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Help Wanted: Considering the Impact of Less Than Qualified Educators by Loretta (Lucky) Mason-Williams

Last month, I encouraged an administrator to hire an unqualified, ill-prepared candidate for a position as a special educator for students with severe learning and behavioral needs. As a teacher educator in special education, I had written numerous letters of recommendations and fielded calls from many of the local schools several months before during the spring hiring rush, so I knew all of my fully prepared, novice special educators had already accepted positions. Most elected to work in the more affluent parts of our community—schools with lower rates of school poverty and less diverse student bodies. And most of them wanted to work in “inclusive” settings—where students with disabilities would be taught alongside their non-disabled peers. Now, I had on the phone a desperate administrator looking to fill a position in a more segregated setting solely for students with disabilities. I hoped the candidate would accept the position, despite knowing she would be frustrated by her lack of preparation. I recognized that her frustration would likely lead her to leave that classroom as soon as something else came up, adding to the “revolving door” found among hard-to-staff schools. But I also knew she was likely the best applicant, if not the only applicant. At least this candidate had a degree in elementary education and planned to begin coursework in special education at my university in a few weeks.

You Can’t Have Both: Meeting Demands for Quantity or Quality

Administrators who lack qualified applicants and growing hiring needs, face impossible decisions: hire individuals without the appropriate qualifications hoping they’ll gain them along the way (i.e., ignoring quality, but meeting demands for quantity), or rely on a series of substitute teachers hoping the right candidate will come along (i.e., embracing quality, but also not meeting demands for quantity). But these decisions have consequences that often go unaccounted for in research and policymaker discussions. Teachers who lack skills for engaging reluctant learners or who don’t know how to support students struggling with complex ideas, may mistake learning needs with indifference. Teachers ill-equipped with strategies for developing an effective classroom environment, may rely more heavily on punitive disciplinary actions, such as removal from the class or referrals to remedial settings and special education.

Allowing individuals to accept positions without being fully qualified is not a new practice, especially in special education and other “high needs” fields (such as math, science, and teaching English as a second language) and “hard-to-staff” schools (such as those with high poverty rates or highly diverse student bodies). Difficulties creating and sustaining a qualified workforce led to the development of fast-track and other alternative teacher preparation programs, especially in urban areas. These programs place candidates with content knowledge in classrooms, hoping they gain pedagogical skills along the way. In fact, researchers at Mathematica have found that students in math classrooms led by teachers completing certain programs (including Teach for America and the Teaching Fellows program) perform as well or better on assessments in math than students in classrooms led by teachers who completed traditional teacher preparation. Problem is, candidates completing these and other fast-track programs teach subjects outside of math and may complete other, less rigorous programs. And there are other outcomes to consider beyond math achievement, such as identification and placement in special education, suspension and expulsion rates, and teacher retention.

Regardless of whether it’s due to shortages, turnover, or preferences, the uneven “sorting” of better qualified teachers disadvantages the very students who could benefit most from better trained, more experienced individuals. More than thirty years’ worth of research using national and statewide datasets illustrates how students from minoritized groups, including those with disabilities, more often receive instruction from teachers lacking preparation or experience (see for example, Berne & Stiefel, 1984; Goldhaber, Lavery, Theobald, 2015; Kalogrides, Loeb, & Beteille, 2012 Lankford, Loeb, Wyckoff, 2002). For instance, while nationally approximately 25% of special educators lack a degree in special education, in high poverty schools, the proportion increases to 35% (Mason-Williams, 2015). Unequal access to qualified teachers denies our most vulnerable students access to an equitable education.

For students moved to remedial or special education settings, which disproportionately impacts students from minoritized groups, access to a qualified teacher is then further limited. In work I conducted with Elizabeth Bettini and Joseph Gagnon, we’ve found that students with disabilities placed in more restrictive settings are no more likely to receive instruction from someone more qualified or more prepared than in a less restrictive setting. In fact, teachers in more restrictive settings (such as alternative secondary schools or elementary schools for students with disabilities) less often held a content area degree or certification and a substantial proportion lacked a degree in special education (Mason-Williams, Bettini, & Gagnon, 2017; Mason-Williams & Gagnon, 2016). It’s unclear how inequitable access to individuals prepared to meet their challenging learning and behavioral needs may account for low performance rates on state tests and poor long-term outcomes, such as low graduation rates, higher rates of incarceration, and high rates of unemployment.

But what does this mean?

