Schools are complex organizations. In order to function effectively, they must follow clear policies that guide day-to-day procedures covering everything from curricular content and graduation requirements to teacher education and certification and emergency response.
Without these policies, education in the U.S. would lack the structure and objectives required to provide for students’ educational needs. Education policies also play a role in reducing unequal opportunity in education. This is critical, as extensive research reveals that a student’s social class is one of the most significant predictors—if not the single most significant predictor—of their educational success. Absent proactive remedial policies, students who start with a disadvantage tend to stay disadvantaged.
Perhaps most important, education policy can promote student retention and persistence. According to a 2015 truancy report from the Center for American Progress, chronically absent students experience employment-related difficulties such as lower-status occupations, less stable career patterns, higher unemployment rates, and low earnings as adults.
With so much at stake, the need for well-trained education policy experts is great. Fortunately, top education programs are training tomorrow’s education policy leaders and research professionals. Through these programs, students develop an in-depth understanding of America’s public and private education systems and the local, state, and national laws that impact them.
A doctorate in education policy will qualify you to join this group of expert change-makers—and provide the advanced skills and knowledge to help direct U.S. education towards greater equity and inclusivity.
So, what is a doctorate in education policy? We’ll answer that question and others in this article, including:
Doctorate programs in education policy provide students with a pathway to further advance their skills and knowledge in the sphere of education policy and practice.
A doctorate is the highest degree you can earn in most fields. It’s also referred to as a “terminal degree,” indicating that you’ve achieved the highest level of academic mastery in your discopline. In the realm of education policy, the doctorate path breaks down into two different tracks: the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.).
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. (
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. ( )
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A Ph.D. and an Ed.D. in education policy are similar in that they focus on higher learning, but otherwise, they are more different than alike. The most significant difference between the two degrees is the practical focus of an Ed.D. compared to the investigative approach of the Ph.D.
Students pursuing an education policy Ph.D. might, for example, study the impact of reducing the size of high schools in large urban districts. Or, they might investigate how “typically developing” students fare when students with disabilities are educated in their classrooms rather than in self-contained classrooms.
Conversely, those pursuing Ed.D. programs in education policy are more likely to explore the theory and practice of leadership within the context of the U.S. education system and the legislation that shapes it. Their focus is more on implementing existing policies and practices than on researching and developing new ones.
The Ed.D. in Education Policy and Leadership at American University is one example of this program type—and is ideal for students looking to continue building their policy and research skills while producing equitable outcomes for children and educators.
Prerequisites vary from one education policy doctorate program to another. While most doctorate programs require a master’s degree, some programs are aimed at educators who hold a bachelor’s in education, public policy, child development, or a related field. These candidates typically also have substantial work and leadership experience. They earn a master’s degree en route to earning their doctoral degree.
Students entering a doctorate program in education policy with a bachelor’s degree can expect to complete their degree in roughly five years of continuous enrollment. In comparison, those with a master’s in their field and professional experience can typically finish their degree in three years.
Beyond that, most reputable doctoral programs in education policy require:
Some programs may also require standardized test scores, such as GRE and GMAT. Others will be test-optional or do not require them at all.
Generally, a doctorate degree in education policy consists of three categories of coursework: core courses, electives, and dissertation courses.
Both types of doctoral degrees in this field commence with core classes. These courses are designed to develop the foundational skills students need to succeed at the doctoral level.
Ed.D. programs in education policy include core courses in the history and structure of the American education system, theories of learning, curriculum development, and organizational leadership. Courses in policy analysis may also be required.
Ph.D. programs, in contrast, typically require students to take foundational courses in educational research theory as well as in qualitative and quantitative research methods.
It’s common for Ed.D. students to take elective courses in a specific area within their field, such as language policy, privatization and education reform, and public policy. Ph.D. students may opt for research and data-based elective courses to advance or focus their research skills.
Students completing a Ph.D. in education policy are just about always required to conduct original research that contributes new knowledge to the field of education policy. At the conclusion of their work, they must defend their findings before a dissertation committee.
While students in Ed.D. programs are generally expected to present their findings in the same way, dissertations in this type of education policy program may involve a more extensive array of projects. These may include case studies of specific practices, research studies informing actions to improve specific programs, or rigorous evaluations of existing programs.
Moreover, some Ed.D. programs allow students to waive dissertation requirements if they complete a sequence of research-intensive courses that provide advanced training in the research and analysis process.
U.S. News and World Report’s list of top education policy programs covers schools that offer distinguished master’s programs within this field. Of this list, the schools that offer doctorate programs in education policy include:
Students who complete the Ed.D. track are prepared to impact education policies and programs at local, state, and national levels. They may work in government education departments, take on administrative roles at public and private schools, or seek out positions at education nonprofits and advocacy centers. Their job titles include:
Students completing a Ph.D. in education policy tend to focus on contributing to new information in the field of education policy. The degree best prepares them to pursue careers teaching at the university level, conducting research, or both. Their titles may include:
Given the different degree options in education policy and the variety of career paths they facilitate, it’s not surprising that salaries for degree holders vary widely.
PayScale’s compensation data doesn’t provide salary insight for graduates of Ed.D. programs in education policy, but it does report that those with an Ed.D. across all areas of educational leadership make an average annual income of $78,000. Information regarding the salaries for those with a Ph.D. in education policy is more accessible—and averages $81,000 per year.
While these salaries are somewhat comparable, specific career paths offer a greater range of compensation. In the Ph.D. realm, policy analysts tend to earn an average annual salary of $58,828, while research directors can expect an average income of $102,813 per year. In between are professors’ salaries, which PayScale reports average out at $87,406.
Salaries for Ed.D. in education policy careers also cover a diverse scope of compensation levels. Superintendents, for instance, pull in some of the highest earnings in this category, with average annual salaries landing at $118,655. Executive directors of nonprofit organizations report some of the lowest earnings in this group, which equates to an average salary of $66,278 per year.
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