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Special education is a social determinant of health

Special education teachers provide wide-reaching benefits to society and a shortage of them should worry us all.

Society readily accepts that we rely on special education teachers to help our most vulnerable children achieve academic success, but that’s not all that we get out of the deal. Children who receive special education (nearly 17% of all Minnesota students), particularly from qualified educators, will be healthier, function better, or have better quality-of-life than if they had not received their special education services; consider what happened to outcomes after learning opportunities were limited during the pandemic. In addition, special education teachers provide the educational foundation for special needs children to become healthier adults, and we all benefit from that.

However, it’s been recently reported that Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), Minnesota’s third largest school district, is facing a special education teacher shortage that has existing teachers, schools, parents, and presumably students, in the lurch. Sure, Minneapolis is a school district that has faced its problems over the past years, with some challenges unique – a three week educator strike, instability in district leadership, and is a community reeling from the murder of George Floyd on its own street – but these aren’t the only reasons that MPS is facing this problem, not even close.

The state’s largest and second largest school districts also report special education teacher shortages. Across the U.S. in 2022, 48 states reported special education teacher shortages; a recent national survey found that for understaffed schools, 65% of those schools reported that their most understaffed position was for special education teachers. Numerous approaches have been used to get licensed teachers into special education classrooms, including: emergency certification, pipeline programs with colleges to get graduates into the classroom, increases in wages and attempts at more staff assistance to retain teachers. While each of these approaches have each seen some success, the emergent nature of these shortages calls for bold changes.

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Public health, as a field, has long viewed education – particularly completion of high school – as a factor that can improve health across the lifespan. In fact, the Healthy People 2030 identifies education (both access to and quality of) as one of the five domains of social determinants of health, and is considered to be the most modifiable. Education is linked to better adult health in several measurable ways: improved health knowledge that leads to healthier behaviors; improved employment opportunities and higher income; and social and mental health factors known to improve health. A healthier society reduces governmental expenditures and improves general productivity. So, if we don’t have enough teachers to fill these vital roles for special education students, then why not prioritize their shortage as a threat to the public’s health?

Ruby Nguyen
Ruby Nguyen
But it’s not just the current and future health of special education students that is worrisome amid the special education teacher shortages. It’s also the health of the teachers themselves. Special education teachers are more likely to experience violence and injury at work than other teachers, and a high proportion may have specific duty-related musculoskeletal disorders. Concerns from special education teachers are not restricted only to physical ailments but also include threats to their mental health. Research indicates that special education teachers may have great depths to their resilience and attachment to their work but these positive influences may be mitigated by barriers to teaching. It’s estimated that only 40% of a special education teacher’s time is spent on teaching, with the remainder spent on paperwork, meetings, and consulting. In studies of special education retention, exit interviews indicated that these poor working conditions are leading causes of attrition. Greater investment in understanding these working conditions and the resulting health outcomes for special education teachers should be prioritized for occupational health research.

Given these issues, perhaps it’s no wonder why we have a shortage of qualified special education teachers, which is all the more reason to start thinking boldly about this big problem. If we aren’t able to fix it, it will ultimately adversely affect the health of our nation’s special education students both in child- and adulthood, and that affects all of us.

Ruby Nguyen is a distinguished university teaching professor and epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and a graduate of Minneapolis Public Schools.