The field of special education has evolved significantly since the U.S. Congress first passed legislation in 1975 focused on improving ways to meet the educational needs of students with a range of abilities. Special educators may work with individuals who have one (or more) of 13 disabilities covered under federal law: blindness or deafness; cognitive or developmental disabilities such as autism; learning disabilities such as dyslexia; and other disorders that can impact learning, from AD/HD to behavioral and emotional disturbance. Those who’ve earned a special education degree may work in all kinds of settings — from classrooms and learning centers to hospitals and homes — imparting skills and knowledge to students who possess an incredibly diverse variety of disabilities.
Best Online Colleges for Special Education in 2018-19
This ranking of the 10 best online colleges for special education is designed to help students select the best school for their educational goals and expectations. We used a wide range of data to create our list, primarily facts provided by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which is part of the National Center for Education Statistics. More information about the methodology we used to create this list is available at the bottom of the page.
Concordia University-Saint Paul
Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus
Minnesota State University-Mankato
University of South Florida-Main Campus
University of Florida
Degree Overview: Special Education
Special education teachers need to understand the unique challenges associated with working with students that have developmental problems, which is the purpose of online colleges for special education. For more information about the curriculum that may be found in these programs, and the skills graduates might develop in the course of such programs, continue reading this page.
Online Special Education Courses
The curriculum of special education programs depends on the specific school that aspiring teachers attend, as well as the degree level they choose. The following are some examples of the coursework students may find when they pursue online special education degrees.
- Those who enroll in online bachelor's degree programs in special education are introduced to the work duties of professionals in the field. The curriculum for these programs may include classes in special education assessments, early childhood development, technology in the classroom and classroom management. Students in these programs also have opportunities for hands-on classroom experience that allow them to apply what they learned in their courses to real-world situations.
- Special education master's degree programs are designed for current educators who want to learn how to work with special needs students or prospective teachers who want to acquire advanced skills and knowledge. Coursework on this level may include subjects such as legal and ethical issues in special education, instructional design, research methods and psychoeducational assessment practices.
- Doctoral programs for special education are usually completed by those who want to become college professors, researchers or school administrators. Generally these programs allow students to specialize in the area most relevant to their interests and career goals; some examples of such areas might be instructional design, early childhood education, severe disabilities or special education policy.
Career-Related Skills to Develop
To be a successful teacher, students must develop a number of diverse skills that can be obtained when they attend online colleges for special education. Below are some examples of important skills these professionals should have.
- Assessment: Special education teachers need to determine what kinds of interventions students need to address their physical, mental and emotional challenges. In the long term, strong assessment skills allow teachers to tailor their lessons and make adjustments as needed; in the more immediate term, the ability to quickly assess a situation and decide how to handle it can make the difference between a productive school day and a complete disaster.
- Resourcefulness: Working with special needs students requires that educators find different ways of presenting information in order to accommodate all kinds of learning styles and challenges. These teachers must think outside of the box to find ways of adapting their lessons to each of their students' needs.
- Patience: All teachers must have patience, but special needs educators especially need the ability to keep cool under pressure and show understanding to their students. These teachers may need to explain information multiple times or answer more questions in the classroom, so they must know how to keep pace with their students rather than the other way around.
- Verbal communication: In addition to effectively communicating with students, special education teachers must also be able to speak to parents, colleagues and school administrators about the progress of students in their classroom.
Special Education Specializations
Whether or not a prospective special education teacher needs a license depends on where they want to teach. While those who teach at private schools do not need a license, public school special education teachers are required to undergo their state's licensing process. The expectations for licensing vary from one state to the next, but generally professionals should earn at least a bachelor's degree, complete the certification exam and a background check, and maintain a minimum grade point average in their teaching program. In addition, special education teachers may be expected to participate in continuing education courses annually to keep their licenses current.
Special education teachers can also earn a voluntary credential through the National Association of Special Education Teachers. In order to obtain the Board Certification in Special Education, professionals must complete a master's degree and earn a passing score on the organization's credentialing exam.
Special Education Career Outlook
Working in special education can be a challenging yet rewarding career path. Here are some of the most common career paths for the subject.
Special education preschool teachers not only teach basic subjects such as reading, math and science, but detect physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities that might prevent a child from learning in a typical way. The job requires tailoring activities for these students' abilities and working closely with them to ensure they learn as much as possible. Special education preschool teachers also assess students for what they have learned and how well they may be able to learn more. This assessment can help to form educational plans as a child grows through the grades and requires more assistance to learn more intricate subjects.
Though most preschool teachers can begin work with an associate degree, those who intend to work in special education must hold a minimum of a bachelor's degree. In some states, a master's degree is necessary.
As students grow, kindergarten and elementary school special education teachers can ensure they learn at a pace suitable for them. Teachers might specialize in certain areas, such as working with students who have hearing, vision or physical impairments. Some might work with those who have mild learning disabilities, while others could work with those who have profound mental impairments. Special education teachers will develop Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) for each student, work closely with school administration and parents, and adapt lessons to suit each student's needs.
Special education teachers must have a bachelor's degree, at minimum. Those who work in public schools must also be licensed to teach. It is not unusual for a state to require a master's degree for special education teacher careers.
Middle school teachers typically teach grades six through eight, preparing students for the more rigorous education they will face in high school. Special education teachers at the middle school level work closely with students for whom usual classroom learning is difficult. They build upon what the student achieved during the elementary school years and adjust educational plans to reflect a student's skills. At the middle school level, special education teachers often focus on imparting life skills; with some practice, these skills could help some students eventually live independently when they were not initially able to do so.
As with special education teachers at other levels, a bachelor's degree is required, though some states expect a special education teacher to earn a master's degree. Those who work in public schools must be licensed to teach.
Secondary school students are being taught the skills and knowledge necessary to enter college or the workforce after graduation. Special education teachers work with students who need extra help in reaching that goal. In some cases, by teaching life skills such as managing money or time, these students may be able to live independently in the future.
At the high school level, special education teachers will meet with parents, guidance counselors, other teachers and the student to tailor educational plans. Their day-to-day work depends greatly upon their specialty and the type of school they work in: one teacher might work with students who have mild learning disabilities; another might help a student enter the mainstream classroom; and yet another could provide in-depth assistance to students with profound disabilities.
High school teachers must have a bachelor's degree, at minimum. Many schools prefer those with a master's degree. A teacher must be licensed to teach; he or she might also be required to have certification in their particular subject.
A degree in special education can lead to work as an interpreter or a translator. Interpreters convert information from one spoken language into another in real time, so that two or more individuals who are separated by a language barrier will be able to communicate. Translators fulfill a similar role with written language.
Interpreter and translator careers require the ability to convert concepts from one language to another, preserving the style and tone of the original message. Interpreters must be able to perform these duties on the spot, while listening to the dialogue they are interpreting. Translators can take time to consider their translation, but must then be able to compile technical terms and information into glossaries, databases and the like.
Translators typically work from home or an office, but interpreters can find a place in schools, government facilities, hospitals and more. Though many employers look for those with a bachelor's degree, the most important requirement is the ability to speak, read and write fluently in at least two languages.