Maybe not everywhere, but here is my case for why the topic may need visited in your district.
Frame of reference for your reading. In this article, the frame of reference is that of a typical school district in the State of Ohio with a student population of 2,500 - 7,000 and a staff population of 300 - 800. Expected ratios would be around 25:1 in the general education classroom and a 16 student special education caseload.
I'm sure you have a connection to teaching. Somehow and in some way. We all have a connection to teachers. I've never met anyone who hasn't had a teacher. However, there are certainly fewer who can speak of the "special educator" in the same way.
The special educator is (if you are one, you already know), the teacher who educates under the governance of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and other state specific regulations aimed at educating of those with specified learning disabilities. Special Ed Teacher. Intervention Specialist. Resource Room Teacher. The special education teacher can go by several different names depending upon the state in which they teach.
Let's examine 2 different perspectives why I believe special educators, in some circumstances, should make more money than general educators; supervision and influence over student outcomes. Then we'll take a look at extracurricular compensation and it's methodology as a possible solution, since this practice is already in schools.
Keep in mind that in nearly all professions I can think of, amount of pay generally increases with 4 things; (1) supervision provided, (2) level of complexity to accomplish the job, (3) weight of responsibility, and (4) budgetary authority. At the end of the article we'll take a look at these aspects in regards to general and special educators.
For this discussion, we'll consider a baseline teacher as a standard baccalaureate level, state licensed/certified teacher of any grade.
Both the general education and special education teachers supervise. Each supervise, daily, children in regards to both their learning and overall daily well-being. The main difference is that, more often than not, special education teachers supervise other adults.
The Educational Aide. I know, I know. Special education aides "technically" report to the principal as the overall "building supervisor." If you're a special education teacher you are aware that it's less likely to be a reporting procedure followed in a straight line. On a daily basis, special education teachers supervise and manage aides as building special education resources. Making decisions, sometimes on-the-fly regarding when, where, and how these resources should be allocated. The building principal may de-conflict personnel issues, but the special education teacher leads the other adults in daily objectives.
Supervising adults is very different and often more complex than children.
The special educator, as the front-line supervisor to the aides often includes; managing aide schedules, de-conflicting interpersonal issues between aides and students, having performance discussions with aides (but not a "reprimand" because only the principal can do that... wink, wink), offering performance information for formal evaluations completed by principals, and providing the aides with on-the-job-training.
The ability to have aides in the special education setting is a godsend. I don't know a special education teacher who wishes that they didn't have them. They are an invaluable member of the special education team. Still, they are adults. Adults are managed/supervised differently than children. Because of this aspect, it adds an apple to the columns below.
Influence over student outcomes
Both the general and special education teachers have influence over student outcomes. In terms of how that influence can be used differs greatly. For our purposes here, we're talking about influence that helps better determine a single students future success in school. This influence can be broken down into 3 different types; (1) content influence, (2) instructional influence, and (3) administrative influence.
Content influence can include the modification to standards (i.e. - extended standards), testing, depth of material, breadth of material, and application of material. These modifications are legally carried out under IDEA through the development of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Even though both general and special educators are on IEP teams, general educators typically defer to the special educators judgement. The special educators judgement is also intertwined with other professionals like educational psychologists and occupational therapists, both of which tend to have more take home pay than the special educator.
General education teachers, by contrast, are managing the content of a whole classroom of students within a framework/curriculum approved by the school board/administration as a means to meet standards. They apply general teaching strategies in hopes of all the students in the classroom being within a "passable knowledge spectrum" so the student may move on to the next grade. When those general teaching strategies don't work, some individual attention can be given to typical students. However, the general educator cannot modify content.
With a great deal of coordination between the IEP team, championed by the special educator collaborating with a parent, content can be modified. The recommendations of the modification, as discussed above, are typically advocated by the special educator. In the end, for a single student, this process has an immense influence over a specific students outcome. If the special educator gets it wrong, it could result in adversely effecting the student for the rest of their academic career.
