Special Education Certification Programs

Certification in special education, or any educational field, serves multiple roles in the teaching profession, benefitting educators, students, schools, and the broader educational system. It acts as a benchmark for the quality of instruction, guaranteeing a certain level of competence and readiness; it ensures that educators are in compliance with state and federal regulations governing education; and it demonstrates a commitment to continuous development in the profession.

In this article, we highlight several reputable programs across the United States, each of which offers a curriculum designed to help educators progress to the next stage of their professional careers, whether it be as a teacher, administrator or a director. There is a variety of teaching modalities catering to individual preferences, including distance and hybrid learning, as well as differences in duration, requirements and outcomes which are mentioned for each program. 

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Pathways to special education certification

Becoming a certified special educator in the U.S. involves a comprehensive multi-step process, tailored to meet both educational and professional standards, alongside rigorous certification requirements leading to administrative and leadership roles.

The first step is to obtain a bachelor’s or master’s degree in special education or a related field, with the option for those with degrees in other areas to pursue a master’s in special education. The latter is particularly appealing to career changers seeking deeper specialization.

Candidates must then complete an accredited teacher preparation program, incorporating both theoretical and practical training in special education settings (these are usually included as part of a university degree program). 

Certification requires passing state-mandated general and special education-specific exams, applying for state certification which may include a special education endorsement, and undergoing a background check.

Many will then go on to pursue advanced degrees or specialized certifications, such as those focusing on certain disabilities (e.g. mild-moderate versus severe), or those with a focus on administrative or leadership roles, to enhance their expertise and career prospects.

Note that each state in the U.S. has its own specific requirements for certification, but many states will have an interstate agreement which allows a professional with certification in one state to practice in another. It is essential to check with the state’s department of education or the institution offering certification to confirm where it is accepted.

Special education certification programs for teachers

1. Arizona State University (ASU) – Online Special Education Teacher Certification (MEd)

Description: ASU’s Master’s program integrates teacher certification coursework with hands-on experiences in K-12 environments, with a strong emphasis on equitable learning, instructional design and assessment for learners with disabilities. You will also complete an applied research project that allows you to identify an education challenge and design an intervention.

Ideal for: Educators looking to become certified K-12 special education teachers, with a curriculum that prepares them for a variety of future educational careers.

Admission requirements:

  • A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree from a regionally accredited institution
  • A minimum cumulative GPA of 3.00

Credits & Duration: The program requires between 34 and 40 credit hours over the course of one year, depending on whether dual certification in Special Education and Elementary Education is pursued.

Professional outcomes: Receive the title of MEd and achieve professional special education licensure to teach in Arizona and other states.

Link for more information: https://asuonline.asu.edu/online-degree-programs/graduate/special-education-teacher-certification/

2. Johns Hopkins – Master of Science in Special Education

Description: Whether pursuing a career in special education or developing expertise in this critical field, the Johns Hopkins School of Education offers prospective students two degree pathways to customize their master’s degree to their professional goals: Mild-to-Moderate Disabilities and Severe Disabilities (Applied Behavior Analysis).

Ideal for:

  • Mild-to-Moderate Disabilities pathway: Professionals looking to gain practical skills in evidence-based techniques to support diverse students in a range of educational settings.
  • Severe Disabilities (Applied Behavior Analysis) pathway: Professionals with a background in education or human services who want to learn how to design, implement, and evaluate evidence-based ABA practices to positively impact student learning outcomes.

Admission requirements: Contact admissions office via website for more information.

Credits & Duration:

  • Mild-to-Moderate Disabilities pathway: There are two focus areas available: elementary/middle school (grades 1–8) and secondary/adult (grades 6–12). With flexible enrollment options for full or part-time study, the program can be completed in as few as five semesters, but coursework must be completed within five years.
  • Severe Disabilities (Applied Behavior Analysis) pathway: The degree program is offered part-time with two courses in each of Fall, Spring, and Summer semesters, and can be completed in two years (three years with practicum electives) in a hybrid modality. Students gain 36 credits, not including the 3-12 additional electives credits needed to meet field experience requirements.

