Special education is one of the most revolutionary and exciting parts of American public schools today. It’s a dramatic turnaround that has completely changed how the education system deals with special needs, and it’s a field full of bright, well-trained individuals who show up every day eager to make a difference.
But the very speed of the special education revolution has created big organizational and administrative challenges in the system. Prior to the 1960s, the public education system had absolutely no provisions for educating children with disabilities.
The passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 started to turn that around. But it was really an explosion of demand in the field that drove schools to implement formal and effective special education systems.
In 2000, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) reported a prevalence rate for Autism Spectrum Disorder in the population of 1 child out of every 150. By 2020, that number was 1 out of every 36.
In 2004, Education for All Handicapped Children became IDEA: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And with IDEA came legal obligations for schools to provide an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible for ALL students.
That mandate put special education administration front and center in schools across the country. The special instructional, behavioral, and technical needs of special ed put huge demands on school administrators. Bringing in specialists, leaders in the field with both managerial and strategic planning skills to build inclusive classrooms, manage support needs, and recruit teachers, was inevitable.
Today, special education administrators are as in-demand as ever. As a distinct licensed educational leadership role, they have a unique course of education and licensing to follow.
How Special Education Needs Helped Revolutionize the American Education System in a Generation
The changes in the way that the education system approaches students of different abilities and capacities were badly needed. There’s little question that more kids are getting more benefit from public schooling today than they were 40 years ago, simply because they are being acknowledged if for no other reason.
But there’s no question that big changes have been made to the school system after IDEA. And there’s no question that specialists are needed to manage those changes.
While your average teacher today is much more aware of and capable of dealing with many special needs students, it’s clearly an area where specialists are required. As of 2021, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that 15 percent of students in American public schools were covered by IEPs. That’s a significant population in any school or classroom, and each and every one requires special attention that most teachers just don’t have the time to give.
That requires plenty of communication and coordination, both to ensure those students have access to the least restrictive environment possible, and at the same time to keep other students on track.
It’s all a lot to drop onto the plate of the average school principal, who is already dealing with many other demands on their time.
The solution in many school districts is a distinctive new position, one filled by special education leaders who are both equipped for the challenge and who have the vision and inspiration to help others meet it.
Special Education Administrators Pay Special Attention to IEPs
As a special ed administrator, you get the chance to deliver an educational experience uniquely suited to each student through their IEP (Individualized Education Plan).
IEPs are something so central to the special education experience in modern schools that you’re no doubt already familiar. They serve as the singular method by which families, students, and educators themselves get on the same page about the needs and challenges of each individual student.
The IEP is a legal document, so it’s not to be taken lightly. It’s where schools and districts put in writing the commitments they are making to accommodate the unique needs of each student with special needs. Each IEP represents a check that special education administrators need to be able to cash. So managing IEPs requires attention to detail and a lot of planning.
But it’s also an opportunity to assess students and find the best ways to help them succeed. In that sense, it’s an advantage that traditional education can’t offer.
How Delivering Special Education Services Rests on the Shoulders of Specialized Educational Leaders
The dramatic increase in special education staff, together with the unique skillsets, assistance requirements, and classroom needs offers a clear case for why specialized administrators are needed to support them.
Many districts now hire special education directors to oversee, advise, and run their special education departments and staff.
These special education leaders take a lot of the load off of the plate of both teachers and other education administrators. They handle tasks like:
In larger districts, multiple special education administrators may split up this workload by specializing in various aspects of the job. For example, you might find a special ed administrator focused on assistive technologies, working with another whose focus is on transitional services. And typically, an overall director of special education will help knit all those capabilities together and allocate resources.
Some districts also assign special education supervisors by grade level, or to cover schools in a particular geographic area. And in some cases, there are cross-over positions, where special education administration is combined with areas like diversity, equity, and inclusion to deal with intersectional needs.
Developing the Skillset Required for Special Education Leadership Careers
The skillset required to be an exceptional special education administrator is deep and varied. They need all the same basic strategic, organizational, and managerial skills as any education administrator:
On top of that, there is plenty more they need to absorb that deals specifically with special education work.
