Choosing an Online Master’s in Education With a Special Education Focus

August 4, 2022

A special education teacher works closely with a student.

Maryann McAndrew worked as a Medicaid waiver case manager at a nonprofit in Fayetteville, Arkansas – a good job, helping people get services that state Medicaid plans might not specifically provide.

Her job had McAndrew working within the local community, often in partnership with local high schools. There, something caught her attention.

"I started to see a need for special education teachers," McAndrew says, "people with previous experience working with individuals with complex support needs." People with experience like hers.

McAndrew saw a need, one she could fill – and she felt a call.

One conversation with the school's special education director later and McAndrew was applying to the online master's in special education program at the University of Arkansas.


Why Pursue Special Education?

The importance of and the need for special educators has never been greater than it is today.

In 2000, about one in 150 children was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. By 2006, that number was one in 110. Now, it is closer to one in 44. In fact, nearly one child in six is diagnosed with developmental disabilities, including blindness, hearing loss, ADHD, cerebral palsy and a range of other conditions necessitating specialized learning.

As diagnostic techniques improve and screening protocols become more widespread, people with disabilities who might otherwise struggle alone, invisible, are seen and have a chance to have their needs met.


What Kinds of People Answer the Call?

Like McAndrew, many students choose special education due to personal experience.

"Many of our students have experience with their own disability, or a sibling's, or a relative's or a friend's," points out Suzanne Kucharczyk, program coordinator of Inclusive Educational and Clinical Programs at the University of Arkansas. And, because classrooms have grown more inclusive, with more chances for general education students to learn alongside students with disabilities, more people "move on to be personally interested in supporting others through their educational process."

McAndrew counts herself in that number. "I have been working or volunteering with individuals with complex support needs since I was in grade school."

But not everyone drawn to special education has a personal connection. Many are just passionate teachers. In fact, the U of A's program draws many students already in the profession.

"Most typically," notes Kucharczyk, "the students who come to do the online master's in education are either currently educators, though not special educators, or are new to but interested in working in education, special education specifically."

Offering a wide variety of licenses and endorsements for specialization – K-12 special education licenses, endorsements in gifted education, dyslexia endorsement, educational evaluator endorsement, resource teacher endorsements and more – the U of A's M.Ed. in special education helps educators like McAndrew find success.


What Traits Make a Successful Special Educator?

Kucharczyk dispels a common misconception: "It's a mistake to think about special educators as special people, as angels. It suggests people with disabilities require educators with more heart. If education is to be accessible to all students, then we should expect all teachers to have the heart to teach all students, including those with disabilities."

Suzanne Kucharczyk
Suzanne Kucharczyk

Special educators might not need any more heart than other teachers, but there are a few traits that prove helpful in the field.

First, says Kucharczyk, "successful special educators are great collaborators and strong detectives."

Every student sharing a classroom is unique, and learning strategies that work for one may not work for another. Imagine a classroom with two children, one with ADHD, and another with an autism spectrum disorder. The child with ADHD might need strategies to plan out their work, while the child with autism may need practice in communicating their work. Both may benefit from visual supports in different ways. How does a special educator engage both, together?

In addition to curious, analytical minds, good special educators need to enjoy working with others. Detectives work cases. Working cases means working with people.

McAndrew learned early in her teaching career that "things are never going to go the way you expect, and you cannot be someone who refuses to budge. If it's coming from the administration, families or the students, you have to be flexible and willing to meet everyone where they are."

Great collaborators make great advocates for special education, able to provide the best services for students with disabilities by working with students and adults, from faculty to related service providers to administrators to students' families.

Finally, strong special educators are flexible and able to recognize that success in the classroom is only a tiny part of the bigger picture.

"School," Kucharczyk reminds us, "is a very small part of the lives of students with disabilities. It's important to have a long-range view of success."

"We prepare people to use these skills so we make sure their toolboxes are full and their tools come from the people who know what they need for the jobs they are preparing to do."

Suzanne Kucharczyk, Program coordinator of Inclusive Educational and Clinical Programs

What Do Special Educators Study?

Good M.Ed. programs teach exactly what the students need: the skills necessary not just to improve success rates on the next test, but to lay the foundations of success across an entire life.

