Special education teachers work with students with physical, mental, behavioral, and emotional issues. While this work can prove challenging, it can also serve as a rewarding career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for special education teachers in 2017 reached $58,980, or roughly $20,000 more than the median salary for all other occupations in the country.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for special education teachers in 2017 reached $58,980, or roughly $20,000 more than the median salary for all other occupations in the country.
A master's degree in special education can prepare you to effectively serve students with special needs and take advantage of high-paying job opportunities. Master's programs equip educators with the knowledge and skills they need to support individuals with diverse learning needs. They often feature coursework in areas like behavioral interventions, designing curricula and assessments for exceptional learners, and special education policies and laws. Most programs also include a field experience or practicum to provide students the opportunity to test and refine their skills in the field.
Current teachers and education professionals looking to work with students with special needs should consider earning a master's in special education online. Distance programs combine the rigor and resources of the classroom experience with the convenience of learning from your own home and on your own schedule.
Students should consider many factors when choosing a special education master's program. For example, how much will a program cost, and how much financial aid do you expect to receive? In addition to tuition, make sure to account for other education expenses like room and board, books, course materials, and fees.
Students should also consider the time commitment needed to complete a master's, keeping in mind that some programs take longer than others. Do you plan to pursue any kind of specialization? You may hope to work exclusively in early childhood education or with students with autism, but not all programs offer coursework in these areas.
Does your program offer an online or a hybrid option? Pursuing an online special education master's provides a great deal of flexibility and convenience, but it also requires exceptional time management and organizational skills.
What about location? While less of a concern for online students, some colleges and universities require that students complete at least some coursework on campus. Additionally, programs often partner with local schools and organizations to provide internship and field experience opportunities. If you cannot commute to these sites, you will need to work with your program to find an alternative.
Finally, what accreditation status does your program hold? Accreditation ensures that schools meet minimum educational requirements and adequately prepare their students for jobs. Make sure to select a master's in special education program accredited by a regional, national, or specialized accrediting agency, like the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).
Types of Special Education Degrees
Students select one of two master's-level special education degrees: a master of arts in education (MA) or a master of education (M.Ed.).
Generally speaking, the MA serves as a research degree. Students in these programs often take courses in data collection and analysis and complete a thesis. Students pursuing an M.A. do not necessarily need to complete a field experience or practicum, as they often go on to pursue a doctorate in education rather than work in a K-12 classroom.
The M.Ed., conversely, serves as a professional degree. Students may elect to take courses in research, but these programs tend to emphasize the development of professional knowledge and skills, like using technology in the classroom or designing adaptive curricula. These programs also usually feature a student-teaching experience, which counts towards teaching licensure. Students with an M.Ed. often become teachers, instructional designers, or educational administrators.
For the most part, these degrees cost roughly the same, and they both entail about one to two years of graduate study.
To apply to on campus or online master's in special education programs, you need at least a bachelor's degree. While a bachelor's degree in special education may allow you to opt out of some of a program's introductory coursework, you can generally begin your master's studies with any kind of bachelor's degree from a regionally (and sometimes nationally) accredited institution.
Other admission requirements vary program to program. For example, some programs require you to hold an undergraduate GPA of at least a 3.0, though more prestigious schools may require an even higher GPA. Other programs require a certain score on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), though many do not require students to submit standardized test scores of any kind. Typically, you do not need any teaching experience to apply to a master's in special education, though requirements may differ for programs in educational leadership or other specialized areas. Non-native English speakers may need to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or a similar exam in order to demonstrate your language proficiency. Most schools charge a modest application fee.
All public school teachers, including special education teachers, must hold certification or licensure from the state in which they plan to teach. Educators at private schools do not need a license, but employers may still prefer to hire candidates with a state-issued credential and a degree in special education.
To become certified as a public school teacher, you need at least a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution. Some states require teachers to earn a bachelor's or a master's in special education before they can work with students with special needs. Other states simply require a prospective special education teacher to have taken coursework in this area.
States typically require prospective teachers to complete some kind of student-teacher experience as part of their undergraduate or graduate education. However, an increasing number of states now offer alternative pathways to certification, which allow individuals with a bachelor's degree and no teaching experience to receive a conditional license to teach in a classroom. These individuals must work under the supervision of a mentor teacher for a prescribed period of time.
Teachers generally must also pass a state certification exam and a background check. Some states administer exams specifically for special education teachers, while others require new special education teachers to earn an endorsement during the first several years of their service. Note, however, that state teaching licenses do not automatically transfer, though some states boast reciprocity agreements with other states to streamline the process.
Finally, special education teachers can also pursue optional certificates to demonstrate their expertise in a particular area, like working with children with physical disabilities. These certificates may improve a teacher's job prospects and earnings potential.
Students with a master's degree in special education can take on a variety of roles. They may work directly with students as special education teachers or create curricula for exceptional learners as an instructional designer. A master's degree can also position you for positions with more responsibilities and higher salaries, such as director of special education for a school district. The list below includes five potential jobs in special education along with their median salaries.
