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October 20, 2020

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Master's in special education programs offer the advanced coursework, hands-on skill development, and research training students need to access high-demand teaching and school leadership positions. Learners can pursue traditional programs and earn their credentials in two years. Alternatively, they may enroll in accelerated online special education master's programs to obtain their degrees in as little as one year. Online programs typically let students complete classroom practicums at schools in their area, including current employers.

Although students can work as licensed teachers with a bachelor's degree, earning a master of education enables special education teachers to expand their career prospects and access better pay. The National Council on Education Equity reports that 88 out of the 100 largest American school districts offer higher entry salaries and pay raises to teachers who hold master's degrees compared to those with baccalaureate credentials. This guide helps students find the right program by providing information on degree structure, including differences between M.Ed., MA, and MS tracks. Candidates can also learn about the admissions process.

What Is Special Education?

Special education is a form of teaching and mentorship that applies specialized instructional techniques to support students with identified physical, mental, emotional, and learning disabilities. U.S. public schools deliver free special education as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In addition to providing classroom instruction, special education teachers help students develop the social and professional skills they need to transition to life after graduation.

Prospective students should explore this ranking page to discover the best online master's in special education programs. The guide provides tips for picking the right school with respect to accreditation, financial aid, and student outcomes. Each program profile details degree structure, course offerings, concentration options, and the availability of academic and career resources.

What Can You Do With a Master's in Special Education?

Professionals with their M.Ed. in special education have many job opportunities available to them. Students in the field often pursue careers as special education teachers. Depending on their interests, special education teachers can focus their efforts on preschool, elementary, middle school, or high school students. Each grade level presents its own set of challenges and features. Some teachers, depending on the school, may be able to teach multiple grade levels at a time. Aside from teaching, many graduates pursue careers in counseling or social work.

Elementary Special Education Teacher

Elementary special education teachers work with educationally and physically handicapped students. They also work with hearing- and visually impaired students and teach students academic and life skills. Though special education teachers at this level are only required to have a bachelor's degree, a master's in special education increases job opportunities and may lead to higher salaries.

Median Annual Salary: $59,390*

Secondary School Special Education Teacher

Secondary school special education teachers work with high school students who have a physical or mental disability. They review different tools and resources helpful to their students' development.

Median Annual Salary: $60,600*

Preschool Special Education Teacher

Preschool special education teachers focus their efforts and offer their support to preschoolers. They understand how early childhood development and disabilities interact and explore different techniques to help every child learn.

Median Annual Salary: $55,840*

Middle School Special Education Teacher

Middle school special education teachers teach learners who are in middle school and who are physically or intellectually handicapped. Since their students are between elementary and high school, these teachers focus on the most appropriate tools and tactics to prepare students to advance from one grade level to another.

Median Annual Salary: $60,250*

Social Worker

Social workers in the special education field manage the wellbeing, development, and care of special needs people and clients. They work in a variety of settings, including rehabilitation centers, homes, schools, and hospitals.

Median Annual Salary: $49,470*

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

For more information on special education careers, students should consult this comprehensive guide. The page details job options, employment statistics by state, and entry requirements (including information on how to obtain state licensure). The guide also provides an interview with a working high school teacher.

Expert Interview

Jessica Terzakis is a consultant with Terzakis & Associates, a business advising firm in Bedford, New Hampshire. She taught high school English and worked with the New England Association for Schools and Colleges evaluating schools' curriculums and assessments. She is also an adjunct instructor at the University of New Hampshire, where she earned a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in teaching.

Why did you choose a career in education? Was this something that always interested you?

I remember "pretending to be a teacher" to my stuffed animals and dolls when I was younger, but I don't think I truly thought about pursuing it as a career until high school. During my junior year in high school, I remember admiring my English teacher. She was so passionate about literature, so well spoken, and really pushed me to be a better reader and writer. Because of that, I became interested in teaching. It was the idea of collaborating with students and connecting with them in such a way that I could push them to be better that appealed to me the most.

What were some of the most crucial skills you gained in your studies that applied to teaching on a day-to-day basis?

