Online Degrees in Special Education

Article Sources


  • "Federal Outlook for Exceptional Children: Fiscal Year 2013," Council for Exceptional Children, April 2012, http://www.cec.sped.org/Policy-and-Advocacy/Current-Sped-Gifted-Issues?sc_lang=en
  • "Learners Who Are Exceptional," McGraw-Hill Online Learning Center, http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/dl/free/0070909695/120222/Chap06.pdf
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  • "Special Education Teachers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers.htm
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  • U.S. Department of Education, Structure of U.S. Education, 2008

As knowledge expands about the mental and emotional deficiencies that affect learning and social skills in children, and adults, the field of special education continues to evolve. According to the Council on Exceptional Children, approximately 6.5 million children with disabilities already receive early intervention, special education and other related services in public schools across the nation.

Laws emphasizing the training and employment of those with disabilities may also contribute to increased demand for special education professionals, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, schools must be able to identify the specific disability afflicting a student, how it impairs their learning, and their current level of performance. Educators then build Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student, evaluating the services needed and how often they should be administered.

Special education online education degree programs train students in strategies and teaching methods to reach learners with disabilities, as well as assessment and planning for special needs classrooms. Individuals with a degree in special education can be better equipped to help students with severe disabilities find success in regular classrooms. Often, online schools offer the degree in several specializations, including curriculum and instruction, early childhood education, or reading and literacy.

Choosing the Right Online Special Education Degree

Associate Degree in Special Education: This program usually takes two years of full-time study to complete. Foundational curriculum may cover educational psychology, language development, and strategies for educating exceptional learners. At the associate level, students often fulfill general education requirements, such as math, humanities, and biological and social sciences. Graduates may choose to transfer their credits to a four-year college or university and pursue a bachelor's degree. After meeting state-specific requirements, they also have the option of applying to become a special education instructional aide.

Bachelor's Degree in Special Education: Typically, bachelor's programs take four years to complete. Studies often include the principals of special education, such as classroom management, effective teaching practices, and assessment procedures. Additionally, there are many areas of concentration that students can study, such as early childhood education, English language learners, visual impairments, and mild/moderate disabilities. Most bachelor-level programs also feature a student teaching component, allowing aspiring instructors to gain experience in a real classroom environment. With proper state licensure, graduates may go on to become preschool or K-12 teachers, classroom aides or childcare workers.

Learn more about Online Bachelor's Degrees in Special Education

Master's Degree in Special Education: A master's program in special education usually requires two years of additional coursework to complete. Students may be teachers who wish to expand their current knowledge base, or individuals with bachelors in other disciplines, who want to work with exceptional learners. Master's studies help provide a deeper understanding of the factors that may contribute to learning and behavioral disabilities, as well as strategies to integrate special needs students into mainstream classes. Graduates may pursue careers as special needs educators in a variety of settings, such as public and private schools, hospitals, clinics, residential facilities and children's homes.

Learn more about Online Master's Degrees in Special Education

Doctoral Degrees in Special Education: The terminal degree level for special educators, doctoral programs generally take anywhere from three to six years to complete. Colleges typically offer the degree as either a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) or as a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). The Ed.D. is for individuals who want to primarily be practitioners, using the skills they learn to educate, while the Ph.D. is for those interested in conducting research and publishing papers, adding to the academic knowledge of special education.

Coursework tends to immerse students in qualitative and quantitative research methods, statistics, educational administration practices, and educator evaluation and assessment. In addition to core curriculum, students must complete a dissertation. The dissertation may be a study and analysis of original, collected data, or a new interpretation of existing research. Graduates often pursue careers as postsecondary educators, researchers or administrators. In addition, individuals can move into positions in nonprofit organizations, special education resource centers, or government agencies.

Learn more about Online Doctorates in Special Education

Career Opportunities for Graduates of Special Education Programs

An online degree program in special education can help graduates learn how to evaluate, assess and motivate exceptional learners. In addition to the proper certification, these skills may qualify them to become special education teachers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for these educators is projected to grow by 17 percent from 2010 to 2020. Graduates may also qualify for roles in nonprofit organizations, as special education consultants, tutors, or mentors to teachers. With a doctoral degree, graduates might conduct research and publish papers on exceptional learners and ways to overhaul programs so they are more successful. To learn more about available programs, request information from one of the online schools below.

Education administrators are making a more proactive effort to identify students with special needs earlier in their academic endeavors according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, contributing to the rising demand for those with special education teaching and administration experience. An online bachelor's degree in special education helps prepare individuals to communicate with and properly evaluate the needs of students with a variety of disabilities. Prospective educators learn how to assess the knowledge and skills of the children they will be teaching in order to create Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) based on each student's specific needs.

What Does a Bachelor's Degree Program in Special Education Entail?

