Special Education

10 Reasons to Get a Master’s in Special Education: The Jobs, Salaries, and Programs to Consider

10 Reasons to Get a Master’s in Special Education: The Jobs, Salaries, and Programs to Consider
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Tom Meltzer profile
Tom Meltzer June 4, 2019

Plus, a guide to some of the best special education master's programs in the country, from A to V (American to Vanderbilt).

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If you’re considering a career in education (or already pursuing one), you likely have a passion for improving the lives of children and a love of the learning process. You know you want to spend your career teaching and enriching students, but perhaps you haven’t gotten as far as deciding on your area of specialization.

If that’s the case, read on — we have ten good reasons why you should consider a career in special education, plus a lot of useful information about how to get a master’s degree in the field, what jobs your master’s will qualify you for, and which master’s of special education programs to consider (along with some handy insights on the benefits and drawbacks of online and on-campus program options).

A master’s in special education prepares you for the best-paying and most fulfilling jobs in the special education field, and you’ll learn some amazing things about pedagogy, special education students, and the administration of education programs in the process. Special education teachers are in short supply these days, so a career in special education is likely to be a secure one as well as a fulfilling one.

Take a look at the ten reasons we came up with to pursue a master’s in special education. If you think of one we didn’t include, let us know — our contact information is at the bottom of the article.

Top 10 reasons to get a master’s in special education

1. A master’s will improve your teaching skills

If you’re already a teacher, a master’s will improve your skills by teaching you best practices and current theory in education. You will study intensively in the classroom, then apply what you’ve learned through your field placement/student teaching practicum. All the while you will be mentored by faculty whose qualifications typically include many years of live classroom experience. If you’re not currently a teacher, all the same applies, only more so; your master’s will train you to become an expert teacher well versed in the most effective evidence-based practices. Teaching is a profession as demanding and specialized as any, and like any profession it requires intensive training. A master’s degree provides that.

2. You want to be an advocate for special education students

Special education students typically require more individualized planning and attention than do other students. A special education teacher confers with parents, fellow teachers, school psychologists, testing specialists, and health professionals to develop objectives and a plan (called an IEP, for individualized education plan) for meeting those objectives for each student. If this sort of work appeals to you, a master’s in special education will prepare you to do it well.

3. The demand for special education teachers is high

As a result of a shortage of special education teachers in much of the United States (48 states, according to National Public Radio reporting), every year schools across the country hire unqualified or underqualified teachers to teach special education. The demand for trained and licensed special education teachers is nearly universal, and because the turnover rate in this field is higher than average for all teachers, demand is likely to continue into the indefinite future. For the right person, a special education teaching position could mean long-term job security.

4. Special education teachers may receive higher pay

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, special education teachers earn an averageincome of $61,800, slightly more than the average income for a kindergarten or elementary school general teacher. Some states offer added perks and bonuses to special education teachers (that’s the law of supply and demand at work).

5. Special education classes are smaller

At a time of tightening budgets and increasing class sizes, special education remains one field in which the student-teacher ratio remains sensible (state law often imposes limits on the size of special education classes). Special education teachers get to know their students better as a result of the small class sizes and the increased frequency of one-on-one and small-group work. This is especially true in the many instances where special education teachers work with some, or all, of the same students for multiple consecutive school years. Many special education teachers enjoy this continuity, as well as the ability to watch students progress over the long term.

6. The special education work day can be shorter

As a result of a more flexible curriculum and fewer curricular requirements, the special education work day can be shorter than the average school day. Many special education teachers report a more manageable work-life balance than do their general education peers. The extra time also allows special education teachers more opportunity to prepare and plan for their students, resulting in greater classroom success and, consequently, an increased level of job satisfaction.

7. The work is challenging and varied

All teaching work is challenging, but adding physical, psychological, and behavioral issues to the mix can certainly add another level of difficulty. These factors also mean the work is more varied — the challenges are different every day, and they keep coming — making special education a great job for problem-solvers who like to remain busy and active. Special education teachers sometimes report that the nature of their work makes them more patient and understanding people, not just in the classroom but in all aspects of their lives.

