Summary of Special Education Degrees
Special educators are highly valued professionals in the academic world, as they are trained in two major areas: how to teach, and how to adapt said teaching to the special education population. Typically, those pursuing a career in special education obtain a degree in education within a program that also allows for an emphasis/endorsement in special education.
Degrees programs in education cover a variety of topics that may include (but are not limited to):
- Literacy instruction
- Math instruction
- Science/Social Studies Instruction
- Other subject-specific instruction
- Classroom/behavior management
- Formative and summative assessment
- Child psychology
- Child development
- Curriculum development/lesson planning
- Teaching students for whom English is a second language
- Teaching with technology
- Educational Law
- Adapting instruction for gifted students
You will need to identify what grade level you are interested in teaching, as there are different course/class requirements for each level. You can choose between early childhood education (needed to teach children ages 2-5, typically daycare or preschool teachers), elementary education (K-6), and secondary education (grades 7-12). If you are interested in teaching at the high-school level, depending on the school you choose, you may be required to major in the academic area of your choice prior to pursuing your license to teach special education.
As a special educator, your course offerings will include a variety of classes tailored specifically for teachers who will be working with students with disabilities. Topics addressed in these classes may include (but are not limited to):
- Special education law
- Individualized Education Plan (IEP) writing
- 504 Plan Writing
- Conducting an IEP meeting
- Disability categories served in special education
- Identification of students qualified for special services
- Differentiated instruction
A "general" or "generalist" special education license typically allows the holder to work with students with mild, moderate, and severe needs in grades K-12. As noted above, if you are wanting to teach a specific subject within the high school setting, you may be required to obtain a degree in that subject. Keep in mind that there are professionals within the school setting that work with/teach students with disabilities that require different degrees/qualifications. These include individuals such as school counselors/psychologists, speech and language pathologists, teachers for the blind and hard of hearing, occupational therapists, etc. Different states have different rules in regards to teaching qualifications, so make sure to speak with a representative of the college you attend to ensure the program in which you enroll puts you on the correct path for the teaching career you wish to pursue.
While researching special educator programs online, keep in mind that different states/colleges use different language to refer to students with disabilities. Many may not use the words "special education." Look for terms such as "exceptional learners," "exceptional children," "diverse learners," etc.
You may hear that special educators are paid higher salaries than general education teachers. This is not always true, as special educators can be paid the same rates as other teachers. Teachers are often paid via a salary schedule based off of years spent teaching and level of education. Therefore, it could be worth your time to pursue an online master's degree in special education. While you need an undergraduate degree to be eligible to apply for a master's program, your undergraduate degree does not necessarily need to be in education. Keep in mind that not all districts pay more to educators with master's degrees. Make sure to check with the state/district in which you wish to work for salary specifics. Typically, salary schedules are available online for the general public to view.
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Programs That May Be Currently Accepting Applicants
- Doctor of Education (EdD)
An EdD delivered online from a renowned Texas-based institution. No GRE scores required.
University of Dayton
- MS in Education
The University of Dayton's online master's in educational leadership and principal licensure track. No GRE required to apply.
Benefits of Studying Online
Once you have decided on the type of special education degree you wish to acquire, you can decide whether you would like to study on campus or online. Online degrees offer many benefits that are not available to those who choose a traditional course. With an online degree, you have the flexibility to learn when and where you want. This is ideal for parents as well as for students who wish to maintain employment while enrolled in the course. Students of online courses also have the ability to work at their own pace (within the parameters of the courses' requirements). Students who choose to learn online may additionally enjoy a larger variety of schools available to them, as they aren't restricted by distance or transportation options. With online schools there is of course no commute, which saves the online learner time and money. Time is also saved as there are no distractions or delays caused by other students in online learning.
Online learning also holds benefits specific to the teaching profession. Elementary, middle, and high schools value educators that can promote the use of technology in the classroom. By choosing to learn online, teacher candidates gain exposure to and practice with technology and online learning methods that they can apply to their own future classrooms.
Teacher candidates that choose online learning may also have more freedom in selecting the schools in which they complete in-person teaching hours (practicum, field experiences, student teaching, etc.). Colleges may have preferred schools they partner with for such course requirements for in-person courses. However, since online courses have students from all throughout the nation, the teacher candidate could have more of a hand in finding their own placements, allowing them to choose schools based on personal preference.
While at one time online degrees may have been looked down upon as not being as legitimate as a degree earned by attending a traditional campus, online degrees continue to gain popularity and esteem in today's world. An online degree program could be the perfect choice for the student in search of a flexible, convenient program.
Online Degree Requirements
Requirements to enroll in an online special education program are similar to those needed to enroll in an in-person college degree program. Exact requirements will vary by school and level of degree being pursued (undergraduate or graduate). Common requirements include, but are not limited to:
- High school diploma
- Qualifying GPA
- Qualifying ACT/SAT test scores
- Letters of recommendation
- Entrance exam(s)
- Essays/Personal statement
- Prerequisite courses
- Bachelor’s degree (for those applying for a graduate program)
Keep in mind that since special education teachers work with children, degree programs for educators may require applicants/students to submit to a background check/fingerprinting either prior to acceptance or during the program. If you are concerned about anything that may appear on your background check, please speak to an admissions counselor from the institution of your choice to discuss how this may affect your chances of pursuing a teaching career.
Candidates for an education degree are required to put in hours teaching in a classroom prior to graduating, usually through a couple of different ways. The first is through field experiences, during which a teacher candidate observes and teaches in a school for a certain number of hours with a certain focus (literacy, math, etc.) The second is through student teaching, in which the teacher candidate partners with a teacher in their classroom, typically for a semester. The teacher candidate observes, assists, plans, and teaches under the supervision of the classroom teacher.
In order to complete these in-person teaching experiences, the teacher candidate may be required to seek out a school in their area that will allow them to complete a field experience or student teaching. In some instances, the online college may be able to help the teacher candidate find a placement for these aspects of the program.
If you are pursuing a master’s degree in special education, you may be required to pass a Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and/or a Miller Analogies Test. These tests are tools graduate programs may use to test your knowledge and abilities. Scores needed to be accepted into a program may vary from school to school. Scores may be viewed in conjunction with other factors such as undergraduate GPA.
Successfully completing an online program to be a special educator does not necessarily automatically qualify you to be a teacher. All prospective teachers need to be licensed through the state in which they plan to teach. Licensure requirements typically include passing a standardized test (or tests) in the area(s) in which you wish to teach. Commonly, the test required is called The Praxis test. More information can be found on the Praxis website: http://www.ets.org/praxis/states. Keep in mind that different states have different requirements. Make sure you are familiar with the teaching licensure requirements in the state in which you plan to teach.