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Over 80% of students with visual impairments are in public schools. Although they are protected under existing federal special education legislation, BVI students often fall through the cracks of the education system and receive fewer specialized services than they need—leading to lifelong learning problems or deficits that could have been prevented.

Part of the problem is that California is in the midst of a severe and deepening shortage of special education teachers. This shortage has become more acute as the number of special education students in the state has steadily increased, from 650,000 in 2000 to nearly 800,000 in 2018, according to the California Department of Education, the last school year for which this data was reported.

While the number of students receiving vision services is increasing, the number of Teachers for the blind and Visually Impaired (TVI) and Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialists (COMS) is decreasing. Given the low incidence of visual impairment among children and youth, many special education administrators responsible for staffing TVI positions do not have an awareness of the specialized educational programming needs of these learners that factor into TVI workload.

Compounding the limited supply of fully prepared TVI, COMS and special education teachers, is the problem of turn-over. Unmanageable workloads have been cited as a key contributor to low job satisfaction, teacher burnout and depressed academic growth for the BVI students they serve. It is estimated that a quarter of the California special education teachers who were teaching in 2014 will retire by 2024 — a higher percentage than in any other subject area. This translates to an estimated one-third of TVIs and COMS nearing retirement age.

In an attempt to bridge the gap, an array of incentive programs have been put in place to stimulate interest in becoming a Special Education Teacher. The unintended consequence is that about 3,000 of the 5,000 or so first year Special Education teachers are working without a credential. Unfortunately, these teacher preparation and licensing practices contribute to poor outcomes inside special education. For example:

  • Approximately 60% of California students with disabilities graduate from high school compared to a 78% graduation rate of students with Individualized Education Programs

  • Statewide assessment scores for 2018–19 show that in math, only 13% of disabled students in California meet or exceed state standards, versus 43% of students without disabilities.

  • In 2019 and 2020 California graduation rates for students with disabilities were at 67.7% and 68.4% respectively, while the graduation rate for all students statewide was 84.5% and 84.3% respectively, lower than the national average at 88% in 2019.

More than 44 percent of new teachers in public and private schools typically leave teaching within 5 years of entry. Data illustrates that all schools experiencing periods of high turnover are more likely to hire teachers that are not fully licensed, which further disadvantages low-income populations. California will continue to struggle with the widening achievement gaps between students with and without disabilities without resolving the teacher shortages.

Research shows that special educators with more intensive preparation and professional learning experiences are less likely to leave their positions and are better prepared to use a variety of instructional methods. Fox Family Foundation proposes to invest in the development of para-educators during high school and facilitate a pathway into special education as TVIs and/or COMS in partnership with school districts (such as LAUSD) that offers “STEP UP and Teach” and “Grow Your Own” programs that help URMs transition into roles as educators by supporting their training and path to certification. Exposing students to the benefits of becoming a teacher during their K-12 preparation can increase the likelihood that they will choose to pursue a tertiary degree in education.

There is a plethora of research data and documentation around issues of equity in education. With America’s teaching workforce predominantly white and female, the role of a “minority” (in this instance a disabled teacher or a teacher of color and male in particular) in contributing to curriculum design and delivery is very low. As a result, socio-cultural attitudes prevent many URM and disabled students from accessing and attaining higher levels of academic achievement.

Paraprofessionals, also known as para-educators, teacher aides, or instructional aides, can potentially assist with this gap and strengthen the teacher pipeline with recruitment incentives for high-retention pathways. Since this profession does not require a college degree, prospective para-educators can begin skill-development through job shadowing and other career development initiatives at the high school level. Currently, para-educators working in California schools that do not receive Title One funding need just a minimum of a high school diploma or GED, as well as a demonstration of skills in assisting in classroom instruction through a state or local test.

Our TOC suggests that investing in these early work experiences will deepen the commitment to the field of special education with a credential in Visual Impairment. Since we also know the mechanisms for delivering special education supports in California are severely hampered when a visually disabled child does not receive Services prior to kindergarten, prioritizing early education interventions is critical.

Currently, there are only four universities offering an Education Specialist Credential in Visual Impairment (VI) and Master of Arts (MA) degree in Special Education with an emphasis in Visual Impairment (such as Low Vision Therapists (LVT) and Vision Rehabilitation Therapists (VRT) in California.

The median salaries of Teachers of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI) in California range from $69,500 to $77,345.

Considering that 63.4% of all special education students ages 6-to-21 are spending 80% of their time in general education classrooms, FFF believes up-skilling general education teachers -- who typically don’t have more than 1.5 course credits focused on inclusion or special education -- but who are required to be involved in the implementation and creation of each student’s Individual education plan (IEP), will lead to deeper inclusionary practices.

Knowing that it will be a significant hurdle to recruit existing teachers to get a TVI or special education degree, FFF proposes to invest in Professional Development programs focused on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for California K-12 teachers. UDL is a teaching and course-development program framework that gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn. UDL makes learning experiences accessible to people with disabilities, as well as anyone else whose learning style does not match that of the hypothetical “average student.”

While UDL does not eliminate the need for individual accessibility accommodations, it has been heralded with reducing the need. UDL also shows promise for increasing persistence and retention for a broad range of students, including underrepresented minorities, non-proficient readers, English language learners, nontraditional students, working students, parents, and commuters.

In particular, FFF believes Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) educators should be prioritized as BVI youth are most likely to be left out of hands-on-learning opportunities in these fields.

Individualized Education Programs (IEP) are action plans for students with disabilities, unique to each child. Special education teachers are an important part of the group who create these plans including the parents, regular education teachers, school system representatives and transition service agency representatives. The IEP is meant to assess the current performance of the child and establish short term and long term goals. It further determines the child’s participation in state/district wide tests and the needs for transition services following school. FFF believes that investing in data and a shared IEP platform can create great success for overall transition services.


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