A master's degree in early childhood education (ECE) yields multiple benefits for those aiming to work in public school K-3 classrooms. True, most states allow teachers to teach preschool, pre-K, kindergarten, and early elementary school without advanced degrees. Even so, teachers with master's degrees enjoy advantages in hiring, training, promotion, and overall job satisfaction.
So, what is ECE? Early childhood education encompasses any instruction designed for infants, toddlers, and children up to approximately age eight. Most teachers who specialize in early childhood education teach elementary-age students, though some work for federal- and state-funded programs like Head Start. Others work at daycare or childcare centers. Still others work one-on-one as aides with young children with special needs.
Working in ECE isn't easy. Math teachers teach math. Science teachers teach science. Art teachers teach art. In contrast, early childhood educators do it all, while also teaching students social, motor, and adaptive skills. Good behavior and good citizenship also are part of the curriculum in K-3 classrooms.
A graduate degree in education can boost a teacher's salary and lead to opportunities both in and out of the classroom. A master's in ECE, in particular, helps early childhood educators—whose students can be hyperactive, capricious, and needy—become better teachers.
In this article about getting a master's in early childhood education, we answer the following questions:
The ECE master's is not one degree, but a category of degrees focused on early childhood education. These include the:
While similar to the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) in structure, the MA in Early Childhood Education typically hones in on teaching children from birth to the second grade. Students will form a firm understanding of the learning styles, behavioral changes, and classroom management skills for these young years.
The minute differences between the MA and MAed in Early Childhood Education will depend on the university. Both programs address advanced pedagogical skills for young students as well as lay a foundation of cognitive research for the age group.
The Master of Arts in Teaching program is one of the go-to degrees for both new and current teachers looking to deepen their classroom skills, receive a teaching license in their state, or receive a promotion within their school, perhaps as a department head. Students can often choose to concentrate in elementary, middle school, or secondary education.
An MEd, as we'll explore more below, typically attracts professionals with a range of experience in the classroom looking to expand their careers. In some cases, they may concentrate on teaching strategies to return to the classroom. The majority of students, however, expand on skills to transition to administration or in other fields that incorporate education.
Similar to other MS degrees, the Master of Science in Early Childhood Education touches on both the practical pedagogical skills as well as ample psychology research behind the cognitive and emotional development of young students.
The MAT and MEd are the most common early childhood education degrees at the graduate level. It's not always clear how master's in teaching and master's in educationprograms differ. The short answer is that they are sometimes, not always, designed for students with different aspirations. Many MAT degree programs target teachers who want to enhance their teaching skills and earn more without changing roles. Many MEd programs, on the other hand, are for experienced teachers who want to transition into school administration or niche roles in education like literacy specialists.
Confusing matters is the fact that there are both on-campus and online master's in teaching and master's in education programs for aspiring teachers with coursework designed to help students qualify for licensure. There are also MEd programs for teachers who plan to stay in the classroom and MAT programs designed to appeal to teachers with their eyes on administrative positions. In other words, MAT programs and MEd programs are often more alike than different. Don't rely on degree names alone when you're choosing a program.
Master's in early childhood education programs (whether MAT, MEd, or something else) differ from other graduate teaching programs; the curriculum focuses on strategies for working with students in preschool through third grade. Core courses cover:
This course builds upon initial teacher training for young minds, exploring the deeper research for each age and type of learner.
While this ties in the learning and teaching experience, master's candidates will also take foundational psychology classes to understand the broader picture of their students' development.
This class will work its way through each subject area taught in schools and common learning guideposts for areas like reading, comprehension, and basic writing.
The course explores modern and foundation tactics for elementary curriculum and instruction. It may include social emotional learning tactics in the classroom, assessment tools, and how to address unique challenges.
Coursework may also address strategies for developing positive social behaviors in young children and learning differences in ECE. For example, students pursuing the MEd in Early Childhood Education at Boston College's Lynch School of Education and Human Development take core courses like:
Teachers learn to incorporate creative play into all subject areas as well as special electives throughout the day. They may specifically research how the arts affect young minds and support different learning styles.
