The 5 Best Master’s Degrees for Teachers

The 5 Best Master’s Degrees for Teachers
Most state teaching salary schedules include an automatic pay increase for teachers with master's degrees. Image from Unsplash
Katherine J. Igoe profile
Katherine J. Igoe April 29, 2021

A growing number of states require master's degrees for teacher relicensure. A master's can also increase your income and your enjoyment of teaching. But which master's suits you best? We explore that question here.

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What’s the best master’s degree for a teacher? Seems like it has to be the Master of Arts in Teaching, right? After all, it’s got the word “teaching” right in the title.

Turns out, it’s not that simple. Depending on what, whom, and what level you want to teach, the answer may be a bit more complicated. And then there are other questions to consider. Should you enroll in a full-time or part-time program? An in-person or an online program? When in your professional career should you get an advanced degree, if at all?

If these are questions you’re already asking yourself, know that you’re not alone. Roughly half of all teachers in the United States have a graduate degree of some kind and, even though it’s not always a requirement, more and more states mandate that educators either have a master’s degree or get one within five years of teaching. Continuing education can also be a viable path to better salary earnings and a specialized career trajectory.

There are multiple choices for master’s degrees for teachers; the Masters of Arts in Teaching is one effective and popular degree option, but it’s not the only one. Selecting the right master’s degree program depends on your bachelor’s degree, work experience, proposed career, and enrollment requirements. So if you’re considering an education degree, what are your options, and what’s the proper choice for you?

In this article, we’ll cover the reasons to get a master’s degree, enumerate the five best master’s degrees for teachers, and explore how to decide which one’s the best for you by discussing:

  • Why should a teacher get a master’s degree?
  • Master of Arts/Master of Science in Teaching
  • Master of Education
  • Master of English Education
  • Master of Mathematics Education
  • Master of Special Education
  • Which master’s degree is right for me?

Why should a teacher get a master’s degree?

If you’re a teacher, you might consider a master’s degree for several reasons. For one, it’s among the requirements for teacher licensure or re-licensure in many states. Additionally, some teachers want to specialize and/or increase their salary, both of which a graduate degree can facilitate. And some educators hope to become administrators or education leaders later in their careers, and they know how important a master’s can be to that goal.

It’s also possible you simply have an interest in a particular subject or focus area and want to improve your skills and knowledge. Lots of educators pursue an education degree because they’re passionately curious. In assessing your situation, think carefully about the reasons behind your interest. That will help you decide which option is right for you.

If you’re not a teacher but would like to become one, know that the profession’s in high demand: fewer people are studying to become teachers, meaning there may be a shortage of educators in coming years. Some bachelor’s degree programs allow you to add an extra year of study so you can complete your master’s at the same time, and some graduate teaching programs don’t require previous teaching experience or an undergraduate degree in education.

Teachers who earn an advanced teaching degree earn 26 percent more, on average, than those who don’t—an average increase from $47,770 to $60,140. The longer they hold an advanced degree, the greater their earning potential (although there are limits on how much public school teachers can make). Note that teacher incomes vary widely from state to state.

In essence, getting a master’s degree depends on your desired career trajectory and anticipated salary. It also depends on how much time you have, since online degree programs can take two years or more, and, if you’re currency working, whether the coursework is at least partially available online.

Let’s look at the different master’s degrees teachers typically hold. We’ll describe these degrees in general terms, conceding that each school offers a unique program with its own focus areas and strengths.


“I’m ready for a degree!”

University and Program Name Learn More

A Master of Arts/Master of Science in Teaching

A Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) or a Master of Science in Teaching (MST) focuses on the technical aspects of education and pedagogic technique. The application requirements may vary; some programs will accept incoming students without teaching experience, while others require some.

The differences between the MAT and the MST depend on the program, so read their curricula carefully. Sometimes an MST program focuses on research, technical study, a thesis, higher-level coursework, or some combination of these elements. In contrast, an MAT program may focus more on work in the field, i.e., as a classroom teacher. This is by no means the case for every program, so do your homework. Both degrees often rely on field experience or some other in-person practicum requirement over at least one semester. Many online programs help students obtain field placements remotely.

Teachers who have just completed an MAT/MST degree earn $2,800 more and may eventually earn as much as $7,000 more than before acquiring the degree. Concentrations of an MAT or MST can include:

  • Elementary Education.
  • Early Childhood Education
  • English/Language Arts Education
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) Education or Teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) Education
  • Health and Physical Education
  • Middle Grades Education (up to 8th grade)
  • Science Education, Math Education, or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Education
  • Secondary Education (up to 12th grade)
  • Spanish Education
  • Special Education

Some programs offer even more specialized concentrations, such as emotional and behavioral disorders, education technology, and teacher leadership.

Master of Education

A Master of Education (MEd) has the reputation of being a degree for educators looking to further their careers beyond teaching — although that’s not always the case. In reality, an MEd degree can take your career in a number of different directions, both in and out of the classroom. Certainly, administrators, principals and vice-principals, policymakers, curriculum designers, and other professionals gain relevant expertise with an MEd, but so too do teachers who want to work with adults or add to their training.

Master of Education programs offer various concentrations, including education policy and curriculum and instruction. As a result, the jobs available after you obtain an MEd degree are more varied and can be more lucrative. They can include jobs out of the public education field entirely, such as corporate and consulting work. A job in education administration, for example, can pay between $85,000 and $100,000.