Director of Special Education
Directors of special education ensure the success and well-being of students in special education programs. They hire and train staff, create instructional plans, manage budgets, and work closely with parents and other educational administrators. Most individuals in these positions hold a master's degree in special education.
Median Salary: $74,265
Intervention specialists create, implement, and evaluate individualized plans of instruction for students with special needs. They may work exclusively with exceptional learners or shadow a special needs student in an integrated classroom setting. Many specialists focus on serving children with a particular issue or disability, such as blindness.
Median Salary: $39,095
Behavior analysts work with students to overcome mental, social, or emotional disabilities. They may also collaborate with teachers, administrators, and parents to better understand and manage a student's behavior in the classroom. Behavior analysts typically hold a master's degree in special education or a related field.
Median Salary: $55,746
Special Education Teacher (Kindergarten and Elementary School)
Special education teachers at the kindergarten and elementary school levels play a key role in assessing a student's unique skills and needs and creating plans to support their academic and social development. Early childhood teachers need broad content knowledge, highly refined instructional skills, and patience.
Median Salary: $58,600
Special Education Teacher (Secondary School)
Special education teachers at the middle and high school level often build off of the work done by their colleagues in the earlier grades. While they continue to evaluate student needs and implement individualized support plans, they place a greater emphasis on helping their students advance from grade to grade and prepare for life after graduation.
Median Salary: $60,180
An online master's in special education requires a significant financial investment. Thankfully, governments and private organizations offer several sources of financial aid for students who plan to work with special needs populations. Additionally, many schools offer payment plans that allow students to pay for their tuition at the beginning or end of each semester, rather than in a single lump sum.
Students should first fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Filling out the FAFSA qualifies you for many forms of financial aid, including federal student loans, federal grants, and work-study opportunities. Federal grants, like the Pell Grant, provide free money to students who need assistance financing their education. Students do not need to pay this money back and can use these funds for any education-related expense.
Students must, however, pay back federal student loans. Graduate students may only use an unsubsidized loan to pay for a master's degree in special education. You do not need to demonstrate financial need to qualify for an unsubsidized loan, and although you may defer payments on these loans while in school, you must ultimately pay back the entirety of the loan. Your school determines the amount of money you can borrow based on the cost of your attendance. After it uses this money to cover your tuition, the school will provide you with the difference to pay for room and board, books, course materials, and other expenses.
Work-study programs provide part-time jobs to undergraduate and graduate students. You must demonstrate financial need through filling out the FAFSA to qualify. Students typically work jobs on or near their campus. Participants earn at least the federal minimum wage but may earn more depending on the work performed. The government assigns each participant a maximum annual award, which limits the total hours you may work. You do not need to pay back any of the money you earn through a work-study job, and you may use it however you see fit.
Tuition Reimbursement Programs
To encourage their employees to continue their education, some companies and organizations offer tuition reimbursement programs. Students often enjoy reimbursement for tuition and other fees associated with earning a professional certificate or degree. Many employers only allow employees to use these benefits in an area of study that directly relates to their current position. Check with your employer to determine whether they offer tuition reimbursement. To fill vacancies, some schools may provide support to employees who plan to seek a master's degree in special education.
Grants, Fellowships, and Scholarships
Private grants, fellowships, and scholarships serve as free money to help pay for your education. You do not need to pay back this funding, though you may need to meet certain educational, service, or reporting requirements in order to maintain these forms of financial support. States and organizations often award scholarships and fellowships based on academic excellence and community involvement; they award grants based on financial need. When researching grant, fellowship, and scholarship opportunities, try to identify those programs that cater to individuals with your background and career goals.
Scholarships for Online Master's in Special Education Degrees
Shon Shadrick Memorial Scholarship $5,000
Katie MacDonald Memorial Scholarships $2,500
Bishop Charles P. Greco Graduate Fellowships $2,000
The Applegate-Jackson-Parks Future Teacher Scholarship $1,000
Delta Gamma Foundation's Florence Margaret Harvey Memorial Scholarship $1,000
- U.S. Department of Education The ED provides informational resources and financial aid to future special education teachers and professionals, including the TEACH Grant Program and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
- National Association of Special Education Teachers The NASET represents special education professionals across the country. It provides a wealth of resources specifically for individuals working to become special education teachers.
- National Center for Learning Disabilities The NCLD works to improve the lives of individuals dealing with learning and attention issues. It offers instructional guides for special education teachers on a variety of subjects, such as literacy instruction for special needs students.
- Council for Exceptional Children CEC provides educators working with exceptional learners access to publications and policy briefs; it also offers professional development resources and hosts a career center.
- National Organization on Disability NOD primarily works to improve the employment opportunities of individuals with disabilities. As part of this effort, it collaborates closely with educational institutions on how best to engage and support students with disabilities.