"We prepare people to use these skills," notes Kucharczyk, "so we make sure their toolboxes are full and their tools come from the people who know what they need for the jobs they are preparing to do."

Because that toolkit covers so much ground – K-12 training, various disabilities, classroom management techniques – each U of A faculty member brings unique expertise in different areas of special education.

The University of Arkansas M.Ed. in special education emphasizes practice, using the evidence-based methods best suited to the task.

"Most of our courses," explains Kucharczyk, "are methods, teaching methods. Special education is really about the methods that are most effective for individual students."

Students in the M.Ed. in special education learn to individualize education, mastering the methods to build inclusive environments for individuals.

The program also encourages teachers to remain learners themselves.

Professions change. Methods evolve. Good special educators learn to embrace change and seek out new knowledge, whether for their own expertise or in service of a single student.

Good educators, Kucharczyk notes, are ready to say, "Tell me about your child. Tell me their needs, what's worked, what hasn't."

Moreover, anyone can benefit from this training, not just those pursuing a career in special education. Some students choose to embed a microcertificate in autism into a general master's education degree just to become better teachers, related service providers or other professionals.

These courses, says Kucharczyk, teach "evidence-based practices like embedding visual supports within a learning task or supporting students with autism through self-management of their own learning."

Evidence-based practices like visual supports help teachers achieve the best outcomes for a wider variety of students, and practices like self-management help students find success in life whether or not their teacher officially teaches special education.


What Can I Do With an M.Ed. in Special Education?

Short answer? A lot.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act means that students with a disability are guaranteed access to free public education and related services in special education specific to their individual needs. That takes specially trained teachers and special education advocates.

"Special education is an area of high need across the United States," says Kucharczyk. "Our students are prepared to work with students with disabilities served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act from K through 12th grade, and that includes students with intellectual disabilities, specific learning disabilities, autism, health impairments, emotional and behavioral disabilities, and others."

Because of high demand, the national focus is on providing access to inclusive classrooms and effective instructional strategy for students with disabilities, not to mention the special educators trained in the best evidence-based methods programs like Arkansas' M.Ed. in special education can offer.

Here are just a few career options people with an M.Ed. in special education can pursue.

    • Dyslexia therapist

Language-based learning disabilities cover a large percentage of the disabilities diagnosed in students – in fact, in 2019-2020, they made up nearly 20% of the disabilities covered by IDEA. Dyslexia, a disorder that makes it difficult to connect printed letters with sounds, can interfere with learning and undermine a student's potential for success. Dyslexia therapists use their training to ensure that students do not miss the chance to achieve their full potential.

    • Transition specialist

As part of IDEA, children with disabilities receive services helping them through major life changes, such as the transition from student to adult. Being an "adult" is hard; most of us take for granted the sets of skills and social support necessary to navigate day-to-day life. Transition specialists prepare students with disabilities for the skills and supports to navigate day-to-day life, working with special educators and communities to bridge the gap from student life to adult life.

    • Behavior analyst

Behavior analysts work to address the behavioral needs that foster learning and safety within social and school environments. Using evidence-based approaches, board-certified behavior analysts provide specialized interventions, building and delivering individual plans and custom curricula to support a student's or client's unique needs.


Careers Outside the Classroom

Not everyone chooses to teach. A master's degree in special education opens many doors besides the one leading to the classroom. Consider a specialization in behavior analysis.

The CDC estimates that people with disabilities represent one out of every four Americans. In particular, rising autism diagnoses mean state agencies like the Arkansas Department of Human Services need board-certified behavior analysts.

To meet this need, the U of A allows students to embed a graduate certificate in applied behavior analysis (ABA) into the special education master's degree – a valuable option few programs offer, and one, says Kucharczyk, leading "to employment in school, clinical settings, adult services and various nonprofits."

State agencies like the Arkansas Department of Human Services coordinate with nonprofits and private companies to provide a wide range of services to a wide range of people at different stages of life, putting specializations like ABA in high demand.

Special education is not simply a K-12 pursuit. It's a journey that meets, as Kucharczyk says, "the needs of disabled people wherever they are."

"One thing I love about special education is that it's never boring. I just recently worked on a behavioral plan with a student and they've seen great success with it. This student has had great days for weeks now, and I could not be more proud of how far they've come!"