While my theory classes were instrumental in helping me construct lesson plans, some of the most crucial skills included those I learned in my educational psychology classes. Maslow's Hierarchy, for example, taught me what motivates people and what people need -- and that made it a lot clearer when it came to working with students who don't complete homework, feel unmotivated, don't participate in class, etc. This was also helpful with classroom management in general.

What are some of the challenges you faced in teaching different types of students?

The initial challenge I had to overcome was the fact that not all students will love English and literature as much as I do! Knowing that, I had to get creative with how I appealed to their interests within my lesson plans. That is, how could I make teaching Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet relevant and applicable to their lives (because I taught this to all of my students no matter what level they were)?

Another challenge I experienced was managing a heterogeneous group of students in one class (from classroom management to group work to lesson planning), especially because many schools are moving away from having a rigid leveling system.

What was the job search like after completing your degree? Did you feel fully prepared when making the transition from student to professional?

As part of my master's degree program, I had assistance from my advisor when it came to searching for jobs. This person was able to provide guidance about what to expect during the interview (specifically, what questions I would answer and what to bring with me to showcase my teaching). Having spent a year student teaching and having a master's degree also made it a lot easier to get job interviews in the first place.

Because of the practical application during my student year, I felt prepared for the student demographics I would have in my classroom, as well as [for] how to construct lesson plans.

Why did you choose to transition to teaching at the college level?

I left public school teaching in 2016, but I still wanted to teach. I reached out to a connection at the University of New Hampshire and I expressed interest in teaching at the adjunct level. I was really interested in teaching an education class and creating a bridge between the theory and practical application (that is, how the theory applies in real life).

What changes would you like to see in future curriculums for a master's in education?

I think I'd like to see a continued inclusion of practicality -- student teaching, creating curriculum units, etc. From there, I think students would benefit from taking a class that hones in on scaffolding, creating assignments, [and] using rubrics, among others. While I teach an introductory class on how to put together a curriculum unit, I am not able to really focus on the fine details of scaffolding and lesson planning. In a perfect world, students would take a curriculum design class while student teaching.

I also think it would be helpful for students to take a class on assessments (specifically how to create assessments) -- especially with the changing nature of the Common Core and other initiatives.

What advice would you give to education students who want to get the most out of their collegiate studies? What resources or experiences can they take advantage of to give themselves a head start?

To get the most out of your collegiate studies, I highly recommend getting into the classroom -- either as a substitute or [by] shadowing former teachers. It's a great opportunity to see how the theory "comes to life" in the classroom. You'll also get comfortable with the idea of shifting from "student" to "teacher." I highly recommend also finding a mentor who has taught in some capacity and can give you feedback and help.

In terms of other resources, I listen to podcasts like the Heinemann Podcast channel to keep up with literacy trends. I also follow certain pages on social media, like Edutopia, Achieve the Core, and Cult of Pedagogy. These social media pages publish posts with bite-size tidbits on anything from classroom management to lesson planning.

What Can I Expect in a Master's in Special Education Program?

Master's in special education programs typically total at least 30 credits, which students complete in 1-2 years depending on course structure and prior experience. Required classes often include differentiated instruction, intervention for language and learning disabilities, and designing inclusive classrooms. Degree candidates complete practicums and engage advanced topics through concentrations like applied behavior analysis and early childhood education.

M.Ed. in Special Education Courses

Applied Behavior Analysis

Students in this course learn about the philosophy and concepts of behavior analysis, which involves recognizing behavior problems in applied settings and situations. Applied behavior analysis also covers different behavioral intervention procedures.

Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities

Autism and developmental disabilities have similarities and differences. This course will explore them all and teach students how to recognize signs of all types of developmental disabilities. They will learn different teaching methods and approaches depending on the disability and practice ways to approach various situations.

Foundations, Trends, and Issues in Special Education Leadership

This course explores the different trends and issues that exist within special education leadership. Students learn about the history of special education, its trends, and its evolution as a field.

