Educational Leadership & Policy

Earning a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership Online: What You Need to Know

Earning a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership Online: What You Need to Know
Online masters programs come with a variety of benefits. Nearly all allow students to continue working full-time while completing their educational leadership degree. Image from Unsplash
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly June 26, 2020

Designed to accommodate motivated and disciplined students, online educational leadership master's programs typically encourage self-paced study. On average, they can be completed in about two years.

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There’s nothing new about the idea that effective educational leadership significantly impacts learning. But these days, the need for professionals who can impact school improvement and student achievement may be clearer than ever before. The data prove it.

According to a Wallace Foundation study, “leadership is second only to classroom instruction” when evaluating initiatives aimed at improving student learning and the quality of schools. Another study—by New Leaders for New Schools—found that more than half of a school’s impact on student gains can be attributed to both principal and teacher effectiveness—with principals accounting for 25 percent and teachers 33 percent of the effect.

It’s not just principals who foster a positive and motivating culture for school personnel and students. From curriculum development specialists to special education administrators to superintendents and beyond, candidates at all levels of the educational system contribute to developing the right skills through continued education and professional development.

Academia offers a variety of models available to educate and train the next generation of school leaders. Among them, the online master’s degree in educational leadership provides students with a more flexible path to developing leadership knowledge and skills while preparing them to meet certification or licensure requirements. Is this path right for you?

Our guide to earning a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership online answers the following questions:

  • Who pursues a master’s in educational leadership online?
  • What kinds of courses will I take in an online educational leadership program?
  • What are the admissions requirements for this type of degree program?
  • How long does it take to earn a master’s in educational leadership online?
  • Do online educational leadership master’s degree programs have thesis requirements?
  • What can I do with a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership?

Who pursues a master’s in educational leadership online?

Since online master’s programs in educational leadership are designed for students looking to elevate their careers within education institutions, applicants typically have teaching licensure and several years of experience in the classroom.

Online masters programs come with a variety of benefits. Nearly all allow students to continue working full-time while completing their educational leadership degree. Designed to accommodate motivated and disciplined students, online master’s programs in the field generally encourage self-paced study. Students can take courses that fit into their schedules and can usually access class materials and complete assignments at their convenience.

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“I'm Interested in Education Leadership and Policy!”

The students in part-time and full-time education policy master’s programs are optimists who believe they can make education better on a grand scale. They acknowledge the current education system in the United States is fraught with problems, but they don’t view any of those problems as insurmountable. They’re pursuing master’s degrees in education policy because they’ve dreamed of transforming their districts, improving on the ways students are taught across the entire state, or even driving sweeping education reform at the federal level. (source)

Universities offer so many degrees fitting for this category. At some universities, a Master of Education Policy or Master of Education Leadership program covers all the same subject matter as an M.Ed in Education Policy and Leadership. Others call this degree a Master of Education in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies; Master’s in Educational Leadership & Policy; Master of Education in Education Policy, Organization & Leadership; or a Master of Arts in Education Policy and Leadership. The only way to know whether the leadership and policy master’s program at a particular school is worth it is to look at the curriculum and the school’s job placement data. Make sure the curriculum supports your unique career goals and that the degree sufficiently impresses employers. (source)

University and Program Name Learn More

What kinds of courses will I take in an online educational leadership program?

Online master’s in educational leadership programs help students gain a holistic view of school leadership and management practices and hone their ability to oversee staff, develop and implement curricula, and help schools meet their long-term goals. Generally, core coursework explores topics such as leadership theory, community relations, curriculum design, school finance, school law, and education policy.

The curriculum at Mills College School of Education, for example, includes the following courses:

  • 21st Century Learning
  • Curricular Leadership
  • Hip Hop Pedagogy
  • HR Management
  • Inquiry into Leadership
  • Moral/Ethical Leadership
  • Program Evaluation
  • Trauma-Informed Leadership
  • Urban Education

Because educational leadership is often regarded as a specialization, specializations within the field are relatively rare. That’s especially true for online programs, which typically offer a more limited range of specializations than on-campus programs. There are some, however. For example, teacher leader is a popular concentration that prepares graduates to pursue additional roles outside the classroom, such as department chair, program leader, and curriculum specialist. Other concentrations may emphasize school administration within the elementary, secondary, and higher education realm and/or offer a principal licensure track, which prepares students to receive their principal’s license after graduation.

Many programs, such as the online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program at Queens University of Charlotte, also include internships or practicum courses, which require students to complete supervised administration practice in a school setting. When completing their field experience component, students are often required to meet with advisors and mentors, online or face-to-face, at their internship site.

What are the admissions requirements for this type of degree program?