Professional outcomes: Graduates will be eligible for Maryland state certification in special education, which is reciprocated by many other states.

Link for more information: https://education.jhu.edu/masters-programs/ms-in-special-education-mild-to-moderate-disabilities/

3. Drexel University – Online Special Education Certification Program

Description: This special education certification program is a part-time, online, accelerated program. The program emphasizes curriculum modification, comprehensive assessment strategies, and instructional techniques designed to support students at risk for school failure and those with identified disabilities. It prepares professionals for a wide range of responsibilities, including developing IEPs, mentoring teaching assistants, and managing transitions for students with special needs. The program provides certification options for both Special Education PreK-8 and Special Education 7-12.

Ideal for: Already certified teachers in Pennsylvania (Instructional I or II Certificate) seeking to enhance their qualifications with specialized knowledge in special education and how to address the needs of students with disabilities, aiming for leadership roles in special education settings in the long term.

Admission requirements:

  • A Bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution
  • An active Pennsylvania (PA) Instructional I or Instructional II teaching certificate
  • Out-of-state teachers are welcome to participate in the Special Education Program as non-PA certification students

Credits & Duration: Total of 27 graduate credits. If students haven’t taken the necessary prerequisite courses, they will need to complete an additional 9 credits, totalling 36.

Professional outcomes: Completion of all courses required under state and federal regulations, as well as the PA General Standards for Special Education and the standards outlined by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC).

Link for more information: https://drexel.edu/soe/academics/certifications/special-education/

4. National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET)

Description: The NASET/AASEP Board Certification in Special Education highlights a professional’s excellence in a particular area of special education, boosts their visibility and credibility, and confirms their proficiency to those outside the field. NASET provides various Board Certification Programs in Special Education (BCSE), such as special education certification programs focused on Inclusion in Special Education (BCISE) and Individualized Education Program (IEP) Development (BCIEP).

Ideal for: Special education teachers seeking to enhance their qualifications and demonstrate a commitment to the profession.

Admission requirements: A Master’s degree in a field involved with students with special needs or a related field (e.g. Law, Medicine, etc.).

Credits & Duration: There are seven primary modules comprising 58 individual units which must be completed to become Board Certified in Special Education. The modules and examinations are available online 24/7, so you can progress through them at your own pace, but you must complete all 7 modules within 4 years of your application acceptance.

Professional outcomes: Upon completion, professionals may use the respective NASET Credentials, B.C.S.E. (Board Certified in Special Education) after their educational degree (e.g., M.S., B.C.S.E or Ph.D., B.C.S.E.) denoting their achievement.

Note: Board Certification in Special Education does not replace state licensing or recertify any professional unless the governing body responsible for recertification recognizes NASET/AASEP Board Certification. Check with your state and professional governing bodies.

Link for more information: https://www.naset.org/career-center/board-certification-in-special-education-bcse

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Special education certification programs for admins & directors

1. University of Washington – Enhancing Capacity for Special Education Leadership (ECSEL)

Description: A collaborative program for special education administrators that focuses on knowledge and skills needed for local education administration and directorship. ECSEL’s curriculum is structured to incorporate both Washington State standards for the Residency Program Administrator certificate and the Council for Exceptional Children’s (CEC) advanced standards for program administrators. The Year 1 program focuses on leadership for special education at the school level, while in Year 2 the focus shifts to leadership at the district level.

Good for: Special education administrators looking to take the next step towards becoming directors of special education.

Admission requirements: A Master’s Degree or higher upon application.

Credits & Duration: Over the course of two years, the cohort-based special education certification program consists of three year-long seminars and a 400-hour internship requirement. In both years, the program operates in a blended on-line and face-to-face model, with summer and weekend meetings supplemented by e-learning resources.

Note: While the ECSEL program no longer offers a Master’s degree option, candidates may register for graduate-level credits (up to 21 credits each program year) as a non-matriculated student. Candidates may also earn clock hours.

Professional outcomes: The program qualifies candidates for the required Washington Residency Program Administrator Certification and graduates of the ECSEL program are recommended for Washington State Residency Certification as an Education Program Administrator.