8. The master’s is a prerequisite to a terminal degree in special education

If you are interested in a career in special education research, and if you want to teach the subject of special education at the post-secondary level, a Master of Arts or Master of Science degree is a necessary prerequisite to the PhD you will ultimately need. If you aspire to a top leadership role in education policy creation, learning and design, or educational organization, an EdD will advance your cause considerably; a Master of Education degree typically precedes the EdD.

9. A master’s degree will help if you want to transition to administration some day

Regardless of whether you are currently contemplating a move from the classroom to administration, it’s always good to keep your options open. As teachers advance in their careers, they sometimes burn out on classroom teaching, or simply desire new career challenges and opportunities. Administration jobs offer both, and higher salaries as well. Most administration jobs require a master’s, and nearly all confer a hiring advantage to those who hold the degree.

10. Teaching special education is rewarding

Good special education teachers earn the gratitude of students, parents, administrators, and fellow professionals, but most of all, they get to enjoy their students’ breakthroughs and triumphs, and take pride in the role they played in helping to facilitate them. Teaching special education means impacting students’ lives positively on a daily basis; that’s a pretty good reason to get out of bed and go to work every day.

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Steps to earning a master’s in special education

The term “master’s in special education” is misleadingly imprecise: there are actually several different master’s degrees that relate to special education. Are we talking about a degree in education or in teaching? And is the degree a Master of Arts, a Master of Science, or a Master of Education? The differences among these options can be significant.

An education degree is often described as a professional degree, appropriate for current teachers who aspire to leadership roles in counseling, school administration, school districts, and education policy organizations. A teaching degree, in contrast, is regarded as an academic degree and is often pursued by prospective (not current) teachers. Teaching degree candidates learn pedagogic theory and technique while simultaneously gaining expertise in the subject in which they plan to specialize (e.g., English, mathematics, natural sciences). These students may ultimately proceed to careers in the classroom, but they may also continue in academia (as researchers and/or professors) or find careers in curriculum design and development.

The difference between the Master of Arts and Master of Science degrees has to do primarily with how the host university categorizes the department conferring the degree. If the university considers teaching (or education) to be a liberal art, the degree awarded will be a Master of Arts; if the university considers teaching (or education) to be a science, the degree will be a Master of Science. Both are considered academic degrees, and both typically require a thesis or research project as a prerequisite to graduation. The Master of Education degree, on the other hand, is more likely to emphasize practical applications; it may culminate in a thesis but may also offer final exams or a project as an alternative capstone experience.

Special education degrees typically allow students to specialize. Most programs offer specialization tracks in some or all of the following: high incidence/mild to moderate disability; low incidence/severe disability; deaf or hard of hearing education; blindness or visual impairment; dyslexia; and applied behavior analysis (often thought of as an autism specialization). Specializations may also be categorized by age group.

A bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution is prerequisite to any master’s degree. Master’s in special education programs can take anywhere from one to three years to complete, depending on the type of degree and your previous professional and academic experience. Degree requirements typically include academic coursework and some form of field placement/practicum.

A number of top universities have launched online master’s of special education programs in recent years; these programs are available to students anywhere. The benefits of online education are considerable. It’s extremely convenient, for one; most content is delivered asynchronously, meaning students can access it 24/7 (as opposed to live on-campus course content, which is delivered once only at a specific time and place), and without having to travel to campus and find a place to park. Advances in bandwidth capacities and teleconferencing apps mean that live online encounters — such as live classes, meetings for student group projects, office hours — offer a near face-to-face experience. And some online technologies, such as interactive simulations, actually represent advances in pedagogy over the antiquated live-lecture instruction model. Most online programs do a pretty good job of helping students find student teaching positions and other appropriate placements for their required practicums.

Other schools have launched hybrid programs that combine online content with on-campus events, offering a more convenient option to students whose family and career obligations make attending a full-time on-campus program impossible. And still others have stuck with the old, tried and true on-campus model. We’ve listed a number of excellent programs in all formats in our “Best master’s in special education programs” section below.

