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Information on Graduate Degree Programs in Special Education

Majors Overview July 20, 2015

This article talks about different graduate degree programs in special education and their education requirements, coursework, career choices, job outlook, and continuing education and certification choices.

Information on Special Education Programs

Individuals who seek licensure as a special education teacher commonly pursue a bachelor’s degree in special education. However, individuals with bachelor’s degrees in non-education fields can seek available master’s degree programs for aspiring special education teachers. Schools also offer master’s programs devised to help currently licensed teachers who want to advance their careers. Licensed teachers can additionally pursue graduate certificates in special education, which typically have shorter tenures than master’s programs.

Incoming students in every program are expected to complete student-teaching experiences. An additional certification in special education instruction or initial licensure can result from all of these programs. Schools usually devise doctoral programs to meet the needs of aspiring professors, educational researchers, or administrators. Typically, a dissertation marks the culmination of these research-intensive programs.

Master’s Programs in Special Education

Schools offer master’s degrees in special education in numerous forms including Master of Science (M.S.), Master of Arts (M.A.), and Master of Education (M.Ed.). Degree requirements vary by school. However, schools often require applicants for admission to an MA program to be proficient in a foreign language. Similarly, at least one year of teaching with a valid teacher’s license is required for admission to an M.Ed. program, and individuals who don’t qualify for the former degrees can seek admission to an MS.

All degree programs have the same course requirements, virtually. MS programs may be customized to suit the needs of general education teachers, non-teachers, or special education teachers seeking an advanced degree and career in special education. Some schools offer master’s degree programs in special education in wholly online formats. Schools also offer specializations that can vary by school in areas such as early childhood, learning and behavior, learning disabilities, emotional impairments, high/low incidence disabilities, and/or visual disabilities.

Education Requirements

Admission criteria typically require incoming students to hold bachelor’s degrees. Although a baccalaureate degree in education may be preferable in some programs, other majors, such as social work, nursing, communication disorders or physical therapy, may be allowed in others. A minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0 is a requirement at some schools.


Core coursework may cover topic areas such as:

•Trends in special education
•Development of an optimum learning atmosphere
•Collaborating/consulting parents and agencies
•Teaching reading in special education
•Managing behavior
•Basics of learning disabilities
•Assessing children with disabilities
•Education and psychology for exceptional students

Job Outlook

Over the 2012 – 2022 decade, a job growth of six percent has been predicted for special education teachers, driven by an expected continual rise in the number of special education students (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). During the same decade, a job growth of 17% has been predicted for teachers of preschool, elementary and kindergarten students, which is the highest increase among special education teachers (BLS).

Continuing Education and Certification Choices

Licensure is compulsory for teachers in every state; they may achieve license renewal through pursuit of continuing education classes. Numerous schools offer continuing education courses, many in online formats. They are also available through the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) and the American Academy of Special Education Professionals (AASEP). Voluntary certification in special education is available through the AASEP. Additionally, special education teachers with master’s degrees may seek a doctorate that could lead to teacher positions in graduate schools, performance of research and pursuit of leadership positions.

Graduate Certificate Programs in Special Education

Two levels of certificate programs in special education, post-master’s, and graduate, are offered by schools. Teachers with bachelor’s degrees in education who seek certification to teach special education can obtain graduate certification within a year. Such certifications are considered the equivalent of half a master’s degree. As in the case of a master’s degree, graduate certification aspirants are required to hold a baccalaureate degree and a minimum GPA of 3.0.


Core coursework may cover topic areas such as:

•Teaching special needs students reading (or writing or math)
•Internship or practicum
•Planning of a special education curriculum
•Assessment of students with disabilities
•Teaching mainstream classes to students with disabilities

Career Choices

Special education specialists may seek careers as teacher’s consultants or teachers, working in homes, schools and hospitals, among various other human service agencies.

Doctoral Programs in Special Education

Individuals seeking leadership positions in this field can pursue doctoral degree programs in special education. Doctoral students can expect to gain expertise in teaching at the postsecondary level, performing research in private organizations or universities, holding administrative roles in state educational departments or schools, and performing professional special education consultant roles.

Schools offer two types of doctoral degree programs in special education: a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). While there is a greater research orientation in Ph.D. programs than there is in Ed.D. programs, this is not true of some special education programs. Program curriculum tends to vary by school rather than by type of doctoral degree.

Education Requirements

Admission criteria typically require incoming students to hold a bachelor’s degree and a minimum GPA of 3.0. Bachelor’s degree holders can simultaneously earn a master’s degree as they complete coursework related to the doctorate in special education.


Core coursework with a heavy research-related orientation may cover topic areas such as:

•Qualitative research
•Differing special education research methods
•Multivariate statistics
•Special education program evaluation
•Current special education topics and issues
•History of special education
•Multiple regressions
•Grant writing
•Special education research design

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