You can advance in education without a master’s degree, but there are compelling reasons for teachers and administrators to pursue an advanced degree. Earning a master’s-level education degree can lead to a salary boost, job security, and increased opportunity in and out of the classroom. You’ll also develop expertise, whether you’re interested in classroom management strategies or personnel management best practices—provided you choose the right master’s program.
Two graduate degrees dominate the education space: the master’s in teaching and the master’s in education. Many guides will tell you that the former is focused on classroom technique whereas the latter is focused on education administration, full stop. Unfortunately, it just isn’t that simple.
The Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and Master of Science in Teaching (MST) are commonly presented as the best degrees for teachers (or aspiring teachers) who want to spend their careers in the classroom. The Master of Education (MEd) is held up as the best degree for administrators, policymakers, and curriculum designers. And there’s some truth to these characterizations.
However, each of these degree pathways can cover advanced pedagogic skills and/or a broad range of other education topics. There are MAT and MST degrees for teachers who want to transition into curriculum development and instructional design. There also are MEd programs focused on teaching strategies specific to certain grade levels, subject areas, and student populations. In other words, the difference between master’s in teaching and master’s in education programs isn’t nearly as clear-cut as most people assume.
In this article about master’s in teaching vs. master’s in education programs, we cover:
Education is a complex discipline with many moving parts. Students come to school not only to learn facts, but to socialize, broaden their horizons, and in some cases, meet basic needs like nutrition. Teachers teach students using materials created by curriculum designers, but that’s not all they teach. In elementary classrooms, they also foster socialization. High school teachers teach teens how to become adults.
School counselors help address the mental health needs of students of all ages. Administrators keep schools funded, and policymakers set the standards schools must meet. Researchers look for ways to improve education systems. Educational psychologists research how students learn. There’s a lot going on under the umbrella of education.
It would be impossible to create a graduate degree program that could address every facet of education, which is why most education master’s programs tend to be concentration-based and/or subject-specific. MAT and MST programs are more likely to offer specializations related to subject area (e.g., art, mathematics, earth science, or social studies). In contrast, MEd specializations are often related to administration.
However, there are many MEd specializations designed for teachers. The Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College, for instance, offers several concentrations related to teaching, including elementary education, secondary education, early childhood education, and specializations focused on special education in elementary and middle school.
MAT and MST programs are typically designed to either prepare aspiring teachers to obtain teaching licenses and launch careers in the classroom or give licensed teachers the skills and credentials they need to step into more specialized roles. The curriculum in master’s in teaching programs varies by concentration. MST and MAT concentrations include:
This program typically helps current teachers advance their careers and aspiring teachers earn initial licensure. You’ll focus on teaching elementary school students and may be able to choose a subspecialization in the program, such as special education.
An early childhood education degree allows you to work with young children up to second grade. In this program, you’ll focus on developmental skills, such as language, and creating programs for this age group.
This concentration allows you to not only teach ESL, but other subjects to English-learning students. This program also canlead to administrative positions. Completing a Teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) specifically prepares you for classroom education.
In this focus, you’ll typically learn teaching methods, especially as they relate to reading, for middle school students. You may complete this track as a specialization within a middle grades education track.
This focus can help you teach math in middle and high school, including algebra and geometry.
This track prepares you to teach middle schoolers. You may pursue a subject-specific track as well.
This degree prepares you to teach science, including subjects like life science, chemistry, and physics.
A secondary education program helps you become a high school teacher. You’ll focus on a single subject during your degree programs, such as English or math.
Social studies programs can prepare you to teach middle or high school. They cover subjects like history and human development.
Here, you’ll learn to teach special education students. Individual programs or tracks may focus on different age ranges—for instance early childhood or grades seven through 12.
There are also MST and MAT specializations that aren’t focused on specific grades or subjects. Less common master’s in teaching concentration areas include:
A CLD endorsement prepares educators to teach with an eye towards embracing culturally diverse students and helping them grow. This education pathway can have different names, for instance Socio-Cultural Perspectives in Teaching and Learning.
A specialization in this area prepares you to design curricula.
You’ll learn to evaluate, help, and teach students with emotional and behavioral disorders. This specialty is part of a special education program.
In this program, you’ll learn to effectively utilize technology in your classroom.
This is a great specialization for teachers who want a leadership role in their school or beyond. Professionals with this specialty may go on to conduct research.
In most master’s in teaching programs, the first few semesters are devoted to classroom management, instructional strategies, evaluation and assessment, planning and instruction, and practical skills related to teaching specific subject areas. MAT and MST programs often culminate in a supervised practicum placement (designed to give students teaching experience) or a capstone research project (for teachers with their own classrooms).
