Federal funds offered to train special education doctoral students

University Park, Pa. — The College of Education at Penn State is addressing the shortage of special education teachers head-on through federal grants that help cover tuition and pay a living stipend to students pursuing doctoral degrees in special education. This investment in people and the quality of Penn State's special education program have led to the ripple effect of more students educated in a field that is in great demand.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there is a national shortage of more than 11 percent when it comes to highly qualified special education teachers. More than 45,000 teachers with special education duties do not meet required standards. This ongoing shortage will only get worse as more teachers retire or leave the profession. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that the demand for special education teachers will increase by 17 percent from now through 2018, a greater rate than what is predicted for all other occupations.

Individuals with special education doctorates are needed to prepare special education teachers and contribute to research in the field; however, there continues to be a shortage of those individuals as well.

“Teaching experience before graduate school is required, which means people have to leave their established careers to complete a quality doctoral program,” said Kathy Ruhl, professor of special education and chair of the department of educational psychology, school psychology, and special education. “A good program also requires a mentor relationship, which means they cannot do this online.”

For nearly the last 20 years, the College of Education has won five different federal grants to help cover tuition and pay a living stipend to students pursuing graduate degrees in special education.

“In the last 20 years, 99 percent of our grads have gone to higher education positions," said Ruhl. "This is partly because of how we mentor them. Also, we are explicit in the application process that these funds are for individuals who want to become a professor of special education.”

“This program can affect more than the individual earning the degree,” Ruhl explained. “It starts with one graduate from our program, who then teaches four courses a year, with 25 students each. Those 100 students go out and teach between 15 to 30 students a year for 30 years. Of course, this doesn’t even include the impact the faculty member’s research might have on the field. How many more people may read the articles, cite them, and build on their ideas?”

Alumni who have benefited from these grants have gone on to successful careers. For example, Wanda Blanchett, a 1997 graduate of the program, is now dean of the School of Education at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.

“At Penn State, I was fortunate enough to work with a group of extremely dedicated faculty who had literally thought of almost everything that I would need to be successful including financial, academic, and social and emotional supports,” said Blanchett. “Although the financial supports had a huge positive impact on my decision to attend Penn State, the mentoring and academic support are what made the most significant difference in helping me to become the professional educator and scholar that I am today.”

Rachel Wannarka, a 2009 alumnus, also benefited from these grants while a student at Penn State. Wannarka said of the financial support she received: “It allowed me to pay tuition, attend and present at several conferences, buy books, fund my dissertation research and pay my rent while I devoted myself to learning. It was absolutely invaluable.”

She continued, “From Penn State I got a really solid grounding in teaching, professional scholarship, service, and life as an academic. I am currently responsible for the special education program at a small liberal arts school in Ohio, and I continue to get advice and feedback from Kathy Ruhl and the rest of my committee about the most effective ways to structure the experience that our future teachers receive. I am quite sure that I will continue to rely on their mentoring as I begin my next job at the University of Michigan this fall.“

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Last Updated November 18, 2010