Special Education

The Ultimate Guide to Master’s in Special Education Programs

The Ultimate Guide to Master’s in Special Education Programs
In some MAT and MEd programs, special education is sometimes treated as a concentration, and there may or may not be sub-specializations offered. In other programs, students can choose from among concentrations. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry December 7, 2020

Special education teachers take on challenges that general ed teachers can only imagine. If you think you'd like to join their ranks, getting a master's degree is a smart idea.

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People make many assumptions about special education. They assume, for instance, that special education classrooms are populated mainly by students with visible disabilities like Down syndrome or severe intellectual delays.

In truth, special education teachers work with students with a range of learning differences and learning challenges. These can include “intellectual disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders, autism, developmental delays, learning disabilities, visual impairment, and/or severe/multiple disabilities,” according to the Department of Special Education at Vanderbilt University‘s Peabody College.

Many also assume that special education teachers receive more training than—or radically different training from—general education teachers. In theory, they believe teachers have at minimum bachelor’s degrees in special education and hours of classroom experience. In reality, special education teacher shortages have driven districts around the US to reduce or eliminate specialized requirements for special education teachers.

That’s not good, but there is an upside. Districts’ willingness to hire teachers without a full special education teaching credential speaks to a near-universal demand for qualified education professionals. Having a special education bachelor’s degree can make you a hot commodity. Having a Master of Special Education can lead to lifelong job security—plus higher pay, bonuses, and better benefits.

In this article about earning a Master of Special Education, we dig into the following questions:

  • Do you need a master’s degree to work in special education?
  • Are there different kinds of special education graduate programs?
  • Do students pursuing Master of Special Education degrees choose concentrations?
  • How long does it take to get a master’s degree in special education?
  • How much does a special education teacher with a master’s degree make?
  • Are special education teachers in demand in the United States?
  • Why should I get a master of special education?

Do you need a master’s degree to work in special education?

Special education teachers can get a preliminary teaching license—or even a full professional license—with nothing more than a bachelor’s degree in most states. The majority of undergraduate special educator programs build practicum and/or student teaching hours and other fieldwork into the curriculum. Students graduate with everything they need to meet state requirements for teacher licensure.

Coursework in these programs touches on:

  • Assistive technology
  • Behavior management
  • Disability instruction
  • Educational psychology
  • Social-emotional learning
  • Student assessment

Many people feel ready to take on the challenges of teaching in special education classrooms after graduation. However, others are strongly driven to learn even more about the most effective ways to reach a diverse range of learners. These people pursue graduate degrees.

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Graduate degrees for teachers fall into two categories: the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and the Master of Education (MEd). Many resources indicate that the MAT is the best master’s degree for teachers, while MEd programs are primarily for aspiring educational administrators, policymakers, and other current education professionals who aspire to work outside the classroom. In reality, it’s not quite that simple.

Both MAT and MEd programs tend to be concentration-based, and while there are more part-time and full-time Master of Arts in Teaching programs focused on advanced pedagogic theories and skills, there are also plenty of Master of Education programs with grade-level, subject-area, and student-population concentrations.

In some areas of the US, a teacher with a master’s degree at the top of the salary schedule can earn close to $40,000 more than a teacher with a bachelor’s degree. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that going to graduate school will lead to a substantially bigger paycheck. The only way to know how much you’ll earn after graduating with a master’s in teaching or master’s in education is to look at the salary schedule in your district. You should be able to see at a glance how your education and experience will translate into dollars. (source)

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Are there different kinds of special education graduate programs?

The Master of Education in Special Education and the Master of Arts in Teaching in Special Education are the two most common master’s degrees for special education teachers. How these degree programs differ has more to do with how colleges and universities treat them than any generalizations we might make about the differences between MAT and MEd programs. Special education MAT and MEd programs both prepare teachers to work in a variety of special ed roles. Both can lead to licensure and help teachers who previously worked in general ed transition into special education classrooms.

These aren’t the only master’s in special education programs, however. You might also pursue the:

  • Master of Arts in Education in Special Education
  • Master of Arts in Special Education
  • Master of Science in Education in Special Education
  • Master of Science in Special Education Teaching

Don’t make assumptions about an on-campus or online master’s degree program’s focus based on the degree that the program confers. Some special education master’s programs are designed for licensed educators who want to qualify for higher-level certifications. Others are designed to meet the needs of people working toward an initial teaching license. Still others are designed for educators and education administrators who aren’t seeking licensure but rather the bona fides necessary to transition into fields like instructional design or consulting. Look at admission requirements and curricula for a sense of whether a program supports your goals.

