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Grad Program: Special Education

Basic Information

Master degree programs in special education provide theoretical and practical preparation for teachers and professionals who work with children, youth, and adults with disabilities. Most programs are built around a core curriculum that verses students in curriculum development, teaching strategies, psychology, development, and other educational issues that surround special education. Outside core coursework, most programs are highly specialized and fairly self-directed. Master's students are expected to choose a field, design a specialized course of study, and compliment their coursework with a thesis or creative project in that area.

There a wide variety of specialties within special education, some of which are quite dissimilar. When you are choosing a program, it is important to have a strong sense of the area in which you would like to work. Among the most common areas of specialty are: learning disabilities, behavior disorders, mental retardation, severe cognitive disabilities, deaf education, early childhood-special education, and gifted and talented education. While most programs require students to focus on a single area, there are also general special education programs for those who are either new to the field or want to get a more extensive general background in special education.

Hands-on experience is also a key component of any special education degree. Class work is complimented by a strong emphasis in internships and field experience. Students usually spend time observing classrooms environments, as well as working as student teachers, receiving performance evaluation and feedback from teachers and professors.

Degree Information

Some programs offer the Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Special Education degree, while others confer Master of Science (M.S.) in Special Education degree. Typically, M.S. programs require students to conduct research and write a thesis, whereas M.Ed. programs do not.

Many programs require applicants to hold a credential in special education; however, there are also many others that allow students to pursue licensure in special education during their course of study. There are even programs that allow student with no previous teaching experience to take courses that will lead to a state teaching credential and licensure in special education. If you do not hold licensure and/or a credential in your state, you may want to enroll in a program that will allow you to complete credential coursework alongside M.S./M.Ed. requirements.

While there are some doctoral programs in special education, they are few and far between. If you have your heart set on advanced research in special education, you will have to look carefully for a program. Of those that there are, doctoral students have a much narrower focus and their coursework in centered on individualized study. Student assessment is often based on a portfolio and independent research work.

For active teachers who just want to receive a license to teach special education, many schools offer certificate (non-degree) programs.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Choosing a Degree Program
  • What is the school's educational mission?
  • What specialties does the school offer?
  • What type of students will you work with?
  • What facilities, schools, or organizations is the school affiliated with?
  • What types of research opportunities does the school offer?
  • Can students pursue a teaching credential/licensure at the same time they are completing courses towards an M.Ed./M.S.?
  • Does the school offer part time study?
  • Where and in what field do most graduates work?

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