Maryann McAndrew, University of Arkansas graduate

What Are the Rewards of an M.Ed. in Special Education?

For people pursuing degrees in education, the reasons and the rewards are personal. For the faculty at the U of A, the rewards come from teaching students how to teach.

"In the last three years, we've graduated 35 grant-funded scholars," says Kucharczyk. "It's incredible, watching them transform from students to teachers who now transform the lives of their students.

"We've had two graduates who just last year presented at the Arkansas Education Agency's Local Leaders Conference on their work supporting students with high need disabilities. Watching them tell the leaders across our state about the successes they had provided immeasurable reward."

But for those students Kucharczyk graduates, the rewards always come from the time they spend with their own students, in their own classrooms.

McAndrew, one of Kucharczyk's graduates, has already experienced those rewards.

"One thing I love about special education is that it's never boring," McAndrew says. "I just recently worked on a behavioral plan with a student and they've seen great success with it. This student has had great days for weeks now, and I could not be more proud of how far they've come!"


Why Choose the University of Arkansas ONLINE M.Ed. in Special Education?

Life is complicated, and students have lives, families, jobs and countless other responsibilities. The U of A's online education degree offers a unique and effective way for students to balance school with everything else that's important.

"Most of our students are currently teaching, in the master's program or otherwise employed, and have adult lives of their own," says Kucharczyk, "so our program has an embedded flexibility." Online flexibility means students can do their work when they want, where they want. "We're special educators to the heart, so we work with students to specialize their own needs."

The benefits of online education go beyond simple time management. For many students, the online learning format is a better fit.

Kucharczyk recalls a student participating in both face-to-face programs on campus and also learning from the online program.

A teenager paints on a canvas while listening to music.

"She said she actually engages more in the online program," Kucharczyk says. "She had more collaborative conversations, more dialogue with other students … the online program created more safety, more ability to take a moment and think about what she wanted to say than is possible face to face."

For many students, online education has the added benefit of erasing geographical barriers to education.

"We have students, not just from northwest Arkansas but across Arkansas, across the United States and across the world – one in Armenia, another in Saudi Arabia. We just graduated somebody in China," says Kucharczyk.

Freed from roadblocks to education – traveling long distances, finding temporary work, arranging housing – students anywhere can come together and share different experiences and ideas.

At the U of A, technology also plays an important role in the success of online education.

"Learning to be a really good collaborator and a really good problem solver," suggests Kucharczyk, "takes learning from other people, so a good online program must create a community of learners that enables students to apply their skills with others."

To take advantage of these opportunities for collaborative learning, University of Arkansas ONLINE embeds technologies into the online experience to create these communities. For example, the program uses VoiceThread, an app enabling students to design, build and comment on projects together, and Mosaic, an entire suite of apps designed to streamline the online experience.


University of Arkansas ONLINE: The Best of Both Worlds

The University of Arkansas ONLINE M.Ed. degree isn't all virtual – it incorporates teaching in the real world, too.

Students in the M.Ed. program, particularly those pursuing special education licensure or other endorsements, complete a teaching practicum in educational settings. For students already teaching, half their practicum takes place at their own school. For others, the U of A finds a convenient location for students to get experiences with fifth through 12th grades to cover their K-12 license.

While working on their practicums, the students' real-world experiences are augmented by online instruction.

"Each student gets a mentor teacher to provide them support," says Kucharczyk. "They also receive feedback from our faculty through video-based coaching, some live, some recorded."

For McAndrew, pursuing her master's through the U of A's online degree program is one of the best decisions she's made in her life. "It could be success with a behavioral plan, an academic intervention or just interacting with students. I feel like this is where I was meant to be every day I'm at school."

You can learn more about pursuing an M.Ed. in special education at the University of Arkansas ONLINE by visiting the Master of Education in Special Education program page on our website.

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Master of Education in Special Education

Earn a master’s degree and gain the skills and knowledge needed to teach students with disabilities. This Special Education (SPED) master’s program offers two paths: 1. For those with a current teaching licenses – earn a master’s degree and course credit needed to apply for an endorsement in special education through the Arkansas Department of Education 2. For those who need teaching licenses – earn a master’s degree and coursework needed to apply for initial licensure in special education through the Arkansas Department of Education

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