Careers for people with a master’s in special education

A master’s in special education qualifies you for a variety of interesting and fulfilling jobs. We’ve listed some of the most popular and interesting options below:

  • Special education instructor: Lead a special education classroom
  • Teaching specialist: Gain expertise in a particular emotional or behavioral disorder (attention deficit disorder, anxiety, aggression, autism spectrum disorder, etc.) and work with students to mediate the problem
  • Special education itinerant teacher:__ Work with students one-on-one to design accommodations that allow them to learn in a conventional classroom alongside non-special education peers
  • Special education coordinator: Oversee a caseload of special education students, ensure that IEP/504 plans are well-constructed and properly implemented
  • Special education course/curriculum developer: Conceive and create education materials for special education students, either for government education agencies or for private education publishers
  • Speech-language pathologist: Work with students with speech, language, and communication disorders
  • Educational audiologist: Specialize in working with the deaf and hearing impaired; administer hearing tests
  • Early intervention specialist: Work either in a preschool classroom or individually with young clients to diagnose and remediate physical, cognitive, behavioral, or communication issues
  • School counselor: Provide guidance and expertise to students in one-on-one and group settings; evaluate students’ abilities and, where appropriate, recommend therapy and/or remediation
  • Assistive technology practitioner: Administer assessments to students, interpret and explain results to instructors, administrators, and parents
  • Education administrator: Oversee special education programs at the district or state level
  • Physical therapist/rehabilitation counselor: Work with clients in school and other settings (assisted living facilities, day care centers, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, prisons) to manage physical challenges and improve physical well-being
  • Professor: Teach special education in a graduate program, mentor and instruct graduate students, conduct university-level research

Best master’s in special education programs

Noodle chose the 20 master’s in special education programs listed below based on the following criteria: admissions requirements; coursework; flexibility of scheduling; cost; class size; reputation of faculty; level of student support; teaching licensure pass rate; and job placement rate. Our choices represent a mix of on-campus and online programs, with some schools offering their degrees in both formats. Some programs offer the MA, MS, and MEd; others offer only one or two of these degrees.

American University, School of Education__

American University offers a Master of Arts in Special Education. The degree can be completed on a full-time or part-time basis; the full-time degree can be completed in one year/three semesters, the part-time degree takes two years/five semesters. The program prepares graduates for all education levels from pre-K through adult. Internships are offered through Washington DC’s Lab School of Washington, founded by Sally L. Smith; the AU curriculum is based on the Sally L. Smith methodology and features immersive Academic Clubs and an education-through-arts approach. AU graduates enjoy a 97 percent placement rate. Students are admitted three times a year, for the fall, spring, and summer terms.

The Catholic University of America, Department of Education__

The Catholic University of America offers a graduate degree in special education in conjunction with its Master of Arts in Teaching or its Graduate Teacher Certificate Program. The program requires three field experiences for a total of 500 fieldwork hours, completed over two consecutive summers. CU parlays its partnerships with Catholic schools in the District of Columbia, public schools in DC and Prince George’s County (MD), and several specialty and charter schools to facilitate field placement and training experiences. The curriculum spans six terms. Those seeking the Master of Arts in Special Education are required to complete two research papers.

George Washington University, Graduate School of Education & Human Development__

George Washington University offers both an on-campus and an online master’s (or certificate) in special education for culturally and linguistically diverse learners. The program is designed for initially certified teachers already employed and seeking to specialize in the field of special education. The curriculum is built on a theory-to-practice model that utilizes field experiences and a scholar-practitioner faculty to ensure students learn by doing. The master’s curriculum consists of 33 credit hours of courses; the certificate program can be completed with 18 credit hours of coursework. GWU admits new students twice yearly, for the summer and fall semesters.

