Special Education Careers

The Top 10 Best Special Education Administration and Educational Leadership Degree Programs

Special education programs in school districts require dedicated special education teachers. They also require the work of special education administrators and leaders. These administrators provide guidance and direction for the implementation of special education services, ensuring that each child receives the specific help required to move toward the best possible outcome.

While working as a Special Education Teacher, Special Education Program Specialist, and an Autism Specialist in a large Washington state school district, I learned exactly how important administrators are for these programs. Working hand in hand with teachers, parents, and other specialists, special education administration leaders set the tone for a successful program. Without the support of administrators, special education teachers will struggle to provide the best environment for the children with special needs.

Whether you are a special education teacher looking to increase your role in the district’s special education program by becoming an administrator, or you are a general education administrator looking to add a special education endorsement, our guide to the best special education administration degree programs can help you move toward your goal. There are dozens of programs available, but we will help you narrow the list to find one that fits you and your needs. 

The 10 Best Special Education Administration and Leadership Programs

  1. Cal-Berkeley and San Francisco State University – Best for Specialized Areas of Study
  2. University of Northern Colorado – Best for Those Who Already Have a Master’s Degree
  3. University of Nebraska-Kearney – Best for Current Special Education Teachers
  4. Southeastern Oklahoma State University – Best for Fast Program Completion
  5. Arkansas State University – Best Budget-Friendly Special Education Leadership Program
  6. Pittsburg State University – Best for Becoming a Director of Special Education
  7. University of Maine – Best for Becoming an Assistant Director of Special Education
  8. University of Cincinnati – Best Graduate Certificate Program for Current Administrators
  9. Houston Baptist University – Best for Those Wanting to Work in the Highest Levels of Administration
  10. University of Kansas – Best for Multiple Types of Special Education Programs, Including Leadership

#1. Cal-Berkeley and San Francisco State University – Best for Specialized Areas of Study

Those participating in the Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education at UC-Berkeley will be able to select up to three areas of specialization that they prefer, including an emphasis on administration and educational policy.

Candidates for this degree will be able to dive deeply into their preferred areas of emphasis, creating a rewarding educational experience. The program allows for delving into advanced theories and research in the preferred areas of specialization.

Students participating in this program will complete the same requirements as other doctoral students in the Cal-Berkeley Graduate School of Education. These in-person classes take place on both the Berkeley campus and on the San Francisco State campus, creating a unique educational experience en route to a PhD.

This is a highly competitive program. Those individuals who already have experience working with individuals with disabilities, either in an education program or in another professional setting, receive special consideration.

#2. University of Northern Colorado – Best for Those Who Already Have a Master’s Degree

Those who already hold a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree can make use of Northern Colorado’s Dual Licensure for Educational Leadership and Special Education Administration program to obtain the dual licensure needed to become both a principal and a special education director.

This program is fully online, allowing participants to start immediately and work at their own pace. The typical completion time required for the UNC program is two to three years.

Those who already hold a bachelor’s degree can work toward an Educational Leadership and Special Education Administration Master of Arts degree. Those who have a master’s degree already can seek an Educational Leadership and Special Education Administration Educational Specialist degree. Both of these degrees include the dual licensure mentioned earlier. 

Some of the areas of study at the Northern Colorado program include:

  • Special education program planning
  • Policy development
  • Budgeting for programs
  • Engagement with the community
  • Engagement with parents
  • Applying research findings
  • Performing evaluations
  • Understanding contemporary educational issues

#3. University of Nebraska-Kearney – Best for Current Special Education Teachers

Those who currently are working as special education instructors can use this Nebraska-Kearney program to receive an endorsement that allows them to supervise special education programs within a school or within an entire district.

This is a completely online program, so special education teachers can continue to work in their current positions while seeking this advanced degree. Those who successfully complete the program may be able to serve as a special education supervisor, as a curriculum director, or as a department head.

The Nebraska-Kearney program helps you generate leadership skills. It provides the expertise required to oversee instructional programs in the special education classroom as well.

Although this UNK program focuses on providing the requirements for special education administration certification in the state of Nebraska, this program may provide the proper certification requirements for your local state as well. Check with your state’s Department of Education to see if this program fits the requirements.

#4. Southeastern Oklahoma State University – Best for Fast Program Completion

If you are interested in Southeastern Oklahoma State’s master’s degree for special education administration, you may be able to complete the degree in as little as 12 months. This is a nice option for current special education educators looking to move into an administrative role as quickly as possible.