Do students pursuing Master of Special Education degrees choose concentrations?

Concentration options vary by program. In some MAT and MEd programs, special education is sometimes treated as a concentration, and there may or may not be sub-specializations offered. In other programs, students can choose from among concentrations like:

  • Applied behavior analysis
  • Assistive technology in education
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Bilingual/multicultural special education
  • Deaf/hard of hearing instruction
  • Disabilities in post-secondary settings
  • Dyslexia
  • Early childhood education
  • Elementary education
  • Emotional and behavioral disorders
  • Persistent behavior problems
  • Reading and math disabilities
  • Severe disability instruction
  • Social, emotional, and behavioral wellness
  • Special education law and process
  • Special education leadership
  • Speech and language impairments
  • Visual disability

Autism education ranks among the most popular special education focus areas. Autism is the fastest-growing disability category in special education learning environments. The demand for special education teachers who specialize in working with students with autism spectrum disorders will likely keep growing.

How long does it take to get a master’s degree in special education?

Most graduate-level programs for special education teachers require students to complete 36 credit hours of core coursework and fieldwork. Some full-time master’s in special education programs can take as long as two years to complete. However, there are also many online programs, part-time programs, and accelerated on-campus programs designed to support teachers and aspiring teachers who want to go to graduate school but need to work around other commitments. These generally require students to commit to studying for three or even four years, but not always. Some Master of Special Education programs—particularly those designed for experienced educators—take between 15 and 20 months to complete.

How much does a special education teacher with a master’s degree make?

Most special education teachers earn about $62,000 per year. Yet another assumption people make about teachers in special ed classrooms is that they earn more than general ed teachers, but special ed instructors are paid under the same contract rules as mainstream classroom teachers in many districts. When special education teachers earn more than general ed teachers, the difference usually amounts to about $1,000 to $2,000 per year.

The highest-paid special education teachers work in California, New York, District of Columbia, and Washington, where they can earn more than $93,000. Some districts pay a small stipend to instructors who write a minimum number of IEPs and/or attend a minimum number of multidisciplinary team meetings or give bonuses to special ed teachers who commit to working in understaffed schools.

Special education teachers with master’s degrees earn more, but only because most school districts across the country automatically give teachers who complete graduate programs stipends or higher salaries on a set schedule. However, don’t assume that you’ll earn a substantially larger salary after earning a Master of Special Education. Districts also calculate teacher salaries based on experience and other factors.

Are special education teachers in demand in the United States?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, special education teaching jobs are growing at roughly the same rate as the general job market. Even so, teacher shortages still hamper the US education system. A whopping 49 out of 50 states report shortages in the field. That’s not because there are new openings to fill but because turnover leaves special education classrooms without teachers.

Not all regions have shortages, however. Some areas have plenty of qualified instructors. Some districts mainstream as many students as possible (or even redefine what is and isn’t a disability), so schools in those districts don’t need as many special education teachers. And some schools allow unlicensed teachers to fill open spots in special education classrooms.

Most schools prefer to hire qualified special ed teachers whenever possible. Earning a master’s degree in special education instruction can make you a more attractive applicant even when there aren’t teacher shortages in your state. Your graduate degree can also help you transition into other special education roles, such as curriculum designer, program director, or special education advocate. Most of them earn more than public school teachers.

Why should I get a master of special education?

Is a master’s in special education worth it? The answer is an unequivocal yes. You’ll most likely qualify for a higher level of licensure after earning your degree and a bigger paycheck. You’ll probably have an easier time finding placements in and out of the classroom. You may even be able to work with a wider variety of students, depending on which concentration you choose. Most importantly, you’ll have new skills and knowledge you can use to help more students reach their full potential, whatever that looks like, given the populations you work with.

Of course, all that assumes you’re ready to commit to a teaching career in special ed. The reality is that this specialization isn’t for everyone. Special education teachers have to do more than teach, whether their students have mild, severe, or moderate disabilities. They’re advocates, caregivers, and counselors for entire families. Teachers who work with children in special education have to face physical demands that most teachers don’t. They often have to fight for resources that are considered essential for other students. In other words, becoming a special education teacher isn’t for everyone. But if it is the right choice for you, a master of education can take you further than you might go with a bachelor’s degree alone.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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