Johns Hopkins University, School of Education__

Johns Hopkins University offers a Master of Science in Special Education; certification options for elementary/middle grades, and secondary/adult are available, as is a non-certification focus in severe disabilities with autism. JHU offers two distinct program areas: mild/moderate disabilities (emotional, learning, and/or mild intellectual disabilities) and severe disabilities (autism, significant intellectual disabilities). The curriculum consists of 33 credit hours (11 courses) that includes two behavior-management courses and two supervised internships (6 credits). All students must complete a graduate project and presentation during their final semester of academic work.

Michigan State University, College of Education__

Michigan State University offers an online-only Master of Arts in Special Education that offers emphasis areas in autism spectrum disorders and learning disabilities; in addition, students may pursue a certificate in applied behavior analysis. MSU’s status as a leading research institution drives this program’s evidence-based approach to education theory and practice, which stresses hands-on application through clinical projects and practicums. Students are admitted three times a year, for the fall, spring, and summer semesters. The program can be completed in 30 to 36 credit hours.

Purdue University, College of Education__

Purdue University offers an online Master of Science in Education with a concentration in special education; the degree can be completed in as little as 20 months. The degree can be completed with no licensure, initial licensure, advanced licensure, and advanced licensure — intense intervention only. The program trains students to create and manage special education curricula; to oversee a safe and successful classroom environment; and to identify and address the needs of exceptional students. The program is designed to satisfy licensure requirements for the state of Indiana; compact agreements with most other states means that your license will transfer, should you live and teach elsewhere.

St. Mary’s University of Minnesota

St. Mary’s University of Minnesota offers an on-campus, online, and blended Master of Arts in Special Education with no-licensure, licensure, and licensure with academic and behavioral strategist licensing. Students who already hold general education or special education licensure can earn additional licensure in learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, or emotional and behavioral disorders. St. Mary’s admits students three times a year, for the fall, spring, and summer cohorts. Full-time students can complete the non-licensure program in two years; licensure may require additional time. A minimum of 180 hours/15 weeks of practicum/student teaching is required for graduation.

Towson University, Department of Special Education__

Towson University offers a Master of Education in Special Education (for current teachers) as well as a Master of Arts in Special Education (for those who are not yet teaching); both degrees result in initial certification. Students may choose to specialize in three areas: infant/primary; elementary/middle; or secondary/adult. Both the MEd and MA are offered on campus in a self-paced format (students typically complete these in two to three years); the MA can be taken on-campus in an 18-month cohort-based format, while the MEd can be completed via school district cohorts. Students enjoy a 100 percent placement rate upon graduation.

Tulane University of Louisiana, School of Professional Advancement__

Tulane University recently launched an online Master of Education program with four specializations, including one focused on special education (the other three are: equity-centered education leadership; learning experience design; and teaching English learners). The 100 percent online program mixes synchronous (i.e., live) and asynchronous (i.e., accessible 24/7) content to deliver instruction focused on ethics and professional norms; equity, inclusiveness and cultural responsiveness; learning and instruction; and building professional capacity. The program admits students regardless of professional experience; neither entrance exams (GRE or GMAT) nor language aptitude testing for international students are required for admission.

University of Florida, College of Education__

The University of Florida offers on-campus, online, and blended master’s degrees in special education. The school’s Teach Well — Online Master’s or Specialist Degree program, which delivers content entirely online, offers five tracks: general, autism focus, disabilities in society, dyslexia, and early childhood studies. All degrees require 36 course credit hours; specialist degrees also require an oral exam and final project. The Live Well master’s, also entirely online, confers a Disabilities in Society Graduate Certificate; the university also offers an integrated bachelor’s/master’s program.

University of Kansas, Department of Special Education__

The master’s programs in special education at KU is ranked second in the nation by US News & World Report, and is first among public universities. The school offers a Master of Science in Education in five special education fields: autism spectrum disorder; early childhood unified; high incidence disabilities; low incidence disabilities; and secondary special education and transition. All degrees are offered on-campus; the autism spectrum disorder, secondary special education and transition, and high incidence disabilities degrees are offered online as well. Online learning is enhanced through a virtual school district simulation and other interactive apps. Application requirements and deadlines vary among the different programs.