The MEd is often described as the advanced degree for teachers interested in career advancement beyond the classroom, but this ignores that there are many master’s in education programs with a pedagogical focus. If your goal is to work in educational administration or school counseling, earning an MEd is a smart idea, but there are also MEd programs for teachers.
The distinguishing feature of master’s in education programs may be their specificity. Most master’s in education program concentrations focus on specific professional goals or career pursuits. Consequently, there are many more MEd specializations than there are MAT degree and MST degree specializations. There are Master of Education concentrations for teachers related to classroom management, student engagement, learning theories, models of instruction, specific grade levels, and specific subjects, as well as plenty of specialization areas not focused on pedagogy like:
Athletic leadership concentrations most commonly prepare graduates for collegiate positions in athletics administration.
Graduates from this track work to improve student learning outcomes—including for education companies. Teachers also can complete this degree focus.
Similar to curriculum design, teachers and administrators can complete this degree to improve their educational content creation and implementation skills.
Early childhood is typically offered as a teaching degree. However, you may be able to focus on early childhood leadership through a degree program, or concentration in another track, such as curriculum design.
This program prepares graduates to assume leadership positions. You’ll learn about research techniques, public relations, and the business of running a school, among other topics. An MEd in Educational Leadership can offer a similar career trajectory.
With an MEd in educational psychology, you’ll be trained in areas like behavior assessment, learning styles, and cognitive theory. This degree is open to teachers and administrators, not only educational psychologists.
This pathway prepares students for administrative jobs at colleges and universities. You may study theory and data-based research methods.
This pathway can be similar to a curriculum design degree. However, what you study depends more on the school’s program than the degree title. At University of Massachusetts – Boston, students in the instructional design track focus on adult education.
This degree track can help you work with international and multicultural students. Teachers who complete the program benefit from leadership courses, plus administration-directed coursework in pedagogy, policy, and theory.
Graduates from this program typically go on to become principals and superintendents, making policy decisions at the community level and beyond.
This program prepares you for careers collecting data about student performance, analyzing it, and using it to improve outcomes.
In this program, you’ll complete educational psychology coursework, typically in preparation to become a school counselor.
It’s more common for part-time and full-time MAT programs and MST programs to fulfill teaching licensure requirements, but there are plenty of MEd programs with teacher certification tracks for aspiring teachers. Master’s in education programs also can help licensed teachers meet the educational requirements to achieve the next level of teaching license in states with multiple levels of licensure. What sets programs with licensure tracks apart from those without is that they tend to have core coursework, field experiences, practicum requirements, and student teaching placements built into the curriculum.
In general, MST or MAT holders earn these degrees because they are preparing for teaching careers. They may teach in a preschool, elementary schools, advanced high school physics, or teach gym, but they’ll teach. There are, however, career options for MST or MAT holders that don’t involve becoming a licensed teacher or even working with students in public schools. These include:
Academic advisors help students with academics. In a high school setting, this could mean helping them to successfully apply to college. For younger kids, advisors and counselors may address behavioral issues and diagnose children as special needs—potentially in a counseling role. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) uses the same terminology to categorize advisors and counselors. Counselors earn a median annual pay of $58,120; the BLS expects the job to grow at an above-average rate.
Corporate trainers primarily focus on advancing employee education. This could mean developing and implementing training programs and evaluating the results. The BLS says the job outlook for training and development specialists is positive; they earn a median annual pay of $62,700.
There are several positions in curriculum development—it’s an involved process requiring significant collaboration. Other relevant job titles include curriculum consultant, educational coordinator, instructional designer, and curriculum designer. The BLS refers to these professionals as instructional coordinators, and states that they earn $66,970 per year in median pay. The job outlook for Instructional coordinators is average.
Education consultants are like guidance counselors, but don’t work for the school. Families often hire education consultants to help with academic problems or other issues. According to PayScale, the average educational consultant earns a salary of $63,092.
According to PayScale, these professionals earn around $63,000 per year. Their job is to assess and potentially create educational policies, usually for school districts and government agencies.
As a gifted and talented program director, you’ll supervise a team to ensure that your organization complies with regulations, teaches quality content, and secures funding. According to PayScale, education program directors earn an average annual salary of nearly $62,500.
Literacy specialists usually work with students to improve reading and writing—often as a type of instructional coordinator. According to PayScale, literacy specialists earn an average annual salary of $53,500.
If you want to work with kids, but don’t want to be in a school setting, a museum educator position may be a great option. You’ll complete administrative duties in addition to job functions like designing workshops. While high-ranking professionals certainly earn more, PayScale says the average museum educator makes nearly $14 per hour .
As a private tutor, you’ll work to help students through school or in test prep. Private tutors set their rates, so earnings depend on several factors, including education, experience, and location. PayScale states that the average private tutor charges nearly $25 per hour.
