Online Master's Programs in Special Education

Special education teachers play a vital role in the education system, teaching students with mental, physical, and developmental disabilities. Earning an online master's in special education prepares graduates for leadership roles, including positions as instructors, instructional coordinators, and educational specialists.

Master's students gain skills in behavioral assessment, curriculum development, and instructional methods. Online special education programs prioritize flexibility and accessibility, appealing to working teachers pursuing an endorsement in special education. This page covers career options for professionals with a master's in special education, skills gained during a graduate degree in special education, and tips for finding the best special education master's program.

Overview of an Online Master's Program in Special Education

Special education master's programs prepare students for careers as special education teachers and administrative roles in special education. This section explores common classes, a typical master's program length, and elements of top special education master's programs.

Common Classes and Coursework


Advanced Behavioral Assessment

Special education graduate students improve their behavioral assessment skills through coursework on theoretical and practical principles of behavioral assessment. Students learn about indirect and direct assessment methods, assessment interpretation, and culturally responsive assessments. This course prepares graduate students to conduct behavioral assessments and analyze the results to create treatment plans.

Special Education Curriculum Development

This course explores methods for creating curricula, emphasizing assessment for special education students. Course material may cover adapting general education curricula, identifying assistive technology needs, and developing individualized educational plans that meet curriculum goals.

Assistive Technologies

Learners study assistive technologies and devices and become familiar with various types of software. Coursework may explore regulations on assistive technologies, current issues in the field, and identifying when students need assistive technologies. The class may incorporate hands-on demonstrations of assistive technologies.

Special Education Leadership

This course prepares students for administrative roles in education systems. Coursework emphasizes special education laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the procedural requirements of special education laws and regulations. Students gain leadership skills through material focused on implementing procedures, promoting special education practices, and overseeing special education programs.

Instructional Methods

This class surveys theories for instructing students with moderate to severe disabilities. Learners study instructional methods that apply these theories and explore teaching materials designed to strengthen specific skills. The course prepares students for careers as instructional leaders in special education.

Skills You Will Gain

Master's in special education programs emphasize skills and competencies that graduates can apply to roles as special education teachers, instructional coordinators, and educational specialists. Master's students build strong critical-thinking skills by evaluating data, assessing research, and writing analytical papers.

Graduate coursework emphasizes research-based instructional methods and best practices for curriculum development

While pursuing their master's in special education, students complete presentations, group projects, and practicum requirements. These elements help learners develop communication skills, which they can apply to explain concepts to students, design differentiated education programs, and communicate with school administrators.

Special education graduate students also gain practical skills that transfer directly to work in classrooms. Graduate coursework emphasizes research-based instructional methods and best practices for curriculum development. Students also gain familiarity with assistive technologies and behavioral assessment methods.

Master's coursework also prepares students for doctoral programs in special education. Many academic positions, such as special education professor, require a terminal degree in the field. Similarly, some employers of research and leadership professionals prefer candidates with a doctorate. A master's in special education meets the educational requirement for admission to doctoral programs.

Average Degree Length

A master's degree in special education typically requires 30-36 credits of graduate coursework, which may include internship or practicum requirements. Full-time students generally complete the degree in two years. Some online special education master's programs offer part-time or accelerated enrollment options, which can impact degree length. For example, an accelerated program may offer condensed classes or the option to enroll in more courses per semester, allowing students to complete the degree in less than two years.

Full-time students generally complete the degree in two years

Online special education programs often appeal to current teachers seeking career advancement. The online learning format facilitates flexibility and convenience, allowing graduate students to complete coursework around their teaching schedule. Online programs are also more accessible than on-campus programs; educators can enroll in one of the top special education master's programs without leaving their current job or relocating.

How to Find a Top Program

The top special education programs share several characteristics, including a high graduation rate and strong faculty credentials. Prospective students should check out the program's job placement rate and alumni network to ensure a top quality education. Learners should also consider which programs best align with their personal career goals and interests.

  • Graduation Rate

    The top programs often have high graduation rates. Prospective students can find the best programs in special education by researching a program's graduation rate and typical graduation times.

  • Faculty Qualifications

    Accrediting agencies consider faculty credentials when determining whether to grant accreditation. Prospective students can research faculty members' publication records, institutional affiliations, and terminal degrees.

  • Job Placement

    Job placement records indicate the percentage of program graduates who find work in the field. Special education students can also look at the types of institutions at which program graduates work.