Like content modification, special educators can modify instructional methodology. The IEP team (which always includes the parent) can "approve" of differentiated instruction techniques and tactics. Think of this approach to learning as a physician tuning a patients medication.
The special educator must constantly tune their instruction to best meet the needs of the student, constantly evaluating what works and what doesn't for each student on their caseload. General educators typically don't have this level of flexibility, mainly because insofar as time goes... they already have none.
The +1 here is specifically regarding a new and evolving form of education, Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Students with behaviorally oriented IEP goals often take part in education that isn't necessarily considered "academic" in the traditional sense. SEL is a component of the special education repertoire that deals with helping to better emotionally develop students ability to self-regulate generally destructive or unproductive behavior. Ohio is a state that adopted Social Emotional Learning Standards in 2019. However, it is up to the district on how to implement them. Some districts in Ohio incorporate SEL into general education. However, in other places gen. ed. teachers do not address this outside of general character education lessons that are grade specific. If you need a starting point for developing SEL, check this out.
Again, similarly to content, the special educator is specifically involved in the influence of a students instruction. If instructional modification is done poorly or improperly, the resulting effect can be detrimental to student outcomes. This is especially true for students on behavioral IEP's.
The bane of every teachers existence... paperwork. When discussing administrative influence, I'm not talking about administration as in principals, directors, etc. Rather, I am talking about the administrative aspect of special education.
The Individualize Education Plan is probably the single most important document (or if it's preschool, the Individualized Family Service Plan a.k.a. - IFSP) the special educator deals with. The special educator, as a part of this document, must weigh specific verbiage. Outside of lawyers, certain government employees, and compliance personnel you don't hear phrases like "well what sort of language should we use" or "the verbiage used doesn't specify". This isn't reference to language and verbiage in the sense of Spanish vs. English. It signifies seemingly insignificant differences in terminology such as the difference between shall and may. Shall is requirement language whereas may is suggestion language.
The IEP is crafted, with the special educator serving as the point person, in manner to address the needs of a given student while ensuring that resources are available to meet them. This coordination of effort spans multiple disciplines and professions. Sometimes between multiple schools in multiple states and/or districts and always with a parental stamp of approval. All of this is done with full knowledge that if the parent feels as if goals of the IEP aren't met when measured against the language used, that there will be a lawsuit against the district.
IEP's can be a legal liability to any district. However, the chief coordinator's of each individual IEP is the special educator. In and of itself there isn't a comparison to this aspect for the general educator. Special educators in Ohio have 5 year retention standards for data related to IEP's and can be summoned into court regarding a special education law case.
The IEP also requires the collection of data. General ed. teachers keep grades and special educators keep data. This data is often a tremendous amount of information which spans what is called baseline data and goal data. It also must be thorough enough to stand up in a court of law. Typically there is no threat of legal action regarding gen. ed. teachers giving a grade. On the other hand, many districts have a least one threat of legal action over IEP's every year.
Speaking above about grades and data, in many cases a student learning in their least restrictive environment will go between a special education/resource room setting and their respective class of typical peers. This often involves coordination between the general and special education teacher, as expected. When grading time comes around, the general education teacher often seeks input or fully expects the special educator to have the grades for the student on an IEP. However, most special education teachers don't maintain "grades." They maintain progress of IEP goals.
Nevertheless, this duality of grading increases the administrative burden of the special educator.
Administrative influence towards decision making is most profound in the development of the IEP. For the most part, parents tend to lean towards the recommendations of the professionals working with their kids to overcome their obstacles. This means that for any given child on an IEP, the direction of the IEP is largely based on the input from the special educator. The IEP follows a child throughout their entire academic career because it is a legal instrument.
The special educator can (and often does) push additional services or increased minutes to be included in one-on-one instruction or specialized differentiated instruction. The special educator has to "sell" what they feel is best for a child to the people who care most for a child... their parents.
