Special education teachers are hard to find. They’re also some of the hardest to keep, new study shows.

Stop by any education job fair and you’ll see recruiting signs for special education teachers everywhere — often with the promise of signing bonuses worth thousands of dollars.  

But hiring such teachers is no guarantee they’ll stay. In fact, a new study on teacher mobility and attrition reveals that special education teachers are more than twice as likely as other teachers to change schools in Colorado. For administrators, that can mean scrambling to fill vacancies, and for students and families, uncertainty, frustration, or even lower achievement. 

The study, published this week by the Denver-based Regional Educational Laboratory Central, examined staffing data and change in Colorado, Missouri, and South Dakota between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. 

Trudy Cherasaro, director of the laboratory, said the findings about special education teachers likely won’t surprise most education leaders but, “when you have that data it’s easier to start talking about policies.” 

She said the laboratory is working with the state education department to plan two meetings this fall to review teacher mobility and attrition data and talk about potential solutions with key education leaders. The Regional Educational Laboratory Central is one of 10 federal-funded laboratories that conduct research for and provide technical assistance to states in their service area. 

In addition to spotlighting the high mobility rates among special education teachers in the three states, researchers found that young teachers and those with only a few years of service at their schools were more likely to change schools than other teachers. 

In Colorado, teachers with less than four years at a school were nearly 50% more likely to leave than their more senior colleagues, according to the study.

The authors also found higher teacher mobility rates at schools earmarked for improvement under the state accountability systems and schools with average teacher salaries under about $42,000. 

In 2016, Colorado had more than 100 “priority improvement” schools and more than 100 districts with average teacher salaries under $42,000. In other words, plenty of school and district leaders face the risk of higher-than-average teacher churn. 

Cherasaro said while state-level policies, such as loan forgiveness, can help retain teachers, school districts can take steps, too. She said pairing beginning teachers with mentors or giving new teachers extra support during induction programs may lower the risk they’ll leave too soon. 

The report released this week follows on a related study published by the regional laboratory in February. It found that more than 20% of Colorado teachers left their schools after the 2015-16 school year, either because they moved to new schools or left teaching. The other three states in that study — Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri — all had a smaller share of teachers leave.