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Master of special education: helping exceptional students

By Ysobel Croix

In the field of special education, both the students and the educators tend to be exceptional. Students of all ages with many types of disabilities and special needs require educators who are patient, appreciative of diversity, and highly trained in the best methods of teaching their students, who see the world in many different ways.

Special education studies provide a wide range of options for educators and would-be educators in all stages of their careers and meet an important need. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects this field to grow faster than average between 2008 and 2018. Online special education master's degree programs are available, in addition to traditional on-campus studies and opportunities for real-world, practical experience.

Focus on master of special education degrees

These graduates programs are designed for different groups of prospective students:

  • People with non-education bachelor's degrees who do not have a teaching license (initial certification)
  • People who have a teaching license and bachelor's degree, but not in special education
  • People who have a teaching license and bachelor's degree in special education

Because state laws determine exactly how a person is able to become a licensed special education teacher, some campus and online special education master's programs are specifically designed to meet a particular state's requirements. For example, some states require classroom practicum experience or a supervised student teaching internship for initial certification. Because of this, initial certification master's programs may take longer than two years to complete. Prospective students need to research their state laws prior to enrolling in a program; if a master's degree program that was designed for initial licensure didn't meet a state's legal requirements, a graduate of that program might not be able to get his or her teaching license.

Some experienced educators want the flexibility of having dual licenses, meaning an elementary or secondary teaching credential and a special education credential. A teacher with both licenses may be a valuable resource to schools in rural communities or any school facing budget limitations. Again, state law determines the exact amount of additional training and education required for an already licensed teacher, though master's degree programs can provide that training.

Schools and school districts also require leaders in special education. Experienced teachers in this specialty may decide to pursue training to become administrators. Some special education master's degree programs provide a leadership and administration specialty. Additional specializations may target specific populations of special needs students, for example:

  • Early childhood
  • Exceptional learning needs
  • Gifted and talented
  • Multicultural special education
  • Profound/severe disabilities

On-campus and online special education degree programs

Most master's degree programs require 35-45 semester credits of study and can be completed in approximately two years. However, online special education master's programs make it possible for working professionals inside and outside the classroom to complete a degree in the most flexible way possible. Though coursework would vary by program, these classes are representative of a graduate-level special education curriculum:

  • Advanced assistive technology
  • Advanced teaching strategies for exceptional students with learning problems
  • Characteristics of and adaptations for students with autism spectrum disorders
  • Teaching written communication to students with special needs

Special education careers and salaries

The Council for Exceptional Children notes, "While many people entering the field of special education become classroom teachers, there is a great variety of career paths available in the field." The CEC list includes careers that can be found in education advocacy and policy organizations, adult care facilities, hospitals, and social services agencies. Here are some careers that may require additional training:

  1. Early childhood special educator
  2. Educational diagnostician
  3. School social worker
  4. Special education administrator
  5. Special education technology specialist

The BLS reports that in 2010, the mean annual salaries for positions such as these ranged from $43,000 for school social workers to over $81,000 for administrators.

Educators with master's degrees in special education may also choose to teach at preschools; elementary, middle and high schools; and community and two-year colleges. The BLS estimates that special education teachers in K-12 environments earned mean annual wages between $55,000 and $58,000 in 2010. Excellent growth opportunities are expected for these professionals, particularly those with specialties such as autism or bilingual special education.

In addition to an open-minded view of the world and their students, these educators need a high degree of specialized training. By earning a special education master's degree, first-time teachers and veteran teachers alike can find the leadership skills and knowledge to help them advance their careers.


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