Schools generally require that special education teachers hold at least a bachelor's degree, which normally takes four years to complete. Coursework includes instruction on the various disabilities and handicaps prospective special education teachers may encounter, and how best to distill information in a way that special needs students will be able to learn and retain it. Examples of topics include:

  • Assessment in Special Education: Prospective educators learn how to evaluate the individual needs of students in order to create differentiated learning goals for their specific disabilities. Future educators learn how to score and interpret tests, write diagnostics and create instructional plans that cater to each student. For example, if a student is dyslexic, a teacher can make sure that the information that has been discussed in class is repeated to help it transfer from short-term to long-term memory. Information written on the blackboard can be written in different colored chalk to help students copy the material more easily.
  • Communicating with Students with Emotional Impairments: This course is designed to help special needs educators learn how to communicate and listen to students who have a difficult time expressing themselves due to emotional disabilities. For example, future educators learn how certain practices can impact an emotionally impaired student in both positive and negative ways. Educators better understand how to develop a system that speaks to these particular students, allowing a better flow of communication between teacher and pupil.
  • Working with Families of Special Needs Children: This course focuses on building partnerships between educators, students and their families in order to create an environment of collaboration. Future educators learn how to work with students and their families to make sure that learning goals are agreed upon and followed both at home and in the classroom.

In addition to core coursework, there are a number of electives that bachelor's candidates will need to fulfill as well. For those who want to add an emphasis on top of their special education focus, electives may be taken in specific areas like math and science, among others. Some students in these programs may opt for psychology coursework, as a cognitive background can benefit future special education teachers by allowing them to better assess and understand the particular needs of disabled students. Electives can vary depending on an individual's area of interest. Prospective students should check with an advisor to find out which electives will best fit their interests and pathway towards a degree.

It is important to note that bachelor's programs do not confer state teaching credentials required to practice in most settings. All public schools mandate that teachers earn a teaching credential in order to teach within the state. Private schools are not required to follow these same regulations, but teachers holding a credential may improve their employability.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Bachelor's Degree Programs in Special Education

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field of special education is expected to grow by 17 percent nationwide between 2010 and 2020. The BLS projects that a large number of special education teachers will reach retirement age within the timeframe, leaving a void that will need to be filled by qualified replacements. Other factors of growth include the difficulty in recruiting and retaining special education teachers in urban and rural areas, and that general education teachers will need the support of qualified special education teachers to help adapt lesson plans for special needs students.

As general student enrollment continues to rise, and as more parents look to address the various physical, mental and emotional disabilities that can affect their children's learning, demand will become increasingly prevalent for teachers who can adequately assess and develop lesson plans for special-needs students, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Earning an online master's degree in special education may benefit current educators who seek to add an emphasis to their present duties. Or, for those already in special education teaching, a master's can help individuals learn new practices and methods that assist special-needs students. Online colleges offer a master's in special education in several forms; a Master of Science degree generally imparts academic skills oriented for research positions, helping graduates learn how to develop new practices for teaching special education; the Master of Education and Master of Arts, on the other hand, often provide training for teachers and individuals interested in working with disabled students in a classroom setting.

What Does a Master's Degree Program in Special Education Entail?

An online master's degree in special education takes around two years of full-time study to complete, but can vary depending on the exact school and program. In addition to the type of degree that may be earned, some schools break down their degree programs to include concentrations in particular areas, such as autism, technologies for special education, and language and cultural issues. No matter which degree is chosen, master's programs in special education train graduates in the theories and best practices to help special-needs learners. Some examples of courses may include:

  • Education Research Methods: This course teaches and examines research methods used in special education. Prospective educators learn how to formulate questionnaires, collect and analyze data, and how to draw informed conclusions from that data. For example, educators may want to conduct a survey to find out how students feel they learn best. By putting together a comprehensive questionnaire and studying that data, teachers may be able to integrate some of those practices alongside other proven methods in order to facilitate the best learning environment for their students.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): This course teaches the history, characteristics and assessment practices associated with autistic students. Since autism affects children in a multitude of ways, including linguistically and socially, individuals in this class learn differentiated teaching methods. This might include placing students who don't actively seek interaction into small learning groups; or if an autistic student displays a strong affinity for certain activities, educators can use those activities to facilitate learning. Being able to cater to the many ways in which autistic students react to the world can give these exceptional learners the chance to achieve to the best of their abilities.
  • Collaboration Methods in Special Education: This class teaches educators how to collaborate with colleagues, caregivers and parents of special-needs learners. Because children with disabilities have such specialized needs, educators, parents and caregivers will need to learn how to share opinions and concerns about the curriculum to ensure a smooth transition for the student. For example, a special-education student may achieve higher grades in one class and not another. Colleagues can share their successes and failures, potentially helping the student achieve better marks in both classes.

