Is a Master's Degree in Special Education Worth It? Quick Answer: Absolutely.
March 10, 2021
Teaching in special education takes a big heart, creativity, and patience. What hasn't always been required is a master's degree. A lot of special education teachers are pursuing graduate education anyway. The question is, should you be one of them?
If you’re like most teachers working with students who have learning challenges, you qualified for a preliminary license and were able to begin your career in special education with nothing more than a bachelor's degree. That license required you to complete some specific coursework, but you did that as part of your undergraduate studies.
As an undergrad, you probably undertook a core education curriculum along with courses covering child assessment, educational psychology, social-emotional learning, disability instruction, communication techniques, assistive technology, and behavioral support. Chances are good that you also completed a one- or a two-year stint as a student teacher in a special education classroom before you actually received your teaching license.
With a bachelor's degree and 1-2 years of experience as a student teacher, you're off to a great start... But now you have a choice:
- Continue working with children with disabilities in K-12 placements that don't require a master's degree
- Enroll in a master's level special education program
Some special educators do both, working in the classroom while pursuing a master's degree part-time; some take a sabbatical to go back to school full-time; and still, others decide that an education bachelor's degree is enough.
So, is a master's degree in special education worth it? While the answer to that question will be different for every teacher, there are some compelling reasons to look into master's programs for special education teachers. Before we dive into them, however, let's take a look at what master's programs for special education teachers are like.
What's the difference between a Master of Science in Teaching (MAT) and a Master of Education (MEd)?
It’s not always clear what kind of degree you need to teach special education, especially at the graduate level. There are various types of master’s degrees available to teachers specializing in special education, all of which may be described as a master's in special education. Prospective special education teachers should take a particularly close look at two degrees: the Master of Education (MEd) and the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT).
The difference between the MEd and the MAT lies in how a university assigns disciplines to its different schools. In general:
- Education degrees are regarded as professional degrees; they are usually conferred by the school of education and is best for current teachers who want to advance beyond the classroom
- Teaching degrees are academic degrees typically conferred by a teacher's college and are often pursued by students who've earned a bachelor's degree in another field and want to become teachers, or by teachers who plan to spend their careers in the classroom
Keep in mind that there are no absolutes in higher education, and as such the above definitions are the most frequent definitions. For example, some universities label teaching a liberal art while others consider it a science, so one school's MAT may be another school's Master's of Science in Teaching. There are even schools that confer a Master of Science in Education. Make sure you look carefully at what any prospective master’s program looks like before settling on one.
That said, your long-term goals will likely determine whether you choose to pursue an MEd or an MAT.
- MEd programs are best for teachers who expect to take their careers beyond the classroom and into academic development or administration — perhaps as a curriculum developer or a school principal — in the future. You'll still learn practical skills that will make you a better teacher, but you'll also be exposed to research, pedagogy, and theories that will broaden your understanding of how people with learning differences process and retain information.
- MAT programs, on the other hand, are typically designed for educators who plan to spend their entire careers in the classroom. You'll learn strategies that will enhance your ability to work with students with special needs, subject-specific skills, and evidence-based practices that work for students in special needs classrooms. You’ll also learn how to put the latest educational theories into practice in your curriculum.
Most graduate-level programs require about 36 graduate credit hours to complete; a full-time student can graduate in about two years.
_There are also online programs, part-time programs, and accelerated on-campus programs that can help you meet your goals on a timeline that works for you._
- The University of Florida and Michigan State University, for instance, both have online programs that require only 30 credit hours to complete
- A similar program at the University of North Texas lets students earn a master's degree in as little as 15 months
No matter which graduate degree you choose, chances are good that you’ll be required to pick a specialty within the field. Many master’s degree programs (especially MAT programs) also require the completion of a thesis. In any case, both the MAT and the MEd will give you new ways to assess your students, expose you to new teaching methods, and help you create and implement effective curricula for your classroom.
Why a master's degree in special education is worth the investment
So, why enroll in a special education master's program?
- Qualify for a higher level of licensure
- Have an easier time finding placements
- Teach a wider variety of subjects and special education students, all while making more money and possibly also receiving student loan forgiveness
When is a master’s degree required?
Each state has its own certification and licensing requirements for teachers, and while many do not require special education teachers to have completed a master’s program, quite a few now either require candidates to hold a master’s degree or to earn one within their first five years of teaching. Make sure you understand your state’s requirements when it comes to teaching in special education classrooms, and keep in mind that those requirements may change in the future.
Reasons to get a master's degree in special education
Let’s look more closely at the benefits of a master's degree for special education teachers.
Teachers with master’s degrees get better results
A report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the largest nationally recognized assessment of student performance, clearly demonstrated that teachers with master’s degrees consistently outperformed students of teachers with undergraduate degrees in both math and reading assessments. While standardized testing is not the final arbiter of success, it is one quantifiable measure of academic improvement, one in which a master's degree appears to impact student results positively.
You’ll be in demand
Special education teachers are already in high demand (especially during teacher shortages, when special education classrooms are often hit the hardest), but it’s always a good idea to differentiate yourself from the pack. Even if your state doesn’t mandate a master's degree to teach special education, more and more employers are limiting their searches to candidates who hold advanced degrees. When you’re job hunting, a MAT or an MEd will give you an edge over other teachers vying for the same positions.
You’ll have opportunities to grow as a teacher
Great master’s programs teach you new strategies for meeting the needs of students with learning, neurological, and physical disabilities, but that’s not all you’ll take away from your program. You’ll also meet experts in your field and have the opportunity to connect and share ideas with other teachers in the special education space. Earning your master’s degree is an opportunity to build a valuable network that you can tap into in the future when you’re looking for a new placement or facing a tough challenge.
Master’s degree holders make more money
No one enters the special education field to get rich, but it’s definitely easier to focus on your work when you’re financially comfortable. Special education teachers with an MEd or MAT in special education have a higher earning potential — 5 to 10 percent higher — than their colleagues who have a bachelor’s degree.
You can do more with a master’s degree
You’ll be able to choose from a broader range of special education careers with a master's degree. That’s because the more you know about teaching methods, pedagogical trends, the legal issues surrounding special education, and classroom strategies for helping students with learning difficulties thrive, the more qualified you’ll be to take on jobs outside of the classroom.
For instance, teachers who go on to earn their master’s degrees sometimes pursue alternative careers in special education, like becoming:
- Directors of special education programs
- Early childhood and intervention specialists
- Transition team specialists
- Resource specialists
- Curriculum designers
- Adaptation specialists
- Instructional coordinators
- Special ed post-secondary instructors
- Behavioral specialists
- Inclusion specialists
Bonus: Most of these jobs pay more than teaching and can be just as rewarding.
So, is a master's degree in special education worth it?
There are so many reasons that people enter the special education field, from the desire to help an often-underserved population to a fascination with the different ways people learn to an interest in a specific challenge, like autism spectrum disorders. The one constant is that teachers who pursue special education as a career have a hugely positive impact on the students they work with.
If you’ve decided to dedicate your life to students with learning differences, earning a master’s degree in special education is absolutely worth it.
If you’re worried about the time commitment, there are online graduate-level special education programs can be completed on a part-time basis, like:
Both Saint Joseph's and University of Washington offer flexibility for teachers who need to balance continuing education with their classroom responsibilities. It will be challenging, but in the end, you’ll make an even bigger impact on the lives of your students and be able to help more people grow beyond their potential.
As special education teacher Meghan Mathis put it, “When you help a student who thinks they can’t learn to achieve things far beyond what they ever dreamed possible, you feel like you can fly."
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