These professionals create the tests that students take every year. The job also involves analyzing and improving tests. According to PayScale, test developers earn an average annual salary of $70,000.
In this role, you’ll focus specifically on test prep, including as a private tutor or through a company. If you work for a test prep company, your salary will likely depend on where you work and how long you’ve been there.
There is always a need for textbook authors. According to the BLS, the job is growing at an average rate. The median pay for authors and writers is more than $67,000.
Because there are so many MEd concentrations, earning a Master of Education can lead to a variety of career paths. Keep in mind, there is considerable overlap between the jobs you can secure with a MAT/MST and MEd. For instance, both degrees lead to careers in curriculum design, education consulting, policy analysis, and program administration. An MEd may offer an easier transition to administrative positions, but earning a teaching master’s won’t cut you off from these paths. With a master’s in education, you might become a teacher or a:
According to the BLS, career counselors typically work at the collegiate level and can operate a private practice. They usually earn close to $60,000 per year. The demand for this career is increasing faster than average.
In this role, which includes leading the media center, you’ll research and make decisions surrounding the technology that your school invests in. According to ZipRecruiter, school technology directors typically earn over $80,000 per year on average.
District administrators are professionals who take a macro look at the school system. There are several types of district administrators, such as superintendents.
School counselors—the new term for guidance counselors—work at every education level. You’ll help students find success in the classroom and develop as people, especially at the elementary and middle school-levels. In college, you’ll help students identify career paths. These professionals usually earn over $58,000 per year.
As a researcher, you’ll examine student performance and develop strategies to improve it. Researchers earn almost $65,0, according to PayScale.
As a school principal, you’ll make decisions that impact the overall health of the school. This role requires communicating with the superintendent, teachers, parents, and even students. Principals earn nearly $100,000 per year, according to the BLS. Demand for principals is growing at an average rate.
School psychologists address behavioral issues and diagnose students with learning disabilities. The job outlook for psychology is average, and these professionals earn close to $80,000 per year.
Superintendents run a school district, meaning they need to communicate with multiple principals to set macro plans. They establish budgets, answer to the school board, and listen to parents. PayScale says the average superintendent earns over $120,000.
Remember, you can absolutely continue teaching with a MEd. A master’s degree can lead to higher earnings over time and prepare you for specialized roles in your school. The average high school teacher earns close to $63,000, while the average kindergarten and elementary school teacher earns close to $61,000.
Vice principals are more concerned with the daily duties of running a school than principals are. Per PayScale numbers, high school vice principals earn an average salary of $90,000 per year, while assistant principals earn over $74,000 annually.
The answer to this question depends on your goals. If you want to become a teacher, but you’re not sure that grad school is right for you, you’re in luck. You won’t need a master’s degree in teaching or education to get an initial teaching certificate in any state. Some states allow teachers with bachelor’s degrees to renew their licenses indefinitely. Other states (e.g., Connecticut, Ohio, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York) require teachers to earn a master’s degree within a set number of years to maintain licensure or attain the highest level of licensure—so be sure you understand the requirements in your state.
If you want to transition into administration, on the other hand, you’ll almost certainly need a graduate degree. Most states require vice principals, school principals, and higher-level district administrators to hold master’s degrees (though not necessarily an MAT, MST, or MEd).
You’ll almost certainly earn more after graduating from a master’s degree program. It’s not unusual for school districts to pay teachers and administrators with advanced degrees more automatically, regardless of experience. Around 88 percent of large districts base teacher salaries on education level. Teachers with MAT, MST, or MEd degrees can earn $10,000 more each year than their colleagues without advanced degrees. That means you’ll make roughly 2 million in lifetime earnings—as opposed to 1.7 million in lifetime earnings for those with just a bachelor’s degree. That’s the average across the districts and specialties sampled by the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Administrators, consultants, and specialists also earn more after going to graduate school. While there’s not much data related to salaries for school administrators who haven’t completed graduate school, a 2015 BLS report states that “education administrators had the highest percentage wage premium, with 44 percent higher wages for master’s degree holders than for bachelor’s degree holders.” The kinds of jobs in education administration that require advanced degrees frequently pay between $90,000 and $100,000, suggesting that earning an MEd—or an MAT—that allows you to transition out of the classroom can lead to a bigger salary boost.
Ultimately, MAT, MST, and MEd programs aren’t that different. Except when they are. Is it confusing? Yes, but the master’s in teaching vs. master’s in education programs conundrum is easily solved. Don’t make assumptions about a degree program’s content based on the diploma conferred by the program. Colleges and universities approach master’s degrees in education differently, so the only way to obtain a clear picture of how a given program will support your professional goals is to read program guides very carefully.
(This article was updated on October 13, 2021.)
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