Graduate Degree Programs in Special Education: Program Options

Oct 13, 2019

Essential Information

Master's degree programs in special education are generally geared towards individuals interested in teaching special education but who lack an undergraduate degree in the field (a common requirement for licensure). In addition, current teachers of other subjects may pursue graduate certificates in special education, which are typically shorter in duration than master's programs. Doctoral programs, on the other hand, are designed for aspiring educational researchers, professors or administrators; these programs are research-intensive and culminate in a dissertation.

Most all of these programs require student-teaching that provides students with hands-on experience. The various specializations for these programs include learning and behavior, early childhood, emotional impairments, learning disabilities, visual disabilities and high/low incidence disabilities. These programs can lead to initial licensure or an additional certification in special education instruction. Sometimes students may find them offered online.

Master's Degree Programs in Special Education

Master's degrees in special education includes Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.) and Master of Education (M.Ed.). Often an M.A. program requires proficiency in a foreign language, and an M.Ed. program at least one year of teaching with a valid teacher's license. M.S. programs may be tailored to non-teachers, general education teachers, or special education teachers who wish to pursue an advanced degree and career in special education. Although some programs prefer a baccalaureate in education, most allow other students with other majors, such as nursing, social work, physical therapy or communications disorders. Courses common to most programs include:

  • Basics of learning disabilities
  • Behavior management
  • Consultation/collaboration with agencies and parents
  • Developing an optimum learning atmosphere
  • Psychology and education for exceptional students
  • Special education trends

Graduate Certificate Programs in Special Education

There are two levels of certificate programs in special education, graduate and post-master's. Teachers with bachelor's degrees in education who would like to become certified to teach special education could earn a graduate certificate in just one year or less. Such programs can be considered similar to completing half of a master's degree program. Prerequisites for a graduate certificate in special education are the same as those for a master's degree; generally, a baccalaureate degree and 3.0 minimum undergraduate GPA are required. Courses may include:

  • Assessing students with disabilities
  • Special education curriculum planning
  • Teaching reading (or math or writing) to special needs students
  • Practicum or internship

Doctoral Degree Programs in Special Education

There are two types of doctoral degree programs in special education: a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and Doctor of Education (Ed.D.). These Ph.D. programs tend to be more heavily research-based than Ed.D. programs. Doctoral students prepare for leadership work such as conducting research in universities or private organizations, handling administrative affairs in schools or state educational departments, and acting as professional special education consultants. Most doctoral degree programs in special education require a bachelor's degree and a 3.0 GPA as prerequisites. Applicants with a bachelor's degree can earn a master's degree as they work toward a doctorate in special education. Classes may include:

  • Special education program evaluation
  • Grant writing
  • Multivariate statistics
  • Differing special education research methods
  • Special education research design

Popular Career Options

Special education specialists are almost always teachers or teachers' consultants. They may work in schools, homes, hospitals or a variety of human service agencies.

Employment Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of special education students is expected to continue to rise and there are already not enough qualified special education teachers. Estimated job growth of all special education teachers will rise 3% from 2018 to 2028, according to the BLS (

Continuing Education and Certification

Every state requires teachers to obtain a license, which necessitates taking continuing education classes for license renewal. Continuing education courses, many available online, are offered by a number of colleges, the American Academy of Special Education Professionals (AASEP) and the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET). The AASEP offers a voluntary certification in special education. Special education teachers with master's degrees may also choose to pursue a doctorate to allow them to teach in graduate schools, perform research and pursue leadership positions.

There are several options available for individuals wanting to become special education teachers. Those who are not already licensed but have a related degree may pursue a master's degree program in special education, while licensed teachers may earn a graduate certificate or doctoral degree in special education.

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