This is a fully online program, so people can participate from anywhere. Current educators may need this option, so they can continue working in their current roles while moving toward the advanced degree. Some of the areas of study associated with this program include:

  • Learning to develop strategies to reach students with diverse needs
  • Learning to collaborate with all parties involved in special education, including parents
  • Understanding all federal and state regulations regarding the school’s requirements for providing special education services

Those wishing to apply for the Southeastern Oklahoma State program need to have a bachelor’s degree, as well as meeting a few other criteria dependent on the student’s collegiate GPA.

#5. Arkansas State University – Best Budget-Friendly Special Education Leadership Program

Arkansas State’s program provides current special education teachers and current school administrators with the ability to continue working in their jobs while seeking ASU’s Educational Specialist Degree in Educational Leadership with an emphasis on special education. 

The program focuses on helping graduates gain skills for providing services including:

  • Coordinating learning programs for special education students
  • Providing leadership for the special education program stakeholders
  • Collaborating with multiple types of personnel involved in special education programs, including therapists and psychologists
  • Working with staff members to develop successful programs
  • Identifying and implementing goals for special education students

This is one of the least expensive programs on our list, and it allows candidates to complete the program in as little as 18 months. Graduates ultimately will qualify to become Special Education Directors at a school or campus level.

As an added advantage, some of the coursework in this program will also satisfy requirements for a doctoral degree in education at ASU, further saving money for those involved.

#6. Pittsburg State University – Best for Becoming a Director of Special Education

Those who already hold a master’s degree in special education or a related education field will be eligible to work toward becoming a Director of Special Education through the Pittsburg State program. Special education teachers and others interested in special education administration will gain skills aimed at providing leadership for an entire special education department.

Pittsburg State offers this program fully online, which makes it convenient for a current special education teacher. Those seeking to continue working toward becoming a doctoral student in special education will be able to use the skills and knowledge gained through this program to move toward that educational goal.

The program requires 36 credit hours, but those who worked in a special education program of study recently may be able to transfer some of the hours they earned to reduce the workload in this program.

#7. University of Maine – Best for Becoming an Assistant Director of Special Education

Current special education teachers who may want to test their aptitude for working in administration in a special education department can seek a special education leadership certification through the University of Maine. This fully online program requires only 12 credit hours to obtain a graduate certificate as an Assistant Special Education Director.

After completion of Maine’s program, candidates will be able to aid the Special Education Director at a school or in a school district with evaluating the needs of special education students, providing support for students and families as they work through special education programs, and promoting the welfare of children with special needs. 

Should you decide you like administration through working as an Assistant Special Education Director, you then can go back to school to seek a director’s certification or another advanced degree.

Although this program focuses on providing the criteria needed to obtain certification in the state of Maine, those participating in this program from other states may also be able to meet certification requirements in their local states.

#8. University of Cincinnati – Best Graduate Certificate Program for Current Administrators

Cincinnati’s program provides a graduate certificate for those seeking to lead schools and districts in formulating policies and programs related to special education. 

This fully online program helps current school administrators gain the knowledge and training they need to serve as special education administrators. The program works to give administrators the foundational knowledge required to serve special education students and staff members as successfully as possible.

UC’s program focuses on helping administrators address real-world situations and challenges that they will encounter in the special education programs they will be overseeing. The program of study also helps administrators focus on the collaborative and communication skills required to successfully provide leadership within special education programs.

#9. Houston Baptist University – Best for Those Wanting to Work in the Highest Levels of Administration

Houston Baptist’s Doctor of Education in Special Education Leadership graduate program provides candidates with the knowledge and experience they need to move toward working as district- or campus-wide Special Education Directors, as Special Education Administrators in public or private schools, or as college professors focused on special education.

This in-person program will prepare you to serve as an administrator who can facilitate the best possible experience in a special education program for students, parents, staff, and other stakeholders. 

HBU’s program involves a small number of students, meaning those involved work together frequently, while also having a close relationship with professors. 

The program has a three-year completion timeframe. Houston Baptist precisely lays out the credit hour requirements and class meeting times to allow students to continue working full time while they participate in the program.

#10. University of Kansas – Best for Multiple Types of Special Education Programs, Including Leadership

The University of Kansas Department of Special Education routinely receives recognition as one of the most diverse special education programs in the entire United States. As part of its overall strength, Kansas offers an online graduate certificate program in Leadership in Special and Inclusive Education.

If you have interest in numerous areas of special education, including leadership and administration, KU offers so many different programs that you can simultaneously tackle multiple areas of study.