Collaboration and Teaming

In this course, students learn how to effectively work as a team in a special education environment. They share ideas and collaborate with others to deliver quality care and education to special education students.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Autism spectrum disorders have a significant range difficult to describe to people outside of special education. This course dives into the variance of people on the spectrum, teaching students specific characteristics associated with each end of the spectrum while also emphasizing each person's unique experience of ASD.

How to Choose a Master's in Special Education Program

Program length, characteristics, and curriculum should all cross a student's mind when deciding on a master's program. Prospective applicants should consider the length of the program, which may conflict with personal obligations, and whether enrollment options include full-time, part-time, or both. Specialization opportunities are also important features to note. Not every program offers learners the chance to pursue a specialization. If students want to tailor their degree to their interests or career goals, such as working with students with autism, they should research specialization options before committing to a program. It's also important for prospective applicants to think about accreditation.

Programmatic Accreditation for Master's in Special Education Programs

Also referred to as specialized or professional accreditation, programmatic accreditation recognizes specific programs as exceptional in their fields. Programmatic accrediting agencies recognize what separates one program from another, such as an outstanding teaching staff, curriculum, or internship-placement system. When a special education program has programmatic accreditation, it means that the program features unique and impressive elements.

Employers have a stronger interest in graduates of programmatically accredited programs because they understand that prospective employees received a quality education from an outstanding, prestigious program. It is very important that students earn their degree from an accredited institution, and it is even better if their program is programmatically accredited.

Differences Between Special Education Programs

Special education master's program come in three degree formats, with differing course, practicum, and capstone requirements. Schools can offer a master of arts and/or master of science in education. Emphasizing scholarly research, these programs train students in foundational theories of learning. Students may pursue advanced electives in a content area, like special education. MA and MS degrees suit those who want to pursue careers as education administrators, curriculum designers, and principals. These tracks also prepare graduates for doctoral studies. Teachers who want to earn an MA or MS should consult their universities about specified outcomes, because not every program leads to state licensure or specialty endorsement.

Master of education in special education programs are considered professional degrees, making them ideal for licensed teachers. M.Ed. candidates receive practical, field-based training that enables them to critically evaluate instructional methods and immediately apply these strategies to their work. Certain schools operate M.Ed. options for students without teaching experience. These intensive tracks require candidates to complete prerequisites through a bridge program before tackling their master's degree plan.

M.Ed. in Special Education Admission Requirements

Master's in special education programs generally judge candidates on three main criteria: academic preparation, relevant career experience, and personal characteristics that align with the institutional mission. To these ends, candidates submit materials like a letter of intent, GRE scores, a resume/CV, and professional recommendations. While uncommon, some schools do require prospective students to complete virtual or in-person interviews. The admissions process can prove confusing, so students should not hesitate to seek help from admissions specialists and departmental counselors.


To be admitted to a master's in special education program, students must first earn a bachelor's degree, which does not always have to be in special education. Many special education master's programs programs require students to possess a current teaching license, and some programs ask for a number of years of experience. Minimum GPA requirements are typically between 2.5 and 3.0 and can sometimes be offset by test scores, professional experience, and personal statements.

Admissions Materials

Application Distance learners can conveniently submit their applications online, and many schools waive fees for early admissions candidates. Some institutions integrate financial aid into this process, allowing students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) simultaneously.
Letter of Intent Prospective students furnish a one- to two-page essay detailing why they want to enroll in the special education master's program. The letter of intent lets applicants convey their academic preparation and career goals.
Letters of Recommendation Graduate schools typically ask for 2-3 recommendation letters from individuals who can endorse the student's academic skills and professional achievements. In lieu of letters, some programs opt to contact the advocates directly.
Resume and/or Curriculum Vitae Degree applicants display their academic credentials and work experience through resumes. Some programs specially ask for a CV to assess the candidate's success with scholarly research and publication.
Test Scores Online colleges increasingly forgo GRE scores. Minimum requirements vary for schools that do require these test results. Students from non-English speaking countries submit TOEFL or IELTS scores to demonstrate language proficiency.

Resources for Teachers

Education Scholarships

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