In addition to the core curriculum, students may need to complete a number of concentrated courses, sometimes referred to as electives. These electives depend on a student's desired focus. Some institutions have very structured curriculums, not giving students the opportunity to take anything other than core classes. Prospective students should check to see the specific requirements of each school.

It is also very important to note that earning any of these degrees doesn't confer a teaching credential. A credential has to be earned on its own if a graduate isn't already an educator. Each state has its own requirements about how to earn a teaching credential, so individuals pursuing a teaching career should inquire about particular state qualifications.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Master's Degree Programs in Special Education

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teaching careers in special education are expected to grow nationwide by 17 percent between 2010 and 2020. The BLS estimates that, due to age, a large number of special education teachers will be retiring during this timeframe, creating opportunities for new educators. Because of the need to identify special-needs learners early on, positions in preschool, kindergarten and elementary schools are estimated to grow by about 21 percent in the same timeframe.

Special education became an important piece of the scholastic world when two federal laws were created in 1975: the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These legislative efforts led to many breakthroughs in the understanding of exceptional learners and how best to educate them. An online doctorate in special education helps prepare individuals who want to work in the research and implementation of positive and necessary measures like these. Doctorates follow two main tracks: the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) and the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). While both can be considered research and professional degrees, coursework for the two types of programs differ significantly.

The Ed.D. path trains individuals for leadership positions in the field of special education, whether it is for work in K-12 schools, colleges and universities, public and private companies, or as administrators and directors of special education programs. People who earn this degree are generally more qualified for positions that interact closely with special-needs learners, or to help train educators to work with the mentally, physically or emotionally disabled.

The Ph.D. pathway prepares students to study the various disabilities and impairments in order to evaluate current teaching practices under the broad scope of special needs learning. Graduates can also help collect and interpret data for the development of new technologies and lesson plans that offer exceptional learners a better chance to achieve in the classroom.

What Does a Doctoral Degree Program in Special Education Entail?

Earning the doctorate typically ranges from three to six years of full-time study. Most schools will only admit students who have earned a master's degree in a related field and often give preference to those with work experience in relevant settings. Coursework in online special education doctorate programs varies by school, and the curriculum often depends on a student's specific focus and learning objectives. The chosen doctoral type generally dictates the types of classes students will encounter.

Most Ed.D. coursework is designed to train teachers in the best methods and practices for reaching exceptional learners. Courses detail and analyze the current problems in teaching special-needs students, with a focus on policy and curriculum. Through case studies, doctoral candidates develop critical thinking skills and form logical conclusions and clear arguments based on empirical evidence. Students evaluate curriculum standards and review the latest reforms in education, examining how best to apply them in the classroom to the benefit of exceptional learners. Instruction also covers the best methods for communicating and resolving conflicts in classrooms that contain students with disabilities.

As the Ph.D. is more focused on the research elements of special education, the core coursework is as well. Classes may address the nature and biology of disabilities, and how different styles of teaching can best fit different kinds of exceptional learners. The curriculum helps students develop the skills and procedures needed to conduct their own research to study disabilities, and classes provide insights on how to draw conclusions derived from that research. In addition to conducting original research, students learn how to study and evaluate research that has already been published by other scholars.

No matter which pathway is chosen -- Ed.D. or Ph.D. -- the capstone to each is a dissertation. The dissertation may be the collection and analysis of originally researched data, or it may be comprised of new interpretations of existing research and empirical studies. A panel of faculty members chosen by the potential graduate and the department chair reviews the information and conclusions formed through the research, and the student answers any and all questions posed by the panel.

While much of the coursework in online doctoral programs can be completed though distance education, some programs have residency requirements, where students are asked to attend the school's campus or local setting to meet with advisors and faculty members. Students also use this opportunity to interact and network with one another. Residencies may also require students to enter a classroom and student-teach, applying the skills and knowledge learned in order to gain real world experience.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Doctoral Degree Programs in Special Education

Potential careers vary depending on the particular degree and focus of choice. Graduates may better qualify for positions in education and teaching, administration, or consultation for public and private entities who work toward furthering awareness of and developing programs for exceptional learners. K-12 educators who earn their doctoral degree can become mentors, helping to train new teachers. They can also move into roles as school counselors or instructional coordinators.

Those interested in bringing about positive change for special education in institutions of higher learning may be interested in careers in postsecondary education administration. Roles as provosts or academic deans help guide and form the academic policies of a school, allowing the chance to mold college and university programs to better cater to the needs of exceptional learners. Provosts might help students with disabilities on a macro level by appointing faculty members who have the necessary background in special education. Deans can possibly help on a micro level by guiding the policies of certain branches of the school, such as the English department or physics department. These influential positions help ensure that exceptional learners have the necessary resources to succeed. According to the BLS, positions in postsecondary education administration are estimated to grow 19 percent from 2010 to 2020.

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