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Why Earn a Master's Degree in Special Education?

There are numerous benefits to earning a master's degree in special education. Master's level study can help you improve as a special education teacher, increase your career opportunities and income potential, and prepare you for leadership positions and further advanced education. Perhaps you already have a teaching certificate and content-specific credential but would like to change your career focus to special education. Degree programs like Eastern Washington University's online Master of Education — Special Education are actually designed to help teachers do precisely this.

But the benefits of earning a master's in special education are not solely personal to the educator. There is a widespread shortage of special education teachers across the country. And teachers educated in other disciplines generally have very little training in special education. This results in millions of students with diverse learning needs not getting the quality of education they deserve. In earning a master's in special education and putting what you learn to work, you can play an important role on many levels in improving education for students with disabilities.

How Can Earning This Degree Help Me Improve as an Educator?

As an educator working with students with disabilities, you will encounter dynamic opportunities to help your students learn and develop. There are many approaches to engaging students, helping each succeed academically and socially.

Doing this effectively requires educators to be both empathetic and competent. In terms of special education, both of these qualities involve thoroughly understanding the specific disability (or disabilities) a child is dealing with, as well as how that specific child is affected by their disability. Concurrently, an educator must strive to understand that child's abilities and strengths, continuously reflecting on what educational strategies and methods have the most positive impact on that child's development.

This is an individualized process, both by law and common sense. The process involves every aspect of a student's education, from initial assessment and diagnosis through planning, instruction, and assessment, as well as constant adjustment to improve strategies.

Successful special education teachers focus not just on coping with the challenges a child faces due to a disability. They design, execute, and improve an educational plan for that child, which helps them to best meet the standards and learning goals expected of every student. The child should be able to learn in the "least restrictive environment" possible, or the most inclusive situational environment found effective for that child's specific learning needs.

Again, the goals and requirements of the special educator are based in law and common sense. But they demand advanced knowledge of educational law, the full spectrum of disabilities students face, and the many methods of addressing them effectively. This requires competencies in a wide array of topics, from instructional techniques to intervention and behavioral management.

Unfortunately, typical teacher preparation programs provide very little coverage of special education. However, a master's degree program in special education will cover these and other special education topics in depth. EWU's online program can further help you integrate your knowledge into work and experience through internship and reflection.

How Can a Master's in Special Education Benefit My Career?

In addition to helping you improve as an educator, earning a master's in special education from EWU can increase both your career opportunities and earning potential. Adding special education credentials to your teaching certificate is often necessary to work in the field. In the state of Washington, for instance, special education teachers must have (or in certain instances be working toward earning) a special education endorsement to continue work in the field. EWU's master's degree program helps teachers add this endorsement to their existing Washington state residential teaching certificate.

In terms of income, 2015 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows educators with a master's degree earn an average of over $12,000 more in annual base salary than their colleagues holding only a bachelor's degree. In addition, those with a master's in special education can pursue career advancement opportunities such as becoming a special education director or coordinator. According to 2019 PayScale data, the average salary of special education directors is $72,878 per year. In comparison, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average salary for special education teachers in 2018 was $59,780 per year.

Holding a master's degree is also a requirement for earning the American Academy of Special Education Professionals' (AASEP) Professional Board Certification in Special Education. This certification exemplifies the highest levels of professionalism, excellence and accomplishment in special education.

Earning a master's in special education can further allow you to pursue higher educational goals, such as earning an education specialist degree (Ed.S.) or a doctoral level education degree (Ed.D. or Ph.D.). With such degrees you could pursue further positions in administration, university teaching jobs, research and policymaking.

How Can Earning This Degree Help the Educational Community at Large?

According to 2017 data from the U.S. Department of Education, all but a few states are short of special education teachers and personnel. NCES reports that in 2015, "the number of students ages 3-21 receiving special education services was 6.7 million, or 13 percent of all public school students." By various accounts there are wide academic achievement gaps between students with disabilities and those "without."

This can be seen in standardized test scores and graduation rates. For instance, 2015 data from New York shows that fewer than 30 percent of students with disabilities of Level 2 proficiency and above met or exceeded proficiency standards in English and language arts as compared to students in the general education population. Yet research suggests nearly 85 percent of students with disabilities can achieve proficiency in general education content given appropriate supports.

Many practices can help address this inequity in educational quality and student achievement, such as the consistent increase of inclusion of students with disabilities in the general education classroom. Inclusive education has been shown to be effective in increasing social and educational learning opportunities for students with disabilities. The NCES reports 62.5 percent of students with disabilities spending at least 80 percent of their school day in a general education classroom in 2015 as compared 31.7 percent in 1989.

Full-time co-teaching by special education teachers and content area general education teachers in each classroom can maximize the positive effects of inclusive education. But given the widespread shortage of special education teachers and the inadequate training of other teachers in special education, many inclusive classrooms still fail to meet the potential gains of inclusive education.

Some schools spread special education specialists over multiple classrooms, having them "push in" at different times to address student needs and assist teachers in inclusive, adaptive and differentiated education methods. But to have the greatest impact, schools simply need more special education teachers, specialists, leadership, and intensive training and education for existing teachers.

Clearly, there is a definitive need for more educators with advanced education and training in special education. Earning a master's degree in special education can prepare you to help address this need, whether directly as a special education teacher or specialist, or systematically through administrative and teacher training roles.

Learn more about EWU's online Master of Education — Special Education program.


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Special Education Teachers

PayScale: Director of Special Education Salary 5 Benefits of Inclusion Classrooms

The Atlantic: How Teacher Training Hinders Special-Needs Students

National Center for Education Statistics: 2017 Tables and Figures - Table 204.60

National Center on Educational Outcomes: Meeting the Needs of Special Education Students

National Center for Education Statistics: 2015 Tables and Figures - Table 219.46

Education Week: Why Are Students With Disabilities Failing Standardized Tests? Measuring Student Progress in Grades 3-8 English Language Arts and Mathematics

U.S. Department of Education: Teacher Shortage Areas - Nationwide Listing - June 2017

American Institutes for Research: Critical Shortages in Special Education Teachers. Sound Familiar?

National Center for Education Statistics: 2017 Tables and Figures - Table 211.10

National Center for Education Statistics: Children and Youth With Disabilities

American Academy of Special Education Professionals: AASEP Professional Board Certification in Special Education (B.C.S.E.)

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