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Do Special Education Teachers Need Disability-Specific Degrees?


The student newspaper at North Carolina State University, the Technician, reported that the university will be cutting some specific special education programs to meld them into a more general special educator degree.

The students in the Master of Education in Special Education will still be taught different strategies for teaching students with different special needs, just not each in a separate class. Students will have the skills to handle more general situations, but they may not be as highly specialized for dealing with specific special needs students, according to Ellen Vasu, the department head for instruction and counselor education.

"The three specialized Master of Education in Special Education degrees that were recently cut were actually artifacts of the way teachers used to be licensed," Vasu said. "North Carolina is moving to licensing teachers not just for one type of special needs student, but for all special needs students."

From the article, it seems like this change is based on a change in teacher licensure in North Carolina, so it makes sense for universities to adjust. And, it seems to be a good idea to have special educators competent in handling differentiated instruction for many students; as I've written before, best practice suggests that most students in special education should be getting the regular curriculum available to all students, with modifications as necessary.

But I also wonder if something is being lost here. Different disabilities do have different features, and perhaps some specialized knowledge will go by the wayside when these specific concentrations are discarded. Or, is it easy enough for a teacher to pick up that knowledge, if necessary, through professional development after college?


I think this is a great idea and do not think that anything is being lost. I have always thought that labels are just labels and really have to do more with federal funding than the specific needs of the student. By learning how to teach in order to meet the needs of the individual student rather than to their label, I think we will actually be offering better service to our students. Sometimes I have hit barriers to getting certain materials because they were not considered appropriate for the students with a specific label that I taught. I just hope that teachers are learning many different strategies and tools that may help a variety of different students. I think this will be a good thing for teachers and students overall.

I’m not sure if teachers need a whole degree’s worth of specialization, but I think having some amount of disability specific understanding is pretty important. These days the number of children requiring IEPs due to a diagnosis on the autism spectrum is incredibly high, and yet the understanding of the spectrum concept and basic autism issues seems really weak in our district. Training would be nice, but what I’ve seen here is hideously outdated, focuses on stereotypes and IMHO not helpful at all. Perhaps in a perfect world everyone that interacts with a special needs child would have the time to develop individually differentiated instruction from the ground up, based only on information specific to that child. We live in a far from perfect world and I think it would be helpful to have a base of understanding that is up-to-date and relevant to everyone on the spectrum. This could be used as a starting point to develop an excellent IEP.

Ummm, how to say this nicely so as not to insult some very nice and caring people. At one time not too long ago, special education became something of a refuge for folks who couldn't get a job as a "regular" educator, along with some folks who had a genuine feel for and attraction to working with kids who are "different" in a variety of ways, or who just were drawn to the greater freedom sometimes found in classrooms less likely to be scrutinized.

The times are changing. We now expect students with disabilities to be learning the same things as other students, frequently alongside them. I think that this really calls for some massive re-thinking of the training needs of the profession. Personally, I would prefer that special education teachers be more highly educated in the specialized needs associated with a range of disabilities, and how to work with a teacher who is well-schooled in content. Even if this requires additional years of schooling. I think we have spent too many years with the "derive some benefit" standard for special education that allowed some kids to be mostly "contained." It is difficult for a single teacher to become "expert" on all possible disabilities (and the combination with all possible personalities and skill combinations). Yet, it is unlikely that we will see districts able to employ highly specialized teachers fully schooled in a particular disability or disability type. The reality is, I have not seen enormous differences as a result of breaking out ED from SLD or MR in our district. There have been days when I would have been happy if all my son's teachers just spent two hours sorting out the myths from the realities of emotional/mental illness. At a minimum, someone in the building should have some knowledge of the differences between can't do and won't do as they pertain to each of the children in that building. This may require an enhanced willingness to tailor PD to needs of students.

But, as I think about overall direction, I believe that we must prepare for special ed teachers to be seen as the disabilities specialists working in conjunction with the regular teachers who are seen as the content specialists.

Long answer.

@ Margo/Mom

Are you going to pay for the extra years it will take to be trained in special education over what I am taking in my Social Science degree?

Perhaps some teachers have NO desire to become a special education teacher. Myself, I have no aptitude for it and I am being blatantly honest. My wife, on the other hand, is studying to become a special education teacher. She has the aptitude for it because her recently deceased sister was a special needs person. Now, she is working as an Educational Assistant with special needs kids and she loves it. She has NO desire to teach in a regular classroom. Are you starting to see my point here?

