What Can I Do with a Degree in Special Education?

Learn more about what you can do with a degree in special education. Find information on special education career opportunities, job outlook, salary, and recommended schools. View popular schools that prepare students for careers in special education.


The nature of education in the United States is changing. Over the past few decades, the needs of challenged students have required the talents and energy of special education teachers. Individuals seeking a career in special education have significant career possibilities, and although the demands of these students can be high, the intangible rewards of those in special education can be equally great.

Individuals seeking careers in special education must have a specific skill set. In addition to interpersonal skills requiring organization, the ability to motivate students, adaptability and acceptance towards all students, States require teacher licensing, including a bachelor’s degree with additional training specifically in special education. Some States even require a master’s degree, although many states are now offering alternative training programs for qualified college graduates.

Special education teachers will work with children who have any number of physical, emotional and/or behavioral disabilities, including autism, speech/language disabilities, learning disabilities, mental retardation, or physical challenges. These students frequently have an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which sets goals for the student based on his or her special needs. Special education teachers are vital in developing IEPs, as well as assisting special needs students succeed in mainstream classrooms, a process known as inclusion.


A career in Special Education is not necessarily restricted to a traditional classroom in an elementary, middle or high school, although there is a high demand for this type of work. Special education teachers in traditional settings do not always have a separate classroom, but coordinate with others across the curriculum, often working with social workers, therapists, administrators and parents.

For children with disabilities, early intervention is seen as key to the child’s success; therefore there is great demand in special education at the preschool level, even working with infants and toddlers. Early intervention programs in Special Education are often implemented in the home. Some individuals may find employment in hospitals or residential facilities, while others may work at institutions specifically designed to meet the needs of special education students. Most special education careers in traditional schools offer ten-month employment during the school year, but many careers now offer year-round employment.


In all 50 States and the District of Columbia, special education teachers require specific licensing. However, salaries remain consistent with those of other educators. In 2008, for example, the median wage for special education at the preschool, kindergarten and elementary level was $50,020, with average wages ranging from $40,480 to $63,500. The lowest paid earned less than $35,000 annually, while the top earners garnered salaries of over $78,000. Median wages at the middle school level was $50,810, while teachers at the secondary level earned, on average, $51,340, with the highest 10 percent earning $82,000 or more.

It should also be taken into consideration that approximately 65 percent of all special education teachers belong to a teacher’s union. Certain benefits such as healthcare, reimbursed training and summer vacation can be added to compensation. Also, those working in traditional school settings have access to extra pay for duties such as coaching, tutoring and supervising extracurricular activities.

Job Outlook

For those seeking a career in special education, the outlook is quite good. The need for teachers is expected outpace other occupations, at a rate of 17 percent over the coming decade. Many school districts across the country are having difficulty finding and attracting qualified candidates. While student enrollment figures are expected to show slow growth, students with special needs will increasingly comprise a growing segment of the school-age population. Early detection and diagnosis of disabilities will require greater demand for special education, opening new jobs, although demand will vary by geographic region. Growth in the number of non-English speaking students with disabilities will also lead to increased demand. Newer, stringent educational requirements in the United States for high school graduation will require the services of special education teachers in helping students meet those goals. Further, significant retirements in the education field over the coming decade will necessitate a steady stream of new, qualified candidates.

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