Solving the teacher shortage in special ed via the web

Solving the teacher shortage in special ed via the web

(Texas) It is virtually possible, believes a small Austin firm, to put a highly-qualified educator in front of every student who currently doesn’t have one, including those in special education – a population that could be in the hundreds of thousands nationwide.

Virtually, because a fully-licensed and certificated teacher of record can lead, via web-conferencing, a regularly-scheduled class of students through a core subject lesson using curriculum from the pupil’s home school district.

“We’re not trying to replace teachers that districts already have; we’re trying to put in place a teacher where there aren’t any,” said Evan Erdberg, CEO and president of Proximity Learning, in an interview last week.

While the company already makes regular education teachers available in some 150 districts, it is in the beginning stages of moving into special education, having provided teachers to one New Mexico district this year. But, Erdberg said, the potential for growth in this area is huge.

 “We’re working with districts where they just don’t have special education teachers at all so the parents’ option is no teacher or our teacher who is highly-qualified, just online,” Erdberg said

Proximity’s launch in January of its special education teacher program comes in the midst of a massive shortage of educators that is driving both states and the federal government to create policies and change laws aimed at enticing people into the field and retaining those who already are by offering incentives such as free professional development, better working conditions and even in some cases cash bonuses or housing perks.

Erdberg contends, however, that there are potentially thousands of qualified educators out there available to teach who, for a variety of reasons, can’t or don’t want to be in a brick and mortar classroom. Maybe they can’t relocate to a new city or state, or maybe they’ve left on maternity leave and are out long-term or don’t return at all, like a large percentage of the teachers working with Proximity, he said.

““That basically stems from how we’ve been demoralizing teachers for the last nine years in addition to adding unrealistic expectations to them and paying them less,” said the CEO. For special education teachers, it’s often worse, he said because of additional regulations and the associated paperwork, as well as the fact that in many states their students are held to the same standards as students in regular education classes.

Having begun working with school districts in 2008 to provide licensed world language teachers virtually, Erdberg said that administrators gradually began asking repeatedly whether Proximity could provide teachers in math, science, history and English. As the teacher shortage grew, said Erdberg, the question more often became “Do you have any special education teachers?”

Based on the success of its work in traditional education, Proximity decided to add special education teachers to its virtual staff, a network of teachers across the country who are not working inside a school building.

Its first special education client is a district in New Mexico employing three Proximity teachers full-time with six classes each. They teach core subjects, such as math, history or science, to classrooms of special education students. Several other districts are in the process of signing on to have special education taught in their schools virtually, Erdberg said.

The teacher can see his or her students’ faces on the computer screen and the students can see their teacher on their screens as they work through a lesson together. If it’s a hands-on science lesson, said Erdberg, the company has sent a ‘lab-in-a-box’ to the classroom containing all the materials needed for that activity.

The teachers work – online – with the district’s core teacher to co-plan the curriculum around how best to reach those students, and also to develop a plan of action for those students to be successful throughout the year. The teacher prepares and updates each student’s Individualized Education Plan – a federally-mandated report that details a particular student’s special needs and how those needs will be incorporated into the student’s academic programming and achievement.

The IEP must be updated at least annually and adjusted to keep the student on a path to educational success, which includes meetings with parents and school administrators, all of which the Proximity teacher does via the Internet.

The company’s online learning management system gives students 24/7 access to curriculum, homework and interactive activities.

As for differing teacher credentialing requirements from state-to-state, Erdberg said many states the company works with have reciprocity agreements that allow teachers credentialed in another state to work in theirs or vice versa. If additional licensing or special testing is required, the company pays for the teacher to complete those requirements.

One of the things Proximity likes to point out is that their virtual teacher staffing service is not traditional online learning, against which, he said, there’s been a kind of revolt in recent years.

Districts using traditional online courses to fill teaching gaps have begun backing away from them after limited student success, he said.

“Traditional online/blended learning is asynchronous so it’s student-driven instruction, with limited interaction with a teacher mainly through discussion boards and recorded video,” he said. “So, if you’re a driven student, you’re going to do well but if you are like the majority of students in our schools and need an instructor to explain the concepts and keep you on track, i.e. "teach" you, you have a much higher risk of doing poorly or even failing.

“That’s why we say virtual staffing, not blended learning or online learning, because we wanted to have a clear separation between the current types of online learning and what we’re doing,” said Erdberg.

What also sets the company apart, he said, is that its teachers use the same curriculum and materials as the district in which they teach – rather than forcing a district to adapt to a different teaching method.

Proximity has gone from having 20 teachers and about 1,500 students in 2013 to 140 teachers and some 16,000 students this year, according to Erdberg.

The lack of qualified teachers in Mississippi, where there are reportedly an average of six teaching vacancies at all of the state’s 144 school districts, led Greenville Public Schools to sign on with Proximity for eight full-time regular education teachers, six teaching math and one each for science and French.

More than 40 Texas districts are using virtual K-12 staffing in order to provide enough teachers for all their classes, according to a statement from Proximity.

“We’re just trying to be that company that’s in the middle, saying, hey, there are teachers who want to teach; they may just not want to move to Mississippi or Alabama or New Mexico but they’re willing to teach from where they live. Let’s bring them there virtually,” Erdberg said.