In the case of the candidate I recommended, she will begin the school year facing a class of students with considerably challenging behaviors before taking a class that introduces her to research-based, proactive methods of improving behavior. While certified in elementary education, I doubt she’s ever written an IEP and I’m not sure she’s ever seen a functional behavior assessment or a behavior intervention plan, much less constructed or implemented one – essential practices for this population of students. In addition to teaching, she’ll be supervising paraprofessionals and collaborating with related service providers, skills meant to be developed in her spring coursework. That’s also when she’ll learn about administering and interpreting assessments, such as those she’ll be expected to interpret right from the start.

But why did I still recommend her, despite my concerns and my awareness of how much she needed to learn? Because I knew she wanted the position and I knew the administrator needed her. Sure, the year would be difficult for the candidate, but I hoped she’d be better than the string of short-term substitute teachers likely to be brought in if no one else could be hired. Although I knew she did not meet standards of quality, she did help to meet the challenge of quantity. And given time and opportunity, there was reason to believe she would gain the necessary skills and qualifications. Throughout the year, professional development and the assistance of colleagues and administrators would help to fill some of these holes until she completed the relevant courses. My colleagues and I would serve as a resource to her. And hopefully her passion and drive would help her to embrace the challenge and seek out the resources she needed, whether it be an online tutorial or long discussions with her faculty advisor.

In the meantime, when challenged with a student in need of more intensive intervention, could she identify a research-based approach? Probably not on day one, but mid-way through the fall semester she’d likely know where to look. When provoked by a student about to burst, could she effectively de-escalate the situation? Maybe after reading the first few chapters of the required textbook and from seminar discussions in the first weeks of class. When presented with assessment data, could she recognize clear cultural bias in the interpretation? Likely not until the end of the spring term, which may be problematic given the population she’ll be working with.  And when confronted by a colleague who wants to push a student out, rather than look for ways to help the student, what will she do? Hopefully look to me or another trusted mentor for advice and assistance.

As a teacher educator and an advocate for all students, what is my responsibility in providing all students, especially those from minoritized groups or those with disabilities, access to a fully prepared teacher, especially when I know there aren’t enough? How can I support the individuals willing to learn on-the-job? What role can I take in assisting with professional development and induction programs, especially when course sequences and academic calendars don’t align with pressing problems? These are the questions that keep me up at night and make me work harder to develop stronger relationships with local schools and administrators. I continue to reflect in my own work on the practical and policy recommendations that may make a difference (such as increased preparation in special education for all teacher candidates and incentives for qualified teachers willing to work in hard-to-staff schools), but I wonder what others would do.


Berne, R., & Stiefel, L. (1984). The measurement of equity in school finance. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cooc, N., & Yang, M. (2016). Diversity and equity in the distribution of teachers with special education credentials: Trends from California. AERA Open2 (4), 1-15. doi: 10.1177/2332858416679374

Goldhaber, D., Lavery, L., & Theobald, R. (2015). Uneven playing field? Assessing the teacher quality gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Educational Researcher, 44 (5), 293–307. doi: 10.3102/0013189X15592622

Kalogrides, D., Loeb, S., & Beteille, T. (2012). Systematic sorting: Teacher characteristics and class assignments. Sociology of Education, 86 (2), 103-123. doi: 10.1177/0038040712456555

Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2002). Teacher sorting and the plight of urban schools: A descriptive analysis. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24, 37-62. doi: 10.3102/01623737024001037

Mason-Williams, L. (2015). Unequal opportunities: A profile of the distribution of special education teachers. Exceptional Children, 81 (2), 247-262. Doi: 10.1177/0014402914551737

Mason-Williams, L., Bettini, E. A., & Gagnon, J. C. (2017). Access to qualified special educators across elementary neighborhood and exclusionary schools. Remedial and Special Education, 38 (5) 297-30. doi: 10.1177/00224669166916656174

Mason-Williams, L., & Gagnon, J. C. (2016). An analysis of teacher sorting in secondary special education and alternative schools. Journal of Special Education50 (4), 239-250. doi: 10.1177/00224669166916656174


Author biography 

Loretta (Lucky) Mason-Williams is an associate professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning, & Educational Leadership at Binghamton University. Her research focuses on the challenges and complexities of teacher shortages, especially as it relates to students with disabilities. She’s currently engaged in multiple projects examining how shortages may be directly and indirectly influenced by state and local policies, by working conditions, and by the changing role of special educators. She primarily uses critical quantitative methodologies in her work, employing the power of large datasets to unpack questions and to better understand structural inequities.