Special Education Degrees

Curious in becoming a special education teacher? This in-depth guide walks you through the steps to earning your degree, whether you're interested in a bachelor's degree, master's degree, or even a Ph.D.!

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers collaborate with other educators, counselors, parents, and specialists to meet the unique needs of disabled students in kindergarten through 12th grade (and sometimes beyond). If you choose to enter this field, you'll have a range of teaching opportunities. For example, you might focus on special education in an elementary setting, or you might work with young adults up to the age of 21. You could also teach students who have mild disabilities, like behavioral disorders, or those with severe disabilities, such as intellectual development disorder.

No matter which branch of special education you choose, the main path to become a special ed teacher is generally the same. First, you need to earn a bachelor's degree, usually in special education, and complete a supervised teaching experience. Then, you need to obtain state certification or licensure (these are the same - it just depends on what terminology your state uses).

If you opt to pursue continuing education for special ed teachers, you can do so through numerous graduate degrees or certificate programs. Let's explore some of your educational options in further detail!

Bachelor's Degree in Special Education

In general, your special education bachelor's degree program will require seven semesters of coursework and practicums as well as a semester-long student teaching experience, which is typically completed in the fall or spring of your senior year. Courses for a special education major are likely to cover topics including:

  • Assessment in special education
  • Assistive technology
  • Child and adolescent psychology
  • Curriculum development for students with special needs
  • Instruction for students with mild disabilities
  • Intervention for students with severe disabilities
  • Multicultural understanding
  • Teaching students with behavioral disorders

Some special education bachelor's degree programs cover students in kindergarten through 12th grade, while others are focused specifically on elementary or high school. Additionally, some programs will allow you to focus on general curriculum teaching for students with mild intellectual, learning, emotional or behavioral disabilities. Other programs focus on adapted curriculum teaching, which can prepare you to work with students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities.

Special Education Bachelor's Degree Online

Online bachelor's degree programs in special education typically mirror on-campus programs, with the same courses, albeit generally taken 100% online, as well as in-person practicum and student teaching requirements. Unlike some online undergraduate degree programs, which will allow you to work through the curriculum at your own pace, online special education programs are usually structured on a semester basis and will take you four years to complete, just like their on-campus counterparts.

Master's in Special Education

Pursuing a master's in special education could be a logical next educational step for you, for several reasons. First, depending where you plan to teach, it might be a requirement. Some states mandate that special education teachers complete a master's program within a set period of time after being hired.

Additionally, earning a master's degree could increase your yearly pay. For example, a September 2018 salary survey showed that high school special education teachers with a Bachelor of Arts earned an average salary of about $45,000, while those with a Master of Education made roughly $52,000 on average.

Earning a graduate degree also could prepare you for additional career opportunities. Jobs for those with a master's in special education might include the following:

  • Director of special education programs
  • Educational diagnostician
  • Learning behavior specialist
  • Rehabilitation counselor
  • Resource teacher
  • Special education curriculum developer
  • Special education tester

Master's in Special Education Online

Earning your master's in special education online can be a great option, particularly if you want to keep teaching while pursuing your degree. These programs might award an online Master of Arts in Special Education, a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT), a Master of Education or a Master of Science. In general, MAT programs are intended for those who don't yet have a teaching license, while the others are geared toward current special educators or other certified teachers who are seeking an additional teaching endorsement.

To earn your special education degree online, you'll typically need to complete between 30 and 36 credit hours, which includes a mixture of core courses and electives (some programs will allow you to declare a specialization, like autism spectrum disorders or applied behavior analysis). You will also need to undertake a research project. In most cases, your master's program in special education can be completed entirely online; however, MAT programs usually require a student teaching experience.

Special Education Master's Programs

On-campus master's programs for special education instructors award the same degrees as their online counterparts, require the same number of credits, and offer the same concentrations. As an on-campus master's student, though, you might take just one or two courses each spring and fall, coupled with summer courses, to allow you to continue in your current career. Additionally, your courses might be scheduled exclusively in the evening, so that you can attend school after your work day has ended. On-campus programs also are more likely to incorporate practicums in their special education curricula.

As with online special education master's programs, your on-campus program might include courses like the following:

  • Individual educational assessment
  • Language and literacy for children with disabilities
  • Positive behavior support
  • Special education research
  • Transition practices

Ph.D. in Special Education

Pursuing a doctoral degree in special education, like the Ph.D. in Special Education Leadership, could be the right route for you if you want to pursue one of the following careers:

  • Special education advocate
  • Special education consultant
  • Special education curriculum developer
  • Special education professor
  • Special education researcher
  • Special education staff developer

As a Ph.D. candidate in special education, you'll take core, elective, and research courses, and will be required to write and present a dissertation. You also might have to teach one or more college courses and/or complete an internship. Ph.D. credit requirements in special education vary, ranging from around 50 to 80 hours, depending on which school's program you choose to pursue. While you may be able to complete some of your doctoral special education courses online, these programs are largely campus-based since they require interacting with an advisor and/or dissertation committee.

Special Education Certification

To work as a special education teacher in a public school, you'll need to meet the certification or licensure requirements set by the state where you plan to work. As with other elementary and high school teachers, you'll need a bachelor's degree and supervised teaching experience, and you'll have to pass an exam that tests your general teaching knowledge. Additionally, you'll have to pass a certification test specific to special education teaching.

You also might opt to pursue voluntary professional certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which offers the Early Childhood through Young Adulthood/Exceptional Needs Specialist certificate. Earning this certification requires passing a computer-based content knowledge test, as well as submitting three portfolios that document your teaching experience with at least three exceptional needs students.

All statistics come from PayScale.com (2018).