Online Degrees Blog Special education teacher job outlook: Industry trends and opportunities

Special education teacher job outlook: Industry trends and opportunities

19 December
Little boy in the glasses playing with wooden trains

There is a shortage of special education teachers nationwide, yet the demand for qualified educational experts in the field is rising. In the 2021-22 academic year, the percentage of students receiving special education support reached its highest level in the 46 years since the introduction of the federal Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.1

In the changing education landscape, special education teachers are increasingly recognized as crucial contributors, playing a vital role for students with diverse abilities across the country.

Read on to learn how special education teachers can make a difference and explore the rewarding job opportunities for those with the right qualifications and experience.

Introduction to special education teaching and Individualized Education Programs (IEPS)

Beyond the traditional educator role, they are visionaries of inclusivity, advocates for meticulous Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and mentors fostering environments where every student feels supported in their unique learning journey.

Special education teachers go beyond delivering lessons; they create atmospheres where every student can thrive. Central to their work is the crafting of IEPs, personalized plans designed to meet specific learning needs. Collaborating with parents and students, these educators assess strengths, set achievable goals, and develop strategies for a tailored learning experience.

Beyond academics, special education teachers champion inclusivity and create classrooms where differences are celebrated.

Growing demand for special education teachers and specialized education services

The demand for qualified special education teachers is experiencing a robust upswing, mirroring the dynamic changes in educational paradigms.

According to, an online magazine, “One of the most in-demand teaching areas is for special education, and NCES data shows that many schools with open positions in that area are finding it difficult to find fully certified candidates.”2

Additionally, a study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicates a steady rise in enrollment of students with disabilities in general education classrooms, emphasizing the growing demand for teachers equipped to cater to diverse learning needs.2

For example, there is a particular demand for “professionals who have knowledge and skills in the use of evidence-based practices identified for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).”3

During the 2018–19 academic year, a notable 7.1 million students aged 3–21 utilized special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This accounted for 14% of all public school students, marking a substantial increase from prior years. Notably, within this group, 33% were identified as having specific learning disabilities (SLD).3

This surge is propelled by an escalating recognition of the pivotal role that inclusive education plays in the overall academic landscape.

Policies championing the integration of students with disabilities into mainstream classrooms have fueled an increased need for educators with specialized skills.

Highlights from the latest trends in special education

The ongoing transformation in special education is driven by a need to adapt to the changing requirements of students. Here are some of the latest trends in special education:

Personalized Learning (PL)

The emphasis on personalized learning continued to grow. This approach tailors instruction to individual student needs, accommodating different learning styles and paces. In special education, personalized learning helps address the diverse needs of students with disabilities.

PL works. A collaboration between RAND Education experts and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation delved into the impact of PL on student learning and revealed notable, positive effects and overall outcomes.4

Inclusive education

There was a notable shift towards more inclusive educational practices, promoting the integration of students with disabilities into general education classrooms. Inclusive education focuses on creating environments where all students, regardless of their abilities, can learn together.

Technology integration

The integration of technology into special education was on the rise. Assistive technologies, educational apps, and digital platforms were being used to enhance the learning experiences of students with disabilities, providing them with more accessible and interactive educational resources.

An Education Weekly article shared the following statistics about the user growth of some other well-known technology applications during the pandemic in all classrooms.

  • Khan Academy experienced a remarkable surge, jumping from 30 million to over 80 million "learning minutes" daily during the initial pandemic weeks, sustaining growth to reach 137 million users across 190 countries5
  • Google Classroom's user base quadrupled from 40 million to 150 million solidifying its position as the most widely adopted platform5
  • 48% of educators planning to continue using Google Classroom at the start of the 2021-22 school year5
  • 68% of surveyed educators swiftly embraced online learning management systems within two months of pandemic-related shutdowns5

Post-pandemic, these technologies continue to be a massive tool in not only general classrooms but in special education as well.

Social-emotional learning (SEL)

Recognizing the importance of addressing the social and emotional well-being of students, including those with special needs, schools were incorporating social-emotional learning programs. These programs aimed to develop students' interpersonal skills, self-awareness, and emotional regulation.

Strengths-based approaches

Rather than focusing solely on deficits, there was a growing trend towards strengths-based approaches. Educators and professionals were recognizing and leveraging the unique strengths and abilities of students with dis/abilities to foster their overall development.

Transition services

Special education programs increasingly emphasized transition services to prepare students with dis/abilities for life beyond school. This included focusing on vocational training, independent living skills, and community integration to facilitate a smoother transition to adulthood.

Parent and community involvement

Collaboration between schools, parents, family, caregivers, and the broader community was gaining importance. Involving parents in the decision-making process and fostering community support helped create a more comprehensive and supportive environment for students with special needs.

