Many people become teachers by graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Education and then completing an education master's degree program. However, that's not the only way to get to the front of a classroom.
What are the alternatives? Some teachers earn bachelor's degrees in disciplines unrelated to teaching, then hire on as teachers via fast-track teacher preparation programs or emergency certification programs. These programs exist to fill open spots in underfunded or underperforming districts; hence, the lower barrier to entry. Another option: second-career teachers may go straight into entry-level Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) or Master of Education (MEd) programs. Still others launch their teaching careers with bachelor's degrees and never pursue additional university-level education.
Why are there so many ways to become a teacher? The simple answer is that states set their own teacher standards. Some states let certified teachers with bachelor's degrees renew their licenses indefinitely, provided they fulfill continuing ed requirements. Some states require classroom educators to earn master's-level degrees to keep teaching credentials current. And in some areas, teacher shortages have prompted states to create alternative certification programs designed to deliver aspiring teachers to classrooms more quickly. Which route you take will depend on a variety of factors.
In this article, we answer the question do you need a master's to teach? and cover the following:
Master's in teaching and master's in education degrees fall into three broad categories: the Master of Arts in Teaching, the less-common Master of Science in Teaching (MST), and the Master of Education. Many people assume the MAT and the MST are the best graduate degree options for teachers, while the MEd is for aspiring administrators, policymakers, and curriculum designers. The reality is more complicated because each of these pathways is concentration-based.
While most MAT and MST programs focus on advanced pedagogic skills—common concentrations include early childhood education, special education instruction, elementary education, middle grades education, secondary education, and English as a second language—there are also MEd programs designed specifically for teachers, with specializations related to grade level, subject area, student population, or all three. At Boston College's Lynch School of Education and Human Development, for instance, students can choose from among teaching-focused MEd specializations, including elementary education, secondary education, and severe special needs instruction.
Similarly, part-time and full-time MAT programs and MST programs nearly always lead to a teaching license. However, there are also MEd programs with teacher certification tracks and MAT and MST programs that only accept currently licensed applicants. Master's in teaching and master's in education programs designed to lead to licensure include coursework, field experiences, practicum work, and student teaching placements, all of which help students qualify for certification.
Many people are unaware that you can become a teacher anywhere in the US with just a bachelor's degree in education, or a bachelor's degree in your area of interest, plus a certificate from a teacher preparation program.
If you hope to teach, you can approach your undergraduate education in several different ways. For example, you might enroll in a bachelor's degree program for teachers that lets you choose a concentration in the subject you intend to teach. You might major in your subject area and minor in education, or major in education and minor in your subject area. There are also accelerated education degree programs that help aspiring teachers with degrees and experience in other disciplines earn a Bachelor of Science in Education more quickly.
How far you can advance in a teaching job without a graduate-level teaching degree depends on where you're located, what grade level you want to teach, the needs of the community in which you plan to teach, and your professional experience.
The list of US states that require teachers to earn master's degrees is quite short. In Connecticut, Maryland, and New York, all teachers must earn either a master's in teaching or master's in education within a specified time frame to maintain teacher licensure. In Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, and Oregon, teachers without master's degrees can renew initial or provisional licenses but don't qualify for the highest-level professional licenses.
Given that you don't need a master's to teach in most states, it's a little surprising that more than 20 percent of all master's degrees are awarded in education and about 50 percent of teachers have graduate degrees. So why do many teachers pursue what is, for them, an optional degree? For some, the payoff in terms of salary boost is relatively high (more on this below). Earning credits toward a master's degree in a part-time master's in teaching program is also one of the easiest ways to meet continuing education requirements. If you have to take courses to maintain your licensure, why not take courses that count toward an eventual degree?
Almost no one goes into teaching for the money. In the US, kindergarten and elementary school teachers earn about $59,000, middle school teachers earn about $60,000, and secondary school teachers earn about $62,000. That's not small money, but it's not a fortune, so it's not unusual for teachers to pursue master's degrees for the salary boost.
A lot of public school districts tie teacher compensation to education. Eighty-eight percent of large districts base teacher salaries on education level, and even in those that don't, it's not unusual for teachers with master's degrees to earn more than their colleagues with bachelor's degrees. In the first year after graduation, a teacher with an MAT, MST, or MEd may earn about $2,800 more. Once that teacher reaches the top of their earning potential, they could earn $10,000 more annually than they would have if they hadn't gone to graduate school.
Plenty of teachers enroll in master's degree programs because they're hoping to increase their earning potential. That's not a bad idea in locales where earning a graduate degree means getting a bigger paycheck, but make sure money isn't your only motivator. As teacher Michael Brown put it in a Quora thread about whether a Master of Education is worth it, "if you want to get a master's, find one that interests you and get it because it will feed your passion in teaching. Don't pursue the degree because you expect to make more money. You won't be happy."
There are lots of professional reasons to pursue a master's degree. Some teachers go to graduate school because they want to stand out from the competition. Others pursue master's degrees because they want to specialize. Some schools and districts place great importance on their teachers' education level and prefer to hire applicants with master's degrees whenever possible.
You don't need a master's degree in some states—unless you want to work with specific populations, that is. For example, you might need one to teach students with special needs, students in your school's gifted and talented program, or in ESL/TESOL classrooms. And sometimes, enrolling in a master's in teaching or master's in education program is a simple way to satisfy the continuing education requirements teachers in most states must meet to maintain licensure.
There are also personal reasons that drive teachers to pursue master's degrees. Enrolling in a graduate program can help you stay current, whether you're looking to enhance your pedagogical knowledge or find out what innovations are happening in your specific subject area. You might also feel like it's time you developed an area of expertise. After teaching in general ed classrooms in K-5 schools or teaching one of the three Rs at the high school level, you may be ready to choose a niche like literacy education, educational psychology, behavior management, or adolescent development.
This is the million-dollar question. Unfortunately, we don't have a million-dollar answer. Researchers have pored over this question for thousands of hours, and their findings are all over the map. Numerous studies suggest that whether a teacher has a master's degree has little, if any, impact on student achievement. One study found that teachers who entered the profession with a master's degree or earned one within five years weren't more effective than teachers who opt out of graduate school. Startlingly, the study also found that teachers who earned their graduate degrees more than five years after entering the profession were less effective than their colleagues with bachelor's degrees. Other studies have found that it's unclear how teacher education impacts student achievement or if it even has any effect at all.
The most accurate predictors of success in teaching seem to be experience, the quality of a teacher's undergraduate education, and whether a teacher has a standard license or an emergency license. There's only one circumstance in which a master's degree seems to have a demonstrable impact on student outcomes. Getting a master's degree in the subject you teach—especially if that subject is math or one of the sciences—may have a positive impact on student achievement if you teach middle school or high school students, and getting a master's in early childhood education may raise the standardized test scores in your classroom.
That said, a possible correlation between teachers with graduate degrees and high-achieving students probably isn't a great reason to enroll in a master's program. Having an MAT or an MEd will never be a disadvantage. However, if you teach in a state where teachers don't have to have graduate degrees and getting a master's won't result in a significant salary boost, make sure whatever degree you pursue supports your ambitions and satisfies your passions.
This article was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most recent data on the subject.
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