conclusion explores themes across all four sections of the review.”

REL West note: See related policy brief:

University of Florida, National Center to Inform Policy and Practice in Special Education Professional Development. (2010). Professional learning communities: A practice to support the induction and retention of novice special education teachers. Gainesville, FL: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Collaboration among novice special education teachers and their general education colleagues can bolster the impact of induction programs for all novice teachers, including special education teachers. Strong, supportive collaborative structures also can influence novice special education teacher retention. A professional learning community—the topic of this Brief—is a promising collaborative structure for engaging these novice teachers in the professional school culture.”

Shurr, J., Hirth, M., Jasper, A., McCollow, M., & Heroux, J. (2014). Another tool in the belt: Self-directed professional learning for teachers of students with moderate and severe disabilities. Physical Disabilities: Education and Related Services, 33(1), 17–38. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Chronic shortages, high attrition rates, the unique demands of the job, and geographic isolation from colleagues have been identified as unique challenges within the profession for teachers of students with moderate and severe disabilities. Many different forms of professional development exist for educators; however, these experiences do not always adequately meet the specific needs of individual teachers. This article presents an additional tool for professional learning utilizing a framework for selecting, monitoring and assessing progress toward self-identified areas of professional growth. The proposed model considers teacher development in three dimensions including school-based, community-based, and universal growth.”

Valle-Riestra, D. M., Shealey, M. W., & Cramer, E. D. (2011). Recruiting and retaining culturally diverse special educators. Interdisciplinary Journal of Teaching and Learning, 1(2), 68–87. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “In light of the current challenges in addressing the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students, the persistent problems of disproportionality in special education, and the dismal post-school outcomes for culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students and those living in poverty, it is critical that successful models of teacher recruitment and retention are developed and implemented. In this article we review current literature on multicultural issues in special education that underscore the need for a more diverse teaching workforce and look at the recruitment trends described in the retention of teachers who are prepared to effectively serve PK–12 students and their families from diverse backgrounds. We also share preliminary data on our efforts to recruit and retain graduate students in an advanced special education program at a Hispanic-serving institution of higher education. To further guide the efforts of others, we provide recommendations for program development and future research.”

Vittek, J. E. (2015). Promoting special educator teacher retention: A critical review of the literature. SAGE Open, 5(2). Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article is a critical review of the literature on special education teacher attrition and retention. The research focused on journal articles from 2004 to present. The results of the study helped define special educator attrition and retention. The major themes present in the findings were job satisfaction, administrative support, induction programs, and mentoring. The literature shows a clear need for comprehensive administrative support to improve job satisfaction and the likelihood a special educator will remain in their job.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

[“Special education” AND “teacher” AND (“retention” OR “attrition”]; [“Special educators” AND (“retention” OR “attrition”)]

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.7 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2004 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.