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Master of Education in Special Education | Context - Context
Master of Education in Special Education
Master of Education in Special Education (M.Ed.) In Context

If you are interested in making a difference in the lives of students with learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities, then a career in special education could be right for you. It’s a rewarding and fulfilling job in which you can help students with a range of complex problems to take steps forward in their lives. It is also a growing sector that can span industries such as education, clinical services, publishing, or consulting. Those with a special education master’s degree are in demand from various institutions as a result of their tailored, specific knowledge. [1]

What is a special education degree?

A master’s in special education is the next stepping stone after a bachelor’s degree toward becoming a highly trained teaching professional with specific experience and understanding of working with individuals — either children or adults — with disabilities. Upon completing the program, you will be qualified and proficient in working within a range of special education roles, either as a teacher, consultant, school counselor, special education program administrator, or SPED educator, to help create an inclusive, supportive, and non-categorical learning environment. [15]

You could work with students who have a range of complex disabilities, including mental, emotional, learning, and physical. An advanced special education degree will allow you to work with a broader range of students, including those with mild, moderate, and severe disabilities, and to adapt general education lessons to their unique needs .

A special education master’s program is the ideal way to equip yourself with the training and knowledge needed to succeed in this career. Additionally, you will gain transferable skills that can be used to work in other closely related areas such as early intervention, adult programs, and as a literacy specialist. A postgraduate degree can also help you to advance your professional horizons, taking on more senior roles or commanding a higher salary.

What is this degree for?

If you are interested in becoming a special education professional, you will need the appropriate qualifications. A Master of Education in Special Education (M.Ed.) degree is the ideal, and often necessary, next step for anyone interested in developing and expanding their skills and knowledge when it comes to teaching children, teenagers, and adults with a range of disabilities. You can also learn to collaborate with students’ families and other education specialists. A postgraduate degree allows you to further your education and improve your career outlook, as well as take the necessary certification exams.

Who might pursue an M.Ed. in Special Education?

If you have recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree, you may wish to specialize your knowledge to follow a specific career path. A master’s in special education is a great step toward doing this, ensuring you have practical and transferable knowledge that can be used in a number of settings, from the classroom to managerial meetings. It will equip you with everything needed to help advance your career in special education and improve your employability.

Likewise, you may have already worked in this sector and want to pursue additional training. As a working teacher or educator with a passion for special education, there are a number of reasons why you may want to return to school; making a career move and advancing to a higher level in your career are two of them. Additionally, if you wish to pursue the voluntary AASEP Board Certification in Special Education, you will need a master’s degree as a requirement. [2]

Most of those with a master’s in special education work in schools, both public and private, at the preschool, elementary, middle, and high school level. They can also work for child care services or in consulting roles. [3]

Why study for a master's degree in special education?

A master’s degree can help you develop the necessary skills and knowledge needed for a career in special education. It can also be a necessary requirement for achieving special education certification. Additionally, it can help to boost your income. In fact, the average special education educator with just a bachelor’s degree earns less than those holding a master’s degree. [16]

A master’s in special education can also improve your employability and help to open doors to new job opportunities. Many special education roles call for advanced education, including director or administrative positions, academic roles within higher education, and special education specialists. [15] According to, more than 62% of responding special education teachers hold a master’s degree, which means a master’s in special education could be the key to staying competitive in this field. [16]

How do I earn this degree?

Although admissions requirements vary depending on the university, typically you will need a bachelor’s degree. For many institutions, this can be in any subject, although a related field is preferred. There may also be minimum GPA requirements in place. Additionally, you will need to be proficient in spoken and written English.

Some universities expect you to have prior experience working with individuals with disabilities, and this can be important to gain before applying. Additionally, you might need to have taken a special education (SPED) orientation course depending on the institution.

You may have to complete a thesis or final project. Based on a survey of online programs, some programs require you to take part in an internship or fieldwork placement.

How long does it take to earn this degree?

The length of your program will depend on the institution; often it can vary from one to two years full-time. For a part-time program, you can expect this time frame to be doubled. Although part-time programs may take longer, they offer more flexibility to continue working and maintaining other personal responsibilities.