University of Maryland, College of Education__

The University of Maryland offers a Master of Education in Special Education, with focus areas in autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, developmental delay, and physical and other health impairments. Full-time students pursuing the elementary/middle school specialization can complete their work in one year, and can add a specialization in severe disabilities by continuing to a second year of study. The program requires a year-long field experience. Certification reciprocity with 49 states ensures portability.

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Department of Educational Psychology__

The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities offers both a Master of Arts and a Master of Education degree in special education; in addition, the school offers the academic behavior strategist license, core licenses for deaf and hard of hearing students, emotional and behavioral disorders, and early childhood special education, and a certificate in autism spectrum disorder. The university’s leadership position in special education earned it a ninth-place ranking in the US News & World Report assessment of special education graduate programs.

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, School of Education__

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill offers a Master of Arts in Teaching with specializations/licensure in special education at the elementary and secondary levels. The special education curriculum requires 12 credit hours (four courses) and the passage of required North Carolina licensure exams.

University of Oregon, College of Education__

US News & World Report ranks the University of Oregon’s special education program third in the nation, making it second among public universities. The school offers a variety of master’s options, including: non-licensure; licensure + K-12 endorsement; and licensure + early intervention endorsement. Additionally, the school offers a Master of Science, Master of Arts, or a Master of Education in special education. Oregon prides itself in training not only classroom teachers but also researchers, policymakers, and education consultants. All master’s degrees require a minimum of 45 credit hours (51 with specialization).

University of Texas-Austin, College of Education__

The special education master’s program at the University of Texas-Austin, ranked fifth in the country by US News & World Report, offers three study areas: autism and development disabilities (M.Ed. or M.A.); early childhood special education (M.Ed. or M.A.); and high incidence disabilities with special education certification option (M.Ed.). All degrees have options leading to the certified special education teacher or board-certified behavior analyst designations.

University of Virginia, Curry School of Education__

US News & World Report ranks the University of Virginia’s on-campus special education program fourth in the country, and its online program eighth. The school offers a Master of Teaching (on-campus) and a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus area in special education (online); in addition, the school offers an applied behavior analyst series online. Areas of emphasis are available in learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders, and intellectual disabilities. At the master’s level, UVA focuses on training classroom and special-venue teachers, noting on its website that “special education teaching in the number one teacher shortage area in the country.”

University of Washington, College of Education__

The University of Washington offers a Master of Education in Special Education, with specializations in the following areas: applied behavior analysis (on-campus and online); early childhood special education (on-campus only); high incidence teacher education (on-campus only); and low incidence teacher education (on-campus only). The program offers certificate programs in all the same areas except for applied behavior analysis. US News & World Report ranks the special education program at the University of Washington sixth in the nation.

University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education__

The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers a Master of Science in Special Education with two options: the Teacher Certification option, and the Research and Theory option. As the degree designations indicate, UW-M strives to train both classroom teachers and professional academics in the field of special education. Teaching certification training is available at the middle childhood through early adolescence level (ages 6 through 12) and at the early adolescence through adolescence level (ages 10 through 21).

Vanderbilt University, Peabody College__

The Master of Education in Special Education at Vanderbilt University is ranked the nation’s best program by US News & World Report. The program, which admits students for the fall semester only, requires 30 to 60 credit hours to complete (depending on previous classwork). A leader in special education research, VU is at the forefront in the development of new practices and approaches. Students concentrate in one of three areas: early childhood; high incidence (reading and math disabilities, persistent behavior problems); and low incidence (severe disabilities and visual disabilities). In addition, students may specialize in applied behavior analysis, which trains teachers to conduct functional behavior assessments and implement intervention programs. VU students benefit from a 100 percent placement rate within four months of graduation.

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About the Author

Tom Meltzer began his career in education publishing at The Princeton Review, where he authored more than a dozen titles (including the company's annual best colleges guide and two AP test prep manuals) and produced the musical podcast The Princeton Review Vocab Minute. A graduate of Columbia University (English major), Tom lives in Chapel Hill, NC.

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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