Few educators pursue careers in the classroom for the money, because—let’s face it—teaching is a notoriously underpaid profession. We’re not telling tales out of school here (well, we are literally, but not metaphorically).
Even so, everyone would like to earn more, especially when the process also makes them better at their job. A master’s in teaching or master’s in education does exactly that: it boosts your earning potential as it improves your teaching skills.
Many public school districts automatically award bonuses, stipends, or higher salaries to school teachers who complete graduate programs, typically on a tiered or step-based earning schedule. These salary schedules confer automatic raises to teachers with specified academic credentials and a minimum number of years of teaching experience.
Does that mean a master’s degree in teaching is always worth it? It’s not always that cut-and-dried. As you’ll discover below, not all districts give teachers with master’s degrees a large enough pay increase to justify graduate school costs. Also, experience is sometimes more valuable than a diploma. Finally, so many other factors influence teachers’ salaries that it’s almost impossible to draw any one-size-fits-all conclusions about the relative value of master’s degrees in teaching. The one certainty is that, under the right circumstances, a master’s definitely is worthwhile.
In this article about how master’s degrees affect teacher salaries, we cover:
You can become a teacher anywhere in the United States with a bachelor’s degree in education, a bachelor’s degree in your area of interest with an education minor, or a bachelor’s degree in almost any subject plus a certificate from a teacher preparation program. No states require teachers to hold a master’s degree to qualify for initial licensure. In most states, teachers can continue teaching indefinitely without earning a master’s degree as long as they satisfy continuing education requirements.
However, in some states—Connecticut, Maryland, and New York among them—teachers must earn either a master’s in teaching or master’s in education within a specific time frame to maintain licensure. In Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, and Oregon, teachers with bachelor’s degrees can renew initial teaching licenses but don’t qualify for the highest-level professional licenses.
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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Graduate degrees for teachers fall into two categories: the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) and the Master of Education (MEd). Many resources indicate that the MAT is the best master’s degree for teachers, while MEd programs are primarily for aspiring educational administrators, policymakers, and other education professionals who work outside the classroom. In reality, it’s not quite that simple.
Both MAT and MEd programs tend to be concentration-based, and while there are more part-time and full-time Master of Arts in Teaching programs focused on advanced pedagogic theories and skills, there are also plenty of Master of Education programs with grade-level, subject-area, and student-population concentrations.
Teachers with master’s degrees typically out-earn teachers with bachelor’s degrees, but the premium placed on graduate education varies by district. About 88 percent of large districts base teacher salaries on education level. However, that doesn’t mean that teachers with master’s degrees are earning tens of thousands more. In their first year with an MAT or MEd, the average teacher earns about $2,800 more. By the time they max out their earning potential, they may earn an annual salary $7,000 higher. That’s across districts, however. In some areas of the US, a teacher with a master’s degree at the top of the salary schedule can earn close to $40,000 more than a teacher with a bachelor’s degree.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that going to graduate school will lead to a substantially bigger paycheck. The only way to know how much you’ll earn after graduating with a master’s in teaching or master’s in education is to look at the salary schedule in your district. You should be able to see at a glance how your education and experience will translate into dollars.
Your earning potential will be higher with a Master of Education, but only if you’re willing to consider jobs outside the classroom. In districts where a master’s degree facilitates a teacher salary increase, the increase is typically identical regardless of whether that degree is an MAT or an MEd (or even a master’s in the teacher’s subject area).
Meanwhile, many jobs in education administration pay between $85,000 and $100,000—more than the average salary for teachers across the US (for example, a high school vice-principal earns about $100,000 per year, according to the job website PayScale). Earning an MEd can help you ascend to one of these higher-paying positions, but it probably won’t do more than a Master of Arts in Teaching to increase your earning potential if you plan to keep teaching.
Earning a teaching or education degree can have an outsized impact on teacher salaries because pay rates are tied to teachers’ educational achievements in so many areas. However, there are many other factors at play, including:
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), an elementary school teacher or secondary school teacher with just one year of classroom experience earned just over $42,000 in 2016. A teacher with similar qualifications and 10 years of experience earned over $56,000.