Master of Education in Special Education Career Advancement
There are a number of career options available with a master’s in special education. They include the following:

The most common role in special education is as a classroom teacher. A master’s degree, alongside the necessary state certification, can prepare you to teach students from early childhood through high school. You may choose to work in either a public or private school, or in a school dedicated to teaching students with disabilities and special needs. Other classroom roles include working as a class support teacher providing one-on-one guidance to a student.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a special education teacher with any level of education in 2016 was $57,910, and a master’s can provide a significant boost over a bachelor’s degree. The BLS predicts average growth of 6% from 2014 to 2024 for special education teachers, adding 28,100 new jobs. [4]

Alternatively, you can use your special education degree in clinical services in the community. This might include working in group homes, hospitals, and day centers, and could include coordinating activities, teaching programs, running adult learning days, managing crucial services for adults and children, and running supporting courses for families. With a master’s degree, you might also consider a role as a director or administrator for a special education program, a university SPED educator, or a special education specialist in emotional and behavioral disorders or the autism spectrum. [15]

An increasingly popular career choice for those with a master’s in special education is to become a textbook writer or editor. You will need a master’s degree in special education to pursue this role and often need previous work experience as a special education teacher. Although salaries can vary depending on what state you are working in, editors can earn around $51,800 on average. Classroom experience provides a wealth of real-world knowledge you can put to good use in publishing. It can also give you an opportunity to continue your career outside of the teaching sector. [5]

Other roles you might consider with a master’s in special education include working as a:

  • Educational consultant
  • Special education advocate
  • Guidance counselor
  • Reading specialist
  • Learning disabilities consultant
  • Private tutor
Master of Education in Special Education Curriculum

Each university sets its own curriculum for its special education master’s programs. However, you will generally find that there are a set number of core courses you will need to take, followed by elective courses that enable you to align your studies with your chosen area of specialization. If you do not have a bachelor’s degree in education, you may need additional coursework.

Some of the courses and subject areas you can expect to study include:

  • Behavior analysis and assessment
  • Special needs teaching methods
  • Research fundamentals
  • Instructional design
  • Special education law and policies 
  • Ethics in special education
  • Classroom management

The curriculum may also include work experience or internships and writing a research project or thesis. Given that each curriculum is unique to the institution, it is important to consider the direction you want to take your career and what you are hoping to gain from your studies in order to pick the special education master’s program that is right for you.

There are many ways in which special education master’s students can focus their studies. The benefit of doing this is that you can focus on a specific area of practice to gain the skills that can help you pursue your chosen career path. Often, if you have already worked in special education, you will have a clear idea of what you want to do. Even if you haven’t, you may know what interests you most. It is important that any specialization you pursue aligns itself with your career goals and interests.

Each specialization requires a different set of coursework. Some might require additional licensure and fieldwork before you can commence with the program.

Based on a survey of multiple online programs, some common specializations you might consider include:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Behavior disabilities
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Gifted education
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Early childhood special education
  • Severe disabilities

Depending on where you are in your career, your master’s degree in special education may require you to take part in fieldwork, or student teaching. [17] Based on a survey of several online programs, student teaching is often reserved for non-educators interested in entering the classroom or pursuing non-academic roles, such as consulting.

It’s a great way to get hands-on experience and see what teaching or working with children and adults with complex disabilities is really like. It also allows you to apply your learning practically, developing both your skills and confidence.

Not all programs require fieldwork; if this is something you are interested in, it is worth looking out for in your research. If you are able to ask the program administrator questions about the degree, some of the key ones to consider include:

  • Will I need to find my own placement or will I be supported by the university in doing this?
  • How much influence will the internship have over my final grade?
  • How much time will I need to spend gaining practical experience?
  • Will I be supported in the fieldwork by a supervisor?
  • Will I be able to get paid for the internship?

For many students pursuing a master’s degree, online study is a great alternative to on-campus education. This is a great way to gain the same high-quality access to education without needing to completely overhaul your life. The opportunity to work at the same time also means you can continue to work and maintain your personal responsibilities.

If you study online, you will be able to take your classes via an online distance learning platform. Many are asynchronous, meaning you can often fit them around your life and into your routine — for example, at weekends and evenings. However, others may have synchronous elements, even though they are online. This means you will still be expected to log in at certain times to attend virtual lectures with other students.

Studying online has become increasingly popular, and many students are now following this route through education. You will gain the same access to qualified, highly trained faculty and the opportunity to work alongside other students from across the country.

Often the curriculum and admissions requirements are the same, and you may still need to take part in work experience to graduate.

Master of Education in Special Education Program Length

The length of an online master’s degree program can depend on a number of variables, perhaps the most prominent of which is the pace at which you choose to study. You can finish a typical master’s degree program in about two to three years if you choose to study full-time, although some accelerated programs may be able to help you finish more quickly.

Online master’s degree programs tend to offer flexibility suitable for students who choose to study part-time. This option will likely extend your time to completion, but it can allow you to study while fulfilling your familial, social, and professional obligations.

You can find more information on this topic at our program length overview page.