Your argument doesn't take this into account. It is difficult enough to become an expert in a field and you want to pile MORE on teachers. To become an expert in my field I have to take a Master degree program in Social Science (for secondary Social Science teaching).

How about paying us decent salaries while you are at it? I'm sure most teachers would like a raise that keeps up with the inflation rate and the cost of daily living. Teachers I know are fed up with being treated like non-professionals. The funny thing is that we have to write many professional-level tests to become eligible to become a teacher. Shouldn't we get paid as professionals as well?

Effective instruction, with few exceptions, isn't disability specific. However, teachers leave most pre-service training with limited exposure to effective research based &/or validated methods. Developing effective instructional skills should be the highest priority for teacher education programs. The majority of content covered in my own preservice training was irrelevent to the real needs of my students. I wish I had learned how to teach reading more effectively and learned strategies to make the acquisition of core content more successful for students.

At this point in my career, I have taught students with every disability label. What made the difference in my ability to support their learning wasn't disability specific. It came from heart, determination and the instructional skills I developed.


I am sorry that you are so angered by this topic. However, for some time it has been law that students with disabilities are to be instructed in the "least restrictive environment," that is, to the greatest extent possible with their non-disabled or typically developing peers. One of the great barriers to making this a reality, in my experience, as the parent of a child with disabilities, is exactly that attitude that some teachers "have it" with regard to teaching students with disabilities and others plainly don't want it--and both should be allowed to have their way. I have had principals explain to me that they cannot "make" a regular ed teacher "take" a kid with disabilities if they don't want to. My son has lived through "inclusion" placements in which the teacher considered him to be a class of one seated in the back with his "aide" (who was a fully trained, certified and licensed special education teacher--talk about not being treated like a professional!). He had one wonderful experience in which two teachers (one a content certified teacher and one a certified special education teacher) actually team taught an "inclusion" class. Because this was totally at the option of the teachers, the following year, when one of them accepted another position, there was no more inclusion class.

Yes, I believe that special education should be an area of specialization, and one that is at a higher level than that of regular education (this is the model employed in Finland). Yes, I believe that teachers that go this route should be more highly compensated. I would envision a route that requires experience in regular education prior to admission to a program (ie a Master's program) in special education. As we are currently, while you decry needing a Master's degree to demonstrate expertise in Social Science at the secondary level, my son (and most likely students with special needs in your district) has taken classes in science and mathematics taught by teachers certified in "special education." Their last class in either of these fields may have been in high school. Really loving kids with disabilities is not enough. There has to be some content involved.

Just as any teacher who prefers not to teach kids who belong to a particular ethnicity would be laughed out of the field, we need to stop considering kids with special needs as some kind of special breed requiring an "affinity."

I normally do not participate in forums online; however, I feel it is my duty, as a special educator to comment on a statement above. The comment was "I would prefer that special education teachers be more highly educated in the specialized needs associated with a range of disabilities, and how to work with a teacher who is well-schooled in content." As a person with a quadruple-major: Regular Education, LD, CD, and ED, I have taken all of the required courses for any disability area K-12. In fact, one of the classes I recently took for my ED certification did not focus on how to work with ED students at all but, instead, how to work with our colleagues... how to reinforce their good behaviors and ingore those that are poor. Therefor, the comment that we need classes on how to work with a teacher that is well-schooled in content strikes me as a false comment. In fact, my special education colleagues and professors dream of requirements for general education teachers on how to work with teachers that are well-schooled in disabilties and behavior. Shouldn't it be a two-way street?

The last comment I would like to touch on was that special education was seen as "a refuge for folks who couldn't get a job as a "regular" educator." Perhaps this was the view back then when people also still had parents who believed we should have separate drinking fountains for those of a different skin color and "those kids" should be hidden in the corner of the building, if allowed in school at all. This makes me chuckle because I, like others mentioned above, would much prefer working in the special education setting and have had opportunties for general education positions. I've denied them to be a teacher of students with emotional behavior disorders and have never regretted that decision one day of my life. Different strokes for different folks!

James and Barbara, I understand your points and I agree with you 100%, I think that because Margo/Mom has a son with special needs, she wants the best for her son, and sometimes this parents have unrealistic expectations, even if you are the BEST teacher ever, many times parents feel like you are not doing enough even if you are, perhaps it is part of their frustration, I know how hard it is for many parents to have an ED child, and sometimes they need someoene to blame.Dont take it personal.

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