Culturally responsive practices

Recognizing the diverse cultural backgrounds of students, there was a push toward implementing culturally responsive practices in special education. This involved tailoring instruction and support services to be more culturally sensitive and inclusive.

Expertise in these emerging areas is now more crucial than ever, ensuring the ability to meet the diverse needs of students, achieve inclusivity, and foster success within the continually evolving landscape of special education.

Expanding career opportunities in special education

Special education teachers play a pivotal role in shaping the futures of students with dis/abilities, employing a range of literacy and communication techniques to mentor and guide them. From public schools to specialized centers, the demand for educators who can adapt general lessons and assist students with diverse needs is rising.

Job opportunities and job prospects in special education

The spectrum of employment options for special education teachers is vast, encompassing public schools, private schools, specialized centers, and even online education platforms. As the need for mentorship and specialized instruction continues to grow, so do opportunities for teachers to work with students in various settings.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “33,500 openings for special education teachers are projected each year, on average, over the next decade,” highlighting a steady demand for qualified professionals in the field.6

Special education job titles and responsibilities

Special education teachers assume various roles, each with their own unique set of responsibilities.

Here are some well-paying special education job titles and their general responsibilities:

  • Lead Special Education Teacher: A lead special education teacher manages and coordinates special education programs, develops IEPs, provides specialized instruction, and takes on leadership responsibilities within an educational institution.
  • Early Childhood Intervention Specialist: An early childhood intervention specialist focuses on providing specialized support and education to young children with developmental delays or dis/abilities. They collaborate with families, caregivers, and other professionals to create intervention plans tailored to meet the unique needs of each child.
  • Special Education Director: The special education director oversees the entire special education program within an educational institution. This role involves developing policies, managing resources, ensuring compliance with regulations, and providing leadership to special education staff to enhance the overall effectiveness of the program.
  • Behavior Analyst: A behavior analyst in a special education context specializes in assessing and modifying behaviors in students with dis/abilities. Using applied behavior analysis (ABA) techniques, they design intervention plans to address challenging behaviors and promote positive alternatives, working closely with educators, parents, families, caregivers, and support staff.
  • Speech-Language Pathologist: Speech-language pathologists in special education focus on assessing and treating communication disorders, including speech and language impairments. They work with students to improve communication skills, address speech impediments, and provide support for language development, crucial for students with special education needs.
  • Occupational Therapist: Occupational therapists in special education help students develop or regain the skills needed for daily living and learning. They address fine motor skills, sensory issues, and other challenges that may affect a student's ability to participate fully in educational activities.
  • School Psychologist: School psychologists specializing in special education assess students' academic and emotional needs, providing support for both learning and mental health. They collaborate with educators, parents, families, caregivers, and other professionals to create strategies and interventions that foster a positive and inclusive learning environment.
  • Special Education Teacher Trainer: A special education teacher trainer focuses on enhancing the skills and knowledge of special education teachers. They provide professional development, mentorship, and guidance to ensure educators are well-equipped to address the diverse needs of students with disabilities.

Each of these roles plays a crucial part in creating an inclusive and supportive educational environment for students with special education needs.

Salary ranges for these roles can vary widely depending on many important factors, including education, certifications, additional skills, and the number of years you have spent in your profession.

Challenges and growth potential for special education in elementary and secondary schools

While the field of special education brings immense job satisfaction, it is not without its challenges. Teachers working with students with dis/abilities must adapt general lessons, prepare individualized lesson plans, and navigate through the unique demands of various dis/abilities.

Navigating the certification process

In both elementary and secondary schools, special education teachers may face the challenge of navigating the certification process. While a general teaching certification is a common requirement, additional certifications or endorsements may be necessary to work with specific dis/abilities or age groups.

This certification process can be a growth opportunity for educators, prompting them to deepen their expertise in areas such as early childhood intervention or teaching students with multiple dis/abilities.

Professional development opportunities

Recognizing the unique demands of special education, schools often provide professional development opportunities for teachers to enhance their skills. This may include training in the use of assistive technology aids, advanced literacy and communication techniques, and strategies for addressing the diverse needs of students with dis/abilities. Engaging in ongoing professional development allows educators to stay abreast of the latest research and best practices in the field, fostering continuous personal and professional growth.

Elevate your teaching career with a master’s in special education from No. 1 KU

If you’re looking for more work opportunities in the special education field, the University of Kansas's top-ranked online special education master's programs* are the perfect option for enhanced qualifications and expertise.7

KU provides online master's degrees, certificates, and endorsements in specialized education areas tailored to your passion, including, ASD, high incidence dis/abilities, leadership in special and inclusive education and secondary special education and transition.

Contact a KU admissions outreach advisor today to begin shaping your special education journey.

*The department offers an online Master of Science in Education degree in special education with three individual emphasis area options: autism spectrum disorder; high-incidence disabilities; or secondary special education and transition.