A multiple descriptive case study exploring special education teachers’ motivational factors which influence retention in Washington, DC.


The causes of teacher attrition are varied and complex. In urban environments, these challenges are more pronounced. In particular, special education teachers in urban environments seem to leave the field disproportionately compared to their general education counterparts. Some estimates state that as many as 40% of new special education teachers chose to leave their roles in the first three years of teaching, compared to an estimated total public-school general education attrition rate of 25.5% (Billingsley, 2004). The impact of this attrition is $2.2 billion per year nationwide in costs related to recruitment, training, and turnover (Barnes et al., 2007). Special education teachers cite factors such as salary, lack of support, poor collegial relationships, increasing caseloads, lack of resources, and lack of administrative support as critical components that drive attrition in the field. The absence of adequate special education staff leads to consequences for students with disabilities, including the reduction of services, improper classification of disabilities to matched available staff, and a perpetuating achievement gap between students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers. This multiple descriptive case study explored the relationship between workplace conditions and special education teacher retention in Washington, DC. A theoretical framework drew connections between the lived experience and the academic research base. Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory (1959) is used to frame this case study. Purposively sampled participants engaged in a two-phase data collection process including completion of a questionnaire and then select participants engaged in semi-structured interviews. This qualitative case study addresses the gap in research related to special education teacher retention in urban school environments. Results from this study demonstrated that these special education teachers are overwhelmingly motivated by relationships with students and being recognized by school administration. However, teachers cited concerns with administrative support, increased demands on workload, and organizational policies. The researcher provided recommendations based on the study’s findings for practitioners and policymakers.



Retention. Attrition. Special education. Urban schools. Administrators. Teachers. Workplace conditions. Motivational factors.