Link fore more information: https://www.uwb.edu/education/educator-professional-development/ec

2. University of Northern Colorado – Online Special Education Director Licensure

Description: A post-Master’s, non-degree licensure program that prepares you to become a director or administrator in schools serving students with disabilities, combining graduate-level coursework in special education, administration, and educational leadership/policy studies with an externship. You will become highly qualified for director of special education positions for school districts in Colorado (see the CDE licensure requirements) and across other states.

Ideal for: Anyone trained as a special education teacher in Colorado wanting to transition into an administrator or director role.

Admission requirements:

  • Master’s degree in Special Education
  • Valid Special Education or school psychologist license
  • Three years of relevant experience

Credits & Duration: Varies based on academic background and previous coursework, but typically 9-21 credit hours over the course of 1-2 years.

Professional outcomes: This program leads to recommendation for Colorado administrator license endorsed as a Director of Special Education K-12. Colorado offers licensure reciprocity with 48 states (all but FL & TX).

Link for more information: https://extended.unco.edu/programs/special-education-director-administrator-licensure/

3. University of Pittsburgh – Supervisor of Special Education Certificate

Description: This advanced graduate program is designed for individuals aiming to provide leadership in special education at district or Intermediate Unit levels. It focuses on supervising educational programs and directing professional and non-professional employees within special education programs. The curriculum includes courses on current issues and trends in special education, instructional practices, legal foundations, and an internship to develop practical skills.

Ideal for: Professionals with a background in special education looking to move into supervisory roles.

Admission requirements: Completion of 5 years of satisfactory certified school experience in the area of special education.

Credits & Duration: The program requires 15 credits, including coursework and internship, typically completed in two years on a part-time, hybrid basis.

Professional outcomes: Successful completion of the program results in a Supervisor of Special Education PreK-12 Certificate from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). An educator holding this certificate is qualified to function as a liaison between the school administration and the certified professional special education staff of a public school.

Link for more information: https://www.education.pitt.edu/program/supervisor-of-special-education-certificate/

4. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire – Director of Special Education and Pupil Services (DSEPS)

Description: An online certificate program designed for individuals aiming to step into leadership roles as directors of special education and pupil services. Instructors are current or former DSEPS program graduates, providing practical learning experiences.

Ideal for: Experienced special education professionals with classroom experience.

Admission requirements:

  • Bachelor’s and Master’s degree with a minimum 3.0 GPA
  • Professional education license or eligibility
  • Experience in K-12 classroom teaching or as a school counselor, psychologist, or social worker

Credits & Duration: The 15 credits must be completed in one year.

Professional outcomes: With successful completion of the program, you will be eligible to apply for Wisconsin DPI (license code 80). You will also earn a graduate certificate from UW-Eau Claire.

Link for more information: https://ce.uwec.edu/programs/director-special-education-and-pupil-services-dseps/

Leadership Spotlight: Dr. Heidi M. Lambert

Discover Dr. Lambert’s path to director of special education, the lessons learned along the way, and her guiding principles as an educational leader.

Leadership Spotlight: Dr. Heidi M. Lambert


To become certified in special education, candidates typically need to first obtain a bachelor’s or master’s degree in special education. Requirements can vary by state, so it’s important to check with your state’s department of education for guidelines.

In most cases, no. Certification is legally required to teach in public schools in the United States, especially in the field of special education, which requires specific training and knowledge to effectively support students with disabilities.

This can be achieved through pursuing advanced degrees or specialized certifications focusing on certain disabilities or administrative and leadership roles. Staying informed about interstate agreements can expand your employment opportunities in other states.

Special education certification programs: Next steps

This article serves as a roadmap for aspiring special educators. Beyond the basics of certification, it’s an invitation to continually seek growth through advanced studies and professional development, ensuring that educators not only enter the field ready to teach but also remain at the forefront of educational innovation and advocacy.

With Ori Learning’s transition curriculum, your school or district can enjoy the peace of mind of having access to an easy-to-implement, comprehensive program that allows you to report on progress and demonstrate compliance. Find out how our curriculum can help you meet IEP goals safely and consistently by booking a call with one of our representatives today. 

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Jon Izak

Jon Izak is the founder and CEO of Ori Learning.