What Is Special Education?

By eansley

What is Special Education? The Definition of Special Ed

When discussing the role of special education in the United States, it’s important to note that special education is not something that exists in a single place.

Rather, special education is a multilayered system of support that incorporates parents, educators, school counselors and nurses, administrators, various specialists – occupational therapists and speech pathologists, among others – and even the transportation personnel that ensure students get to and participate in school safely. * 

All of these components, and more, demonstrate the depth and breadth of special education. 

The Evolution of Special Education

The idea of special education began to gain momentum in the mid-20th century and was bolstered by legislation such as the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, which helped pave the way for the modern special education system.

By prioritizing inclusivity and fairness, the special education system is able to customize learning for the individual and give educators the resources they need to ensure student success, so they can live their lives with dignity and confidence.

“Education as a whole is a noble career choice, but when you take it one step further to special education, it’s a career in which you can see the impact and it follows you – it’s an exponential impact,” explains Dr. Jessi Harkins, Lead Faculty for Ashford University’s Master of Arts in Special Education in the Department of Education & Liberal Arts for the College of Arts & Sciences.

The Qualities That Define Success in Special Education

The special education system involves multiple contributions from individuals of all ages and experience levels, but Dr. Harkins points to six common traits that special education professionals possess:

  • Versatility
  • Endurance
  • Motivation
  • Innovation
  • Empathy
  • Adaptability 

“It can be a high stress environment,” she explains. “So there is a need for individuals who are collaborative, highly prepared, and capable of succeeding in an inclusive classroom.” 

Those aforementioned qualities, she adds, can be seen in Ashford’s Master of Special Education students. 

“Many of them come into the program having already formed personal relationships with students with exceptionalities, or they’ve been in the field of education and have that passion to take it one step further,” she says.

Why Special Education Matters

While the reasons that special education matters are too vast to list, Dr. Harkins points to three critical factors:

1. Free and Equal Opportunity

Special education is based on the concept that all students deserve a free public education no matter their needs. Special education provides an opportunity to all individuals – regardless of race, age, income, or other factors – who may not be able to advance in their studies without support. 

2. A Level Playing Field

The special education system levels the playing field in order to meet the needs of all students. Learning differences vary, yet special education can address each of these differences – minor or major – and give each student an opportunity to succeed. 

3. Support for Parents

More than anything, special education gives parents some guarantees that their student will receive the support they need. The system allows parents to take an active role in their child’s development, and provides an opportunity for a team approach to learning.

A Demand for Qualified Special Education Professionals

Special education advocates and organizations such as the National Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services are committed to filling the talent gap, and qualified, ambitious college graduates will be key to meeting that demand.

“Because of high turnover in the profession, we need creative, innovative special educators with their graduate degrees who can do the research and develop more evidence-based strategies to support these students,” Dr. Harkins says. 

Ashford’s Master of Special Education* program, for example, aims to address the most urgent needs of the student, and the system. Some of the courses include: 

These courses, Dr. Harkins explains, provide students an opportunity to create learning experiences that they can apply to their personal career goals, whether they wish to work in early childhood, elementary, or secondary education; or if they want to work with adult learners. 

“The impact [graduates] can have on people is often deeper than most people think,” she says. “We’re talking about developing skills that help someone achieve a life of success and the pursuit of happiness.

“I’ve watched some of my early childhood special education students graduate and go on to college, and their parents were once told that those kids would never speak.” 

If you want to pursue a noble, rewarding, and sustainable career, and have a passion for helping learners achieve all that is possible, contact an Ashford University advisor about your Master of Special Education degree today.

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Written by Ashford University Staff
 
*An online degree from Ashford University does not lead to immediate teacher licensure or certification in any state.


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