Master of Education in Special Education Admission Requirements

While each program will set its admission requirements based on its own criteria, many requirements are universal across all programs. No matter where you apply, you can expect to provide items like transcripts from previous degrees or coursework; standardized test scores; a personal statement or essay; letters of recommendation; and an overview of relevant work experience.

In certain cases, some of these requirements may be waived.

For more information about admissions, please visit our admissions requirements page.

Alternative Degrees/Fields of Study

If you are not sure whether a master’s in special education is the right choice for you, it is important to consider the other options available in similar areas. These might include:

  • Master of Education
  • Master of Education in Behavior Analysis
  • Master of Education and Special Educational Needs
  • Master of Special and Inclusive Education
  • Master of Early Childhood Education
  • Master of Early Childhood Studies
  • Master of Secondary Education
  • Master of Arts in Teaching

Relevant Industry Associations and Organizations

When conducting your research into special education master’s programs, you might find the following organizations and associations to be useful. These industry associations bring together like-minded individuals and academics for networking, career advice, and educational support. These include:

  • Behavior Analyst Certification Board [11]
  • National Association of Special Education Teachers [12]
  • Council for Exceptional Children [13]
  • American Academy of Special Education Professionals [14]
Master of Education in Special Education Accreditation Overview

Regional accreditation is the most prestigious type of accreditation that an online or traditional college or university can receive. It is granted only after careful consideration by private, not-for-profit organizations tasked with evaluating educational quality.

Regional accreditation is particularly important if you anticipate that you might want to transfer credits from one online degree program to another or use those credits to pursue another degree. Most regionally accredited schools will only accept credits from other regionally accredited institutions of higher learning.

You can learn more on this topic at our regional accreditation page.

Master of Education in Special Education Certification and Licensure Overview

One of the core certifications to work in special education is the AASEP Professional Board Certification in Special Education. [6] It is voluntary, but it demonstrates to employers, peers, and parents that you are committed to excellent standards and high-quality teaching principles, and are highly competent in special education.

The AASEP Professional Board Certification in Special Education seeks to create an industry standard recognized across various disciplines and by all professionals working in the sector. [7] It represents the graduate’s qualifications and standards, highlighting that they have obtained a certain level of knowledge and experience. It also helps to increase the visibility, expertise, and credibility of your skills with those working outside the profession.

It is the highest level of certification that can be obtained from the AASEP, although it doesn’t replace state licensing. State licensing puts in place a series of entry-level standards to be upheld by special education professionals, while the AASEP Professional Board Certification in Special Education establishes an advanced level of standards for those working in this field. It is important to check with the state you are working in and the various professional governing bodies you are accountable to, to establish what certification and licensure is required.

The AASEP Professional Board Certification in Special Education can help you:

    • Improve your marketability in your career
    • Demonstrate a desire for academic and professional excellence
    • Uphold a high level of standards
    • Gain trust and respect from colleagues, peers, parents, and employers
    • Prove that you meet rigorous professional development standards
    • Distinguish yourself as being a leader in your field and community


To gain this certification, you will need a master’s degree from an accredited U.S. or Canadian institution of higher education. Alternatively, you must have studied at a university outside of these countries that meets the standard equivalent to those accredited in the U.S. Your master’s degree must be in a related field. [9]

To gain the certification, you must complete the following five certificates:

  • Review of the Major Principles of Special Education
  • Principles of IEP Development
  • Understanding Assessment in Special Education
  • Understanding Response to Intervention
  • Special Education Eligibility

Some concentrations will prepare students to take other licensure exams. You might also consider taking your Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) graduate-level certification. If you are certified at the BCBA level, this means you are a professional practitioner who can provide behavior analysis services. This certification demonstrates that you have met the highest standards in terms of ethics, discipline, and training. It is a recognized industry standard that garners respect and credibility. [10]

History of Special Education Teacher Education

For much of history, students with disabilities were kept on the margins of society, and the requirements to serve these populations were low. Before the turn of the century, general educators were not required to hold any credentials to teach. [18]

Fortunately, by 1867, most states had established a baseline of requirements for educators, including an official test which covered basic skills, U.S. history, spelling, and grammar. [19]

At the turn of the century, undergraduate and graduate programs in education began to appear. [19] Still, students with disabilities were neglected in the classroom, often given rudimentary education within mental institutions or not educated at all. [20] This began to change in 1954; Brown vs. Board of Education cemented marginalized groups’ right to education, which set the foundation for widespread special education programs and funding in later years. [21]

But there were more strides to be made in the field of special education. In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act expanded special education programs in the U.S. Today this act is known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and ensures that students with disabilities have easy access to suitable education programs. [21]

These pieces of legislation and changing perspectives on disabilities increased the need for formally educated special education teachers. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, 871 colleges and universities in the United States prepared teachers in at least one special education field. [20]

Today, special education teachers are held to high standards. Those who teach core subjects to special needs students must meet the requirements put forth by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. [22] For these educators that means demonstrating a high level of subject-matter competency in their core subjects, making today’s special education teachers more qualified to lead special needs students than ever before.