  • Alumni Network

    An active alumni network can help graduates transition into the workforce. By identifying programs with strong alumni networks, prospective students help ensure they receive networking support after graduation.

  • Concentration Options

    Many special education programs offer concentrations in areas like early childhood special education, autism, and assistive technology. Prospective students should look for programs that offer concentrations or elective classes in their specialization area.

Special Education Careers After Earning Your Master's

After completing an online master's in special education program, graduates can pursue various career paths. Many graduates become special education teachers and work with K-12 students. Special education teachers assess student needs and abilities. They also create and evaluate individualized education programs.

A graduate degree in special education can also lead to careers as instructional coordinators, who design curricula. Other graduates become educational diagnosticians and specialists who identify ways to improve student learning. Master's degree-holders can also qualify for some postsecondary teaching roles in the discipline.

Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers adapt lesson plans for students with learning, mental, and physical disabilities. They assess the abilities of K-12 students and develop differentiated instruction plans for individual learners.

Average Annual Salary: $59,780

Instructional Coordinator

Instructional coordinators oversee curricula and teaching standards. Professionals with a special education background may develop special education curricula for a district. Instructional coordinators also assess the effectiveness of educational materials.

Average Annual Salary: $64,450

Special Education Professor

Special education professors teach at colleges and universities, training future special education teachers. They develop syllabi, instruct students, and assess students' learning. A master's in special education meets the qualifications for some postsecondary positions, though many positions require a Ph.D.

Average Annual Salary: $78,470

Educational Diagnostician

Educational diagnosticians assess and diagnose children with learning disabilities. They determine strategies to help struggling students, and they recommend changes to improve learning outcomes. Educational diagnosticians may also recommend special education programs for students.

Average Annual Salary: $58,729

Educational Specialist

Educational specialists recommend changes to improve learning outcomes. They often act as consultants, observing programs and proposing methods to increase academic success.

Average Annual Salary: $49,746

Source: BLS/PayScale

Additional Certifications for Special Education

An online master's in special education degree meets the educational requirements for several certifications and licenses, which can help job candidates stand out to employers. Many positions in public schools require a state-issued teaching license and an endorsement in special education. Because the licensure process varies by location, prospective special education teachers should research the requirements in their state.

Teaching License

Many accredited master's in special education online programs meet the requirements for a state teaching license. Candidates for a teaching license must typically hold a qualifying degree from an approved educator preparation program, pass a content area examination, and undergo a background check. Each state sets specific requirements and a unique licensure process.

Special Education Certification

A master's in special education generally meets requirements to add a special education endorsement or certification to a teaching license. In addition to holding a master's degree, licensed teachers may need to pass a special education examination to add the endorsement.

Gifted Education Certification

Professionals with a special education degree may meet the qualifications for a gifted education endorsement or certification. Licensed educators who meet the educational requirements must typically pass a content-area examination to earn the endorsement.

Professional Organizations and Resources for Special Education Students

Students completing an education master's program in special education can benefit from joining professional organizations. The following organizations and resources support special education students and educators.

  • National Association of Special Education Teachers NASET represents special education teachers across the country. The association offers teaching and professional development resources, publishes research, and maintains a career center for job-seekers.
  • National Education Association NEA represents more than three million educators, including special education teachers. The association maintains local chapters, hosts events and conferences, and provides professional development resources for educators.
  • Council for Exceptional Children CEC advocates for special and gifted education teachers. The council provides professional development resources and sets professional standards. The organization also publishes books and journals on exceptional children.
  • Association of American Educators A national association for educators, AAE provides teaching resources, such as lesson plans and organizes networking opportunities through state chapters. The association also awards classroom grants and scholarships.
  • Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development ASCD publishes Educational Leadership, a magazine for educators, which contains research and practical advice. The association also provides classroom management resources and guidance on differentiated instruction.
  • National Center for Learning Disabilities NCLD promotes public awareness of learning disabilities and offers educator resources. The center also awards grants to support research related to learning disabilities.
  • Special Education Resources on the Internet SERI aggregates online resources for special education teachers, including disability information, educator resources, and books on special education topics. Website visitors can participate in special education discussion groups.
  • National Center for Special Education Research A federal organization, NCSER promotes education research on special education and children with disabilities. The center provides information about research programs and funding opportunities.
  • Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation CAEP accredits educator preparation programs, including online master's in special education programs. Prospective students can check programs' accreditation status through the CAEP website.
  • Common Core Common Core sets standards for math and English education at the K-12 level. The Common Core website offers teaching materials, suggested lesson plans, and resources for educators.
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