Typical admission requirements for an online master’s in educational leadership program include a bachelor’s degree in education or a related field. Since most programs are directed toward professionals currently practicing in education rather than those looking to switch careers, teaching licensure and classroom teaching experience are also necessary.

Many programs also offer a non-licensure track, which doesn’t require teacher qualifications and classroom experience. The “degree only” path within the online master of art in educational leadership at Montclair State University is one example. Accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the program is designed for graduates who seek employment in various state and private agencies, community colleges, or overseas organizations that typically don’t require teaching licensure.

Other admissions requirements can include:

  • Transcripts from all previously attended higher education institutions
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Personal statement
  • Resume/CV
  • An undergraduate GPA that meets a prescribed threshold

Additionally, some schools require applicants to submit scores from the GRE, while others don’t. Programs may also waive a GRE requirement based on factors including whether a student already holds a master’s degree in the educational field, met a GPA threshold within their undergraduate, or has extensive experience within educational leadership roles.

How long does it take to earn a master’s in educational leadership online?

Generally, online educational leadership master’s programs take between 18 months and two years of full-time study to complete. Part-time students can expect to spend anywhere from three to four years. Some schools also offer accelerated online degree tracks, which typically can be completed in as little as a year.

Do online educational leadership master’s degree programs have thesis requirements?

Like other academic graduate programs, many do. Completing a thesis in an online master’s in educational leadership allows students to produce a scholarly paper demonstrating how their knowledge of a particular topic has grown through their studies. Some programs require students to defend their theses before a departmental committee, while others read the document and provide a grade.

Some programs offer the thesis as an option within a broader capstone requirement. This can take the form of an internship, a project, a thesis, or other types of culminating graduate work.

Completing a thesis comes with numerous benefits, such as the potential to be published in an academic journal or stand out to employers for extensive knowledge within a particular subject. It’s especially worthwhile for students hoping to continue on to a PhD.

What can I do with a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership?

A master’s degree in educational leadership prepares graduates for teaching, educational administration, and other positions in a range of educational settings where decision making, organizational leadership, communication, and problem-solving skills are must-haves.

Employment opportunities are especially abundant within the private and public school systems, including elementary, middle, and high school. Education leaders also operate at the postsecondary level, within businesses, and at government-run educational organizations such as the U.S. Department of Education. Common careers include:

  • Instructional coordinators: Evaluate the effectiveness of curricula and teaching standards established by school boards, states, or federal regulations. Instead of working directly with students, ICs develop instructional material, evaluate its implementation in the classroom, and assess its effectiveness on student learning. Based on their research, they may recommend changes in curricula to the school board. They may also specialize in a particular grade-level or subject, such as reading, math, or English as a second language.
  • Assistant principals:__ Oversee various aspects of K-12 schools, including managing student activities and services, community relations, staff evaluation, and curriculum instruction. Their work is largely responsible for supporting the school principal in the school’s general administration, whether planning testing schedules, supervising lunch, or playing disciplinarian. They also take charge of all the principal’s responsibilities in the event of their absence or illness.
  • School principals:__ Act as the central leader within a school by providing a strategic educational direction, coordinating and managing the activities of both students and staff members, and maintaining a visible presence within their school community. Their extensive list of daily responsibilities includes supervising curricula, assessing teaching methods, hiring and evaluating staff, monitoring student achievement, engaging with parents, and administering budgets. They typically work long hours and attend many events and meetings outside the normal school day, such as sporting events, concerts, plays, parent conferences, and school board meetings.
  • Superintendents:__ Make the key decisions on spending, staffing, facilities, and other educational policies within a school district. Often referred to as an “educational CEO,” those in this role are responsible for hiring, supervising, and managing the principals, administrative staff, and other employees within their district, and using the available financial and human resources to maximize student achievement as well as teacher and staff support. They’re also responsible for keeping school board members informed on the district’s needs and about the events and happenings of specific school operations and programs.
  • Postsecondary education administrators: Supervise student activities, faculty research, and academics at colleges, universities, community colleges, and technical and trade schools. The more specific responsibilities of this role tend to vary depending on the department it functions within, such as the office of the registrar or admissions. The duties of those working in the registrar’s office include maintaining student and course records, preparing transcripts and diplomas for students, and planning commencement ceremonies. In contrast, postsecondary education administrators within an admissions office focus on reviewing prospective students’ applications and working with the financial department to create federal and financial aid packages, among other tasks.
  • College or university deans: Serve as top administrators tasked with responsibilities central to their higher education institution’s mission. Some lead academic divisions within a college or university, such as an individual school or department, and are tasked with ensuring that their division meets its educational goals by updating courses and attracting top students and faculty, among other initiatives. Others lead a non-academic division, such as the dean of student affairs, who oversees aspects of campus life, such as housing, discipline, and extracurricular organizations, among other factors.

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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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