Tuition and Fees Overview

There are a number of factors that can greatly affect how much your education will cost. These include whether you attend a public or private institution; whether you attend as an in-state or out-of-state student; and whether you qualify for financial aid like grants or scholarships.

For a more detailed breakdown of tuition, fees, and other financial issues, please visit our tuition and fees page.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

A Master of Education in Special Education degree allows educators to learn about evidence-based practices to support development in students with exceptional needs or those who are at risk.

Most master’s degrees in special education are specifically designed for experienced educators who have their bachelor’s degree and teaching license.

This program typically focuses on current trends and topics that are relevant in the field of special education.

The standard GPA required for admission is a 3.0 on a 4.0 GPA scale.

Some colleges may require you to have a bachelor’s degree in an appropriate discipline.

Whether you will need to complete the GRE prior to applying for a program will largely depend on what school you have chosen. There are many programs that do not require a GRE. Check the admissions requirements for your school before applying.

Generally there are supplementary costs apart from tuition. The tuition does not usually include the cost of books or additional fees. These additional costs will vary from program to program.

The largest provider of student financial aid in the nation is the Federal Student Aid office in the U.S. Department of Education. It supplies college-level or career school students with loans, grants, and work-study funds. You can apply for federal financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as FAFSA.

There are numerous other scholarships available, but you will need to research which opportunities you’re qualified to pursue. Many states, associations, websites, and businesses award scholarships based on specific criteria. Be sure to do your research and apply for any scholarships you’re qualified to be awarded. [5]

The typical core courses of a special education master’s degree program may include subjects such as educational research, foundations, trends, and issues in special education, inclusive classroom practice, and evidence-based practices.

When searching for a master’s in special education graduate-level program, you must look at the course offerings, specializations, and accreditation.

Many institutions offer Master of Education in Special Education degrees online.

Most institutions do not indicate on the degree that it was earned online.

Yes, typically schools follow the same curriculum for their online programs as they do for their campus-based programs.

Asynchronous coursework can be completed on your own time — a big plus for many online graduate students. Synchronous coursework has to be completed within a set timeframe. This is typically done for group projects, seminars, presentations, and other learning initiatives that require multiple attendees. The elements of asynchronous and synchronous learning in your online program depend on the professor and class itself. Once you enroll, reach out to teachers for specifics, but remember that the curriculum may be divided into these two subsets.

Most colleges offer customizable master’s degrees in special education. Students can choose from a variety of areas of emphasis to study, such as Transition to Work, Applied Behavior Analysis, Autism, Educational Diagnostician, Infancy and Early Childhood Special Education, and more.

An M.Ed. in Special Education with a specific specialization or concentration can make you more marketable based on the needs of an organization or institution.

The typical job titles for special education include special education teacher: early/Pre-K to 12; ESE teacher for higher-incidence disabilities; teacher/specialist: autism spectrum disorders; teacher/specialist: emotional or behavioral disorders. [23]

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (, the median pay for special education teachers in 2015 was $56,800. [24]

No — attaining management/senior positions is not guaranteed through the completion of a master’s degree. These positions often require many years of experience and a significant level of career achievement. However, an advanced degree can help you develop the necessary knowledge and skills required for these positions and also prove your dedication to the field.

Search for online programs that are accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). CAEP accreditation assures the quality of departments, schools, and colleges that prepare teachers in the United States. [25]

A particular college’s program costs are mostly determined by the institution’s instructional budget, not accreditation status.

Accreditations are a strong indication of quality, but are also required for students who plan to apply for federal financial aid. Accreditation ensures that your degree is recognized by employers, professional associations, and other accredited institutions of higher education.

SARA (State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement) applies only to distance education programs in the United States that cross state lines. This agreement is made between member states and establishes comparable postsecondary national standards for distance education courses.

Not every state is a SARA member. Through SARA, member states only have to receive authorization in their home state. Without SARA, non-member states would have to receive authorization in their home state and the state of each of their online students. [26]

Every school has a department or team responsible for online education. This department will be able to answer questions regarding compliance for your home state. Additionally, you can locate the school through SARA (if it is a SARA institution) to confirm compliance.