Special Education Majors Guide

What Does it Mean to Study Special Education?

Special education teachers cater to students with special needs. Because of physical, mental, or psychological disabilities, these students must be taught by professionals specially trained in helping others with these needs. Federal and state law mandates that every student with a disability, regardless of that disability’s nature, is entitled to an adequate education. Earning a special education degree is a great way to obtain the skills necessary to fill succeed in this important career.

This concept sprang directly from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law enacted in 1974 that sets out special-education requirements with which states must comply. Although periodically revised, this law consistently frames the vital role of the special educator.

In order to teach special education, students must first complete a degree program that teaches them how to work with special-needs children, such as those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, intellectual disabilities, or physical disabilities resulting from a condition such as cerebral palsy. A special education major is usually required to complete classroom training, coursework, and earn the proper teacher certifications. Each state’s Department of Education governs the requirements for average course contents, in-class training, and the various certifications.

Types of Special Education Degrees

Special education degree programs are generally found at both the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels. At the graduate level in particular, online degree programs are becoming increasingly popular — particularly for working teachers who are required to earn master’s degrees within a certain time period (a common practice in public school districts). Online college classes allow teachers to earn advanced degrees without leaving the tenure track at their school. For students who are not yet teachers and want to earn licensure as part of their online degree, in-person student teaching experience is still required and can usually be arranged locally.

Associate Degrees in Special Education

Associate degrees in special education are rare, and are used primarily as a stepping stone for earning a special education degree at the bachelor’s level. These programs generally require two years of full-time study to complete. After earning the degree, students usually transfer their credits and continue studying at a four-year university or college. Typical courses may include:

  • Introduction to Education
  • Introduction to Special Education
  • Psychology and Human Development for Teachers
  • Speech Communication

Bachelor’s Degrees in Special Education

For most entry-level positions, a bachelor’s degree in special education is required. To enter a bachelor’s degree program, a successful candidate must have a high school diploma or GED. Generally, students pursuing a bachelor’s degree are required to complete a number of general education courses in addition to their special education coursework. A special education major can usually graduate with a bachelor’s degree after four years of full-time study. As with any teaching degree program, an in-person practicum assignment (student teaching) is typically necessary to fulfill the degree requirements. Courses in the major vary by school. However, some common topics covered may include:

  • Fundamentals of Teaching Reading
  • Atypical Language Development
  • Introduction to Assessing Special Needs Students
  • Methods for Teaching Students with Mild Disabilities
  • Technologies for Assisted Learning

Master’s Degrees in Special Education

In all 50 states, teachers working in public schools are required to hold at least a bachelor’s degree and obtain a teaching certification or license. When it comes to special education, some states require teachers to earn a master’s degree in special education before they can be licensed. Additionally, some teachers who have earned a general education degree may elect to further their studies and earn a master’s degree with an emphasis on special education. These graduate-level programs generally take about two years of study to complete. Online degrees in special education are a great way for current teachers to increase their level of education and advance their careers while continuing to hold down their full-time teaching job. Again, practicum assignments may be required. Typical master’s degree courses in special education may include:

  • Fundamentals of Educational Research
  • Behavior Analysis in Special Education
  • Ethics and Law for Special Education
  • Characteristics of Mild Disabilities
  • Characteristics of Severe Disabilities

Doctoral Programs in Special Education

Pursuing a doctoral degree in special education is a path for a student who is interested in careers in educational leadership or research. Entrance into these programs usually requires a master’s degree in special education. Ph.D. students are typically expected to study full-time, completing the program in about three to four years. Successful completion of a dissertation is also typically required. Courses at the Ph.D. level vary by specialization and school, but common topics may include:

  • Disabilities and Social Policy
  • Qualitative Research Methods for Education
  • Analysis of Qualitative Data
  • Literacy Development for Special Education
  • Curriculum & Instruction Leadership

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Special Education?

Special education is, arguably, the most diverse curriculum at any given school. Since special education can encompass any academic subject or life skill, the special education major must be well-versed in a number of subjects. Each special-needs student is different and the settings in which a special educator serves is constantly changing. Therefore, most special education degrees include general coursework on institutional education as well as specialized courses dealing with a variety of disabling conditions.