Again, like most things we've discussed so far. The impact of performing poorly as a special educator can impact a student for the rest of their academic career. I do not feel that the general educator, despite being on the IEP team, has this level of responsibility.
Comparison to Extracurricular Compensation
What's extracurricular compensation? If you're a teacher, you know. If you're a parent or relative of a teacher, you may not. Extracurricular compensation is a pay increase percentage for taking on additional responsibility with an extracurricular position. Take a look at Hudson City Schools in Hudson, OH (Summit County) who has a student population of around 4,600 students, a student-teacher ratio 16:1, and a way above average amount of staff at roughly 290. Below is a snapshot of Hudson's extracurricular schedule of compensation.
If the 8th Grade Volleyball coach has a normal salary of $45,000 (gross) per year, s/he would make 8% more based on those duties. An additional $3,600 per year. It's not a massive amount, but 8% is better than nothing. Football at Hudson is 18%. An additional $8,100. Certainly nothing to scoff at. There is also an additional amount for longevity. If someone stays for 15 years or over in that extracurricular position, they get %140 of their stipend. That puts our volleyball coach at $5,040 and the football coach at $11,340.
There are 3 and 1/2 pages of extracurriculars in the Master Agreement this information was pulled from (Effective July 1, 2017 - June 30, 2020).
I am PRO extracurricular. Very much for them. From writing club to football. They are invaluable places for like-minded learners to find each other and rally around their commonalities. As the teacher, running these extracurricular programs for students requires additional time, increase level of complexity, increase responsibility, and supervision (i.e. - assistant coaches), and in some cases budgetary authority. The percentage teachers earn directly correlates with those things.
As we've been discussing, just like the extracurriculars, I believe that based on level of complexity, responsibility, and supervision the special educator falls within the category of being on-par with a percentage based increase in some districts.
A Potential Solution
Again, our baseline teacher is a standard baccalaureate level, state licensed/certified teacher of any grade. A district could evaluate their special education program(s) in a similar way as extracurricular compensation systems. Across the board in K-12 education, there are different types of special educators. As time goes on, schools will begin to internalize their ability to retain students who require special services. Retaining students in district who require more advanced special education services instead of sending them to more "specialized" schools.
They will do this by creating specific programs, internal to the district and within specific schools. One elementary may house a "behavior program" and another may house an "autism program" and others may be oriented towards multiple disabilities. If this hasn't already been done in your district, it will be.
From our baseline teacher and moving to a baseline push-in/pull-out special educator working on a 12 to 16 student caseload... we could view these two as equivalent. The trickier part is when districts deviate from the lone-special-educator-who-provides-individualized-services-and-goes-back-to-their-office model. Trickier enters when a district utilizes "resource rooms." The resource room is a centralized location of special education services.
The resource room has aides, and a constantly shifting scene of kids going to and from as they receive service. The resource room is, functionally, the special education command room where the teacher dispatches aides to provide services and report back on the progress made towards goals. It is the resource room where specific programs are run (i.e. - autism, behavior, etc.). In this resource room setting where programs are being run, there is a clear increase in responsibility, supervision,and level of complexity.
Also, if one were to go further and evaluate the difference between an autism program and behavior program. Behavior programs bring their own flair to special education that often results in coming home with bruises, being covered in spit, lost hair, lost earrings, and bite marks. Some special educators are the only one's in their building, covering all aspects in a single building.
If examining this through the same lens as the extracurricular compensation and basing our examination on a district that runs different programs, a district may find that these program based special educators deserve a percentage of an pay increase. An autism program special education teacher may rate a 2% increase per year. While a behavior program special educator may rate a 3.5% increase per year. The lone building special educator may deserve 5% and so on.
There are plenty of different ways to come up with a system that fairly compensates special educators. The extracurricular model seems the easiest of them and it is definitely something districts should consider if they expect to maintain high quality special educators.