For starters, in-depth knowledge of IDEA and other regulatory and compliance issues is a must. The rules are complex, and interpretations can change. Making sure every student is receiving the care they are due by law is absolutely an essential management job.
Most special education administrators start off with a good level of familiarity with various common disabilities and behavioral and healthcare treatments for them. They need it! Understanding what both students and their families are going through is a must-have skill for this job.
Special education work requires vast amounts of patience. At the administrative level, this is put together with classic critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to get past the roadblocks and surprises that are inevitable parts of the job.
Earning the Right College Degree to Build Your Special Education Leadership Credentials
It goes without saying that advanced degrees are part of the preparation for an effective special education administrator. On top of meeting coursework requirements for a license, it’s how the leadership skills you need most are best developed.
Since master’s degrees are usually required for licensure, they are the most common choice. A Master of Education in Special Education with an Administration focus, a Master of Science in Special Education Administration, or Master of Education in Educational Leadership with a concentration in Special Education.
But there are also plenty of special ed admins who go on to earn more advanced degrees in the field, such as an Educational Specialist (EdS) in Educational Leadership and Special Education.
The typical MEd in Special Education Administration will include a blend of coursework that dives both into the skillset needed for educational leadership in general and the additional knowledge and concepts that special educators must master:
There are also, however, many post-graduate certificate courses available to meet EPP requirements for students who already hold advanced degrees. Certificates might be a good choice if you are shifting from general education or educational administration jobs into special education leadership roles.
Earning State Certification or Licensing to Become a Special Education Administrator
Every state requires licensure for special education administrators, but not all of them approach it in the same way. In some states, there is a specific license for special education administrators. In others, a license is still needed, but it may fall under other categories: a curriculum program administrator, or district level administrator license for example.
In either case, the basic requirements are similar:
For the test, some states have their own exams that are unique to their rules and requirements. In many cases, however, licensing agencies rely on the standardized exams offered by ETS, the Educational Testing Service.
The Praxis exams include a series of tests that focus on special education:
Even then, though, not all states use the same ETS test. Some may require a test from the School Leadership Series, the same tests commonly required for principals and superintendents. In other cases, the Praxis Educational Leadership: Administration and Supervision may be used.
As with principals and superintendents, some states also require additional tests that are specific to state law. And in some cases, there are also various levels of licensure, such as initial, professional, or temporary.
How Much Do Special Education Administrators Make?
With additional qualifications and training required and a more challenging group of students to deal with, special education salaries have long been higher than average in American education.
Special ed teachers made an average of $61,820 in 2021 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That’s equivalent to the salary of the average high school teacher, and above those earned by elementary and middle school teachers. In fact, rates for special ed teachers at lower grade levels can be even higher, reflecting the significance of the challenge with younger special needs students.
As a profession, special education administrator salary levels are not tracked separately by BLS. Instead, they fall into the more general category of Education Administrators, Kindergarten through Secondary.
For 2021, the median salary for all education administration jobs was $98,420.
But you can expect special ed leaders to enjoy a similar bump in their salaries to what special ed teachers have over and above general ed teachers. So many can look for positions that pay in the higher end of the administrator range. The top ten percent in that field earn more than $153,520 per year.
Of course, salaries are always impacted by geography and other factors. Different states have different funding mechanisms for public schools, and that inevitably means different salaries for educators.
Big urban areas don’t just have a higher cost of living, but also often larger schools with more complex special education needs. An administrator working in one of those school districts is likely to make substantially more than one in a rural area or in a school with a smaller special ed student population.
No matter where you work as a leader in special education, you’ll get all the satisfaction that comes with attending to the needs of students who need a little extra help. And unlike the average special ed teacher, you’ll do it on a big scale. If making a real difference in communities and in thousands of lives, of both students and their families, sounds appealing, then special education leadership is the career for you.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Education Administrators, Kindergarten through Secondary and Special Education Teachers reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed March 2023.