Listed below are some popular MEd concentrations.

Adult Education

As online learning increases in popularity, students will range more widely in age, background, and education. The Education Commission of the States anticipates that the number of non-traditional students will grow by 25 percent in the next three years; schools will need educators who can identify their unique needs and tailor educational strategies. An adult education curriculum, such as the one offered by North Carolina State University, entails foundational work in adult education, online teaching, instructional strategies, and evaluation and assessment. Students also develop areas of specialization and undertake an educational research project, an internship, and a practical capstone project.

Curriculum and Instruction

A master’s in curriculum and instruction qualifies you to make recommendations for hundreds of classrooms and students as an education specialist or instructional coordinator. You might parlay this degree into a district leadership role or a job in education publishing. You can also utilize this degree to take on a leadership role within a school, like principal or vice-principal. Program curricula typically focus on how data and assessments can inform instruction and influence school teachers.

Early Childhood Education

A master’s in early childhood education (ECE) enables graduates to work with infants, toddlers, and children up to age eight in all aspects of their education and development, a critically important period in childhood learning. Curricula may focus on teaching methods and learning theory, social and emotional development, creativity and motor learning, and educating young children with disabilities.

Education Leadership

Thinking about an administrative career? A Master of Educational Leadership can help you achieve your goal. This graduate degree trains educators in communication, personnel management, and policy implementation. The Mills College MA in Educational Leadership, for example, stresses programmatic leadership, planning and assessment, management and supervision, and socio-political-cultural relations. As do many such programs, the Mills education leadership master’s culminates in a capstone project,

Instructional Design and Technology

Instructional technology, sometimes referred to as educational technology, is and will continue to be critical to students’ learning. Online education, development, and training programs for adults continue to rise in popularity and use. The University of Massachusetts – Boston program focuses on eLearning and instructional design process, communication theory, research, and online course instruction, culminating in a capstone project that designs an online learning intervention.

Master of English Education

Many education graduate programs offer degrees in specific subjects, particularly those central to all public school curricula: namely, English and mathematics, the subjects most frequently assessed in high-stakes standardized testing. If you know you want to spend the rest of your education career teaching Shakespeare, Austen, and Morrison, a Master of English Education could be optimal. Unlike a master’s in English, which might purely focus on research and writing, the Master of English Education emphasizes the teaching of language and literature in addition to analyzing both. Consider the master’s program at Teachers College at Columbia University, whose curriculum requirements include:

  • Foundational courses that cover history, philosophy, and issues and practices in English education; work may also include special education and psychology
  • Electives, which allow students to study particular interests and focus their work
  • An individual master’s project consisting of independent study and a final project
  • Two separate semesters of student teaching; a cooperating teacher spearheads the classroom one of the semesters, and the student is responsible for curriculum development and management of two classes independently

Master of Mathematics Education

As noted above, many schools commit full master’s programs to mathematics education. This master’s focuses on advanced mathematical concepts, instructional technology, pedagogical techniques, education research, and the history of mathematics education. A master’s in mathematics education, such as the one offered by Columbus State University, includes:

  • Foundational courses in mathematics and special education
  • Teaching field studies, including middle school and high school practicums
  • Professional practice, consisting of a teaching internship and one semester of student teaching, as well as coursework on classroom management
  • Research into trends and issues impacting math education

Master of Special Education

Students with disabilities have particular educational needs, and professionals who want to work with them need extra training. There are MEd, Master of Science in Education (MSEd), and Master of Science (MS) programs in special education. Some MAT/MST programs also facilitate licensure in special education in specific areas, such as students with moderate disabilities, pre-K through 8th grade, or 5th grade through 12th grade.

Based on Purdue University’s online program, a Master of Education in Special Education curriculum might include:
-Core classes providing an introduction to evaluation and assessment for students who require special education, different kinds of intervention strategies, ethical and legal challenges that might arise, advice on the use of technology, and online learning strategies
-Licensure concentrations that consist of two practicums, with one mild and one intense intervention, and student teaching

There’s a shortage of qualified special education professionals, which means that your skills will likely be in high demand.

Which master’s degree is right for me?

Only you can know what will make for the perfect academic fit. What area of teaching is most effective for you? What kinds of students do you want to work with? What age should the students be? In what environment do you thrive most? How much time do you have to devote to acquiring your degree? Can you take time off, or will you keep working while devoting significant time to coursework? Once you have the self-awareness and a clearer understanding of your own needs, you’ll be in a much better position.

Do your homework to ensure that you’re getting the right fit for your requirements. Ensure that your coursework is rigorous and that the program has proper accreditation. Coursework should align with the edTPA, an assessment to test whether teachers are ready to apply their knowledge to the classroom based on planning, instruction, and assessment. Check with your state about licensure regulations. Determine how much you really need to be on-campus and in the field. Make sure you’ll be able to hit the ground running after you complete your work. Know the prerequisites you’ll have to do, from taking the GRE to seeking out financial aid. Once you’re armed with all the information you need, you’ll be able to start applying.

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About the Author

Katherine J. Igoe is a full-time freelancer in Boston. She has direct experience working in education and higher ed, helping students make important academic decisions. Follow her, ask questions, or suggest story ideas on Instagram @kjigoe or on Twitter @kjigoe.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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