Kansas’ graduate certificate program will focus on a few areas.

  • Understanding federal and state requirements for special education students
  • Applying state and federal laws and regulations in the special education classroom
  • Studying current best practices for supporting and educating students with disabilities
  • Working toward overcoming barriers for students with special needs
  • Developing more inclusive approaches for special education students

How Do I Decide Which Special Education Administrative Degree Program Is the Best for Me?

Making the decision to seek a special education administrator degree is an easy choice for some people, but it still is only the first step. You also need to determine which program will fit your needs for the subject matter, the availability of classes, and the areas of emphasis offered.

Online or In-Person Classes

Depending on your current working status and your current location, you may find that you need to seek a special education leadership program that offers an online degree option. On the other hand, some people prefer the ability to attend classes in person and to have face-to-face interactions with professors and peers.

Think about which types of classes best fit the way you prefer to learn. If you prefer in-person learning, but the best special education administrator programs I listed here are nowhere near where you live, take the time to explore some local university options. 

As a compromise, many universities now offer a mixture of online and in-person classes, helping them fit the varying needs of their degree candidates. Because special education administration is a specialized type of degree, you may find that your dream school is willing to work directly with you to find a means of helping you take classes in whatever way makes the most sense to you. If you need some special accommodations, it never hurts to ask!

Degree Required

When seeking to become a special education administrator, your state’s Department of Education will have certain requirements you need to follow. 

You will need at least a bachelor’s degree and maybe a master’s degree. You may need an emphasis in administration, special education, or both. Some states require that special education leaders and administrators have experience actually teaching in a special education classroom.

To figure out exactly what kind of degree or certificate you need, check with your state’s certification guidelines. Some states allow those who have a bachelor’s or master’s degree related to special education already to simply obtain a license that delivers the extra education to move into an administrative role.

Those who hold a general education administration degree may be able to take graduate classes in special education to achieve the required level of education or the required licenses. 

Emphasis of Coursework

When working toward a special education administration position, your university or college classes may focus on a few or all of the following areas.

  • Learning how to manage staff members
  • Learning to work with staff members to develop curriculum and programs
  • Learning leadership skills 
  • Learning conflict resolution skills
  • Understanding special education guidelines at the state and federal levels
  • Understanding how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) affects the work inside the classroom
  • Developing codes of ethics
  • Developing a means of evaluating student needs and progress

Those who have experience working inside the special education classroom as a teacher may end up with courses that focus primarily on administration and leadership. Those who are currently working in school administration may need classes that focus on understanding special education students and classroom work.

Seek Advice

If you have a mentor in the special education field who has experience with administration, ask this person for advice on what type of program may fit your needs. Perhaps your mentor has some connections at a particular school that can help you have the best results.

Relying on others in the special education field to help you with these choices and with advice is always a smart idea. What I know from working in special education for many years is that administrators and teachers love to help each other. But you have to ask for the help! They may not know that you need help unless you ask.

Conclusion

My research and experience with colleges and universities that focus on special education administration and leadership led me to create this list of my favorite programs. However, you may find that another program will meet your needs better. This is understandable! After all, to receive the most benefit from a program, you need to trust the people involved in the program. 

Ultimately, the most important thing is taking the first step. Regardless of whether you follow our recommendations for programs or you chart your own path, taking the initiative is key! Don’t be intimidated by the process. Instead, focus on the primary goals for a special education administrator: Making a positive difference in the lives of these cherished children, while supporting the amazing educators who work with them directly.

Understand that becoming a special education administrator will not be easy. It will involve hard work and challenging days. But the ultimate goal is well worth it. Working to give children with special needs and special education teachers a path toward successful outcomes is a highly rewarding and important job!

  1. Cal-Berkeley and San Francisco State University – Best for Specialized Areas of Study
  2. University of Northern Colorado – Best for Those Who Already Have a Master’s Degree
  3. University of Nebraska-Kearney – Best for Current Special Education Teachers
  4. Southeastern Oklahoma State University – Best for Fast Program Completion
  5. Arkansas State University – Best Budget-Friendly Special Education Leadership Program
  6. Pittsburg State University – Best for Becoming a Director of Special Education
  7. University of Maine – Best for Becoming an Assistant Director of Special Education
  8. University of Cincinnati – Best Graduate Certificate Program for Current Administrators
  9. Houston Baptist University – Best for Those Wanting to Work in the Highest Levels of Administration
  10. University of Kansas – Best for Multiple Types of Special Education Programs, Including Leadership

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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