As we’ve seen, high school teachers earn more than middle school teachers, who make more than elementary school teachers. The salary differences between grade levels aren’t extreme in the public school system—secondary school teachers earn between three and six percent more—but in private schools, teachers in higher grades may make 15 percent more.
In the highest-paying states, public school teachers earn a median salary close to $80,000, while in the lowest-paying states, they earn just over $40,000—a lot lower than the national average. Those figures don’t take cost of living into account, however. When you adjust for cost of living, the best-paying states aren’t necessarily the ones with the highest teacher salaries.
The NCES has found that most public school teachers earn 25 to 119 percent more than private school teachers. Many teachers who work in private schools earn less than the average teacher salary.
In general, teachers employed by districts in rural areas earn less than those who work in urban or suburban schools. The difference in pay may be $10,000 or more, though this is another area in which you need to consider cost of living.
Specializing in a subject or student population can boost a teacher’s salary. Teachers who choose careers in special education classrooms, for example, earn about $61,000, which is more than the average elementary or middle school teacher earns.
When it comes to why teachers pursue master’s degrees, money isn’t always the motivating factor. In districts where there is a teacher glut, having an MAT or an MEd can help you stand out from the crowd during your job search. Districts in well-funded areas may prefer to hire applicants with master’s degrees, and you may not be able to find work in high-performing schools without going to graduate school.
You may also need a master’s degree to work in certain teaching specialties or with specific student populations. Teachers who work in special needs programs, gifted and talented programs, ESL/TESOL programs, and literacy programs may be expected to or even required to have an MEd in a related concentration.
Some teachers enroll in master’s degree programs for reasons that are more personal than professional. They may choose to pursue graduate degrees in the subjects they teach over teaching degrees. These teachers may be motivated by simple curiosity, a desire to stay current in their fields, or a desire to keep their options open.
Interestingly, teachers who become subject-matter experts also earn more. Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics show that teachers with master’s degrees earn 26 percent more—even when those master’s degrees aren’t in teaching or education.
Some teachers pursue master’s degrees because they’re looking to transition out of the classroom and into administrative or policy positions in education open only to graduate degree holders. These teachers may make the switch because they’re passionate about changing education for the better. Still, it is worth mentioning that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that education administrators get a bigger salary boost from graduate degrees than any other professionals. Administrators with master’s degrees earn 44 percent more than those with bachelor’s degrees.
The answer to this question depends to some degree on where you teach and what you teach. If you work in a state where teachers must earn master’s degrees to maintain licensure or want to transition into some specialty areas of teaching, then a master’s in teaching is absolutely worth it. Similarly, if earning credits toward an MAT or an MEd is an easy way to meet continuing education requirements, it makes sense to enroll in a master’s program.
On the other hand, if you’re thinking about pursuing a master’s degree because you want to become a better teacher, you have some research to do. It’s unclear what effect teacher education has on student achievement. Some studies find that teachers with master’s degrees see some improvement in student outcomes, but others don’t find any measurable correlation between teacher education and student outcomes.
And if you’re looking into master’s programs because you want to maximize your earning potential, be sure you understand how a graduate degree impacts teacher salaries in your district. Many districts link teacher salaries to teacher education level, which means earning a master’s degree in teaching or a master’s degree in education can lead to an automatic pay raise. Find out whether the dollar amount of that raise will justify the cost of an MAT or MEd.
“If you have a salary guide, you can figure out how much a degree is worth,” advises principal and former teacher Phillip Crisostomo. “Most districts have a salary scale with an increase for a certain number of credits or a degree. The earlier in your career you get your degree, the less of an increase you need to make it worth it. When I first earned my Master’s degree, it was a $3,000 difference each year. That wasn’t a lot, but in 10 years, that is a $30,000 difference, which is more than enough to pay my student loan.”
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