Typically, positions in the field of special education involve educating young children with disabilities, again, which can range from speech and language impairments to emotional and behavioral disorders. The education and training level of a teacher usually determines their qualifications to fill a certain position. In most instances, professionals who have earned more advanced degrees earn higher salaries. Some common jobs for a special education major may include:

Special Education Teachers

As previously noted, special education teachers are tasked with facilitating the learning of students who may suffer from a variety of disabilities. These disabilities range from emotional and mental disabilities to physical ones. Some students may exhibit mild characteristics while others are more severe. Students may also be afflicted with more than one disability. Special education teachers may also assist students who have learning disabilities.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: In all 50 states, teachers — including special education teachers — must have at least a bachelor’s degree to teach in public schools. Some states require special education teachers to earn a master’s degree in order to practice.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: Although all states require public school teachers to be licensed, requirements vary by state. Individual states may also require licensing or certification in special education. Some states may require special education teachers to obtain special endorsements prior to teaching students with certain disabilities.

Teacher Assistants

Under the supervision of a licensed teacher, a teacher assistant provides extra in-school instruction to students needing additional help with their studies. Teacher assistants spend time with students individually, reinforcing the material that was taught to the group as a whole. A teacher assistant may also assist teachers with tasks such as lesson preparation, recordkeeping, and student supervision.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: A teacher assistant is generally required to earn an associate degree or complete 2 years of college prior to employment.
  • Special Certifications or Licensures: Teacher assistants who work in special education may be required to pass an exam.

Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers

Kindergarten and elementary school teachers work with young children and teach them the basics of reading, writing, spelling, science, and math. Elementary school teachers are required to construct daily lessons that they teach to the entire class. In addition to instructing students, teachers are required to assess and grade each individual student’s progress. Teachers then communicate that progress to both the child’s parents and the school administration. Additionally, elementary school teachers are expected to teach young students how to effectively communicate and work with their peers.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: All teachers in public schools are required to earn at least a bachelor’s degree. Many teachers choose to advance their career and salaries by earning a master’s degree after gaining some work experience.
  • Special Certifications and Licensures: Public school teachers are required to be licensed in the state in which they teach. Teachers in private schools may or may not require teachers to be licensed.

High School Teachers

As opposed to elementary school teachers, high school teachers usually focus their teaching in only one subject matter. They also create lesson plans and teach those lessons to their classrooms. High school teachers observe and assess student performance, then report on each student’s progress. Teachers in high school may work closely with special education teachers to assist students with behavioral or learning disabilities.

  • Minimum Educational Requirement: High school teachers are generally required to earn at least a bachelor’s degree in the subject they teach. In some instances, a master’s degree may be required.
  • Special Certifications and Licensures: Educators working in public schools are required to earn a state-issued teaching license or certificate. Teachers working in private high schools may not be required to be licensed.

Special Education Salaries and Career Outlook Data

Total Employment
Annual Mean Wage
Special Education Teachers, Preschool22,340$67,060
Special Education Teachers, Middle School85,840$65,740
Special Education Teachers, Secondary School143,170$65,710
Special Education Teachers, Kindergarten and Elementary School193,830$64,420
Teaching Assistants, Except Postsecondary1,346,910$29,640

Special Education Associations and Organizations

After successfully completing their special education degree program, special education teachers are typically required to complete ongoing continuing education requirements. In addition to assisting with education and licensure requirements, several organizations offer support and information to special education professionals. Some of these include:

  • National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) – The NASET claims to be the only national organization focused solely on the needs of special education teachers. The association promotes excellence in special education and has a variety of resources and publications to assist members with their professional development.
  • International Association of Special Education (IASE) – This international organization is made up of a variety of education specialists, including teachers, speech clinicians, social workers, and more. The group aims to promote an understanding of special education issues and create a space where professionals can exchange ideas.
  • National Education Association (NEA) – The National Education Association seeks to promote and advance the needs of public education in the United States. In addition to offering tools and resources for general educators, the NEA also has resources specific to the field of special education.

Article Sources
  1. Associate of Science in Special Education, Walters State Community College, http://www.ws.edu/academics/behavioral-science/special-ed/
  2. bachelor of Science in Special Education, The University of Georgia, https://online.uga.edu/online-offerings/undergraduate/special-education
  3. Doctoral Degree: Special Education Concentration, University of Massachusetts Amherst, https://www.umass.edu/education/departments/sd/special-ed-doctor
  4. High School Teachers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers
  5. Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers
  6. Online master of Science in Education in Special Education, Purdue University, http://online.purdue.edu/sped/masters-special-education
  7. Special Education Teachers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers
  8. Teacher Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/teacher-assistants
Our Partner Listings