Teachers will explore how to address each subject—from English and math to social studies. Curriculum should cover the proper content area as well as bring in pedagogy appropriate for young developing minds.
Candidates begin by grasping the crucial information on child development—from learning styles or behavior changes. They also may explore learning differences and special education topics.
At Boston College, this course takes both a practical and historical approach to exploring diverse learning styles. These may include students with disabilities and those from varying linguistic backgrounds.
Teachers explore new ways to integrate technology into the classroom with young students, particularly pertaining to mathematics.
This course covers building relationships with diverse students and their families. Topics touch on welcoming these families into school activities, understanding parenting styles, and how to form an action plan for family outreach.
BC explains that this course touches on three main areas of science and tactics for incorporating play and a sense of wonder into each lesson.
Students look at their school, classrooms, and communities from a sociological standpoint, aiming to understand the role of family, community, and local culture in the learning experience.
The BC course provides in-depth instruction for teaching young English language learners, both in a mixed classroom and private instruction.
This course guides students to analyze teaching tactics and curriculum building-tips for early education language arts. At BC, it requires a 16-hour practicum working directly with students.
The highly detailed version of this course at BC explores both the teaching methods for young readers as well as the historical, social, and cultural aspects of learning to read for each unique student.
Most master's degree programs in early childhood studies require students to complete a thesis or capstone project course and/or log practicum, fieldwork, or student teaching hours in different learning environments. Licensed teachers can sometimes complete end-of-program projects or fulfill experiential learning requirements in their own classrooms. Some programs are hyper-specialized, allowing students to choose sub-concentrations related to ECE such as STEM, curriculum and policy, special education, Montessori education, or early childhood literacy.
Master's in early childhood education programs for licensed teachers with bachelor's degrees in education typically require students to complete about 36 credit hours of work. Students in programs that lead to initial certification may have to complete 48 credit hours of work before they become eligible for graduation.
Longer MAT and MEd programs can take up to two years of full-time study to complete. Licensed teachers can earn an ECE master's in as little as one year, and students taking classes part-time in programs for working adults may take three or more years to graduate. There's something out there for every early childhood teacher, whether they're looking for an immersive, full-time program or an accelerated program for people who want tobecome a teacher fast. Notre Dame of Maryland University's Master of Arts in Teaching degree in Early Childhood Education, for example, can be completed in just 10 months.
The following colleges and universities have highly respected on-campus and online master's degree programs in early childhood education:
Both ASU's on-campus and online programs have received impressive rankings from top publications, including US News and World Report. Students can choose from degrees in curriculum and instruction, multilingual learners, and education leadership, among others.
As one of the most well-known education programs in the country, Teachers College at Columbia offers both certification and non-certification-track options for graduate candidates. The school also offers an EdD in both early childhood education and education policy.
Earn an MA, MEd, or MAT from Georgia State. The school offers a unique approach to their MA, focusing on creative and innovative education. This program incorporates creativity into all aspects of curriculum and classroom management, catering to both traditional classroom teachers as well as educators throughout the community.
Michigan State offers a wide range of education master's degrees for both administrations and classroom teachers. Each program differs in its structure as well, offering classes online, in-person, or in a hybrid setting. MSU specifically has several robust programs in special education.
Based within the department for curriculum and instruction, Penn State's ECE degree takes a multicultural and diversity-focused approach. Students can choose between on-campus offering and online access through the Penn State World Campus program.
Stanford's school of education offers a unique angle for its graduate and doctoral offerings, particularly in data science, policy, and global education. While there is no specific early education degree, the university performs in-depth research and opportunities for aspiring teachers of this age group.
The UCLA teacher education program can be completed in just two years and allows students to concentrate in elementary-aged pedagogy. During the second year, students work in paid positions as teachers in the classroom with a partner school.
Earning the accolade as the best education program in a public school in the southeast, UF's early childhood education program offers several robust degrees for different career paths. Specifically, choose its Unified Early Childhood ProTeach program in a five-year bachelor and master's dual program for teacher certification.
Choose from either an MEd, MAT, or a range of doctoral and certificate programs at this top-ranked university. The degrees offer specializations in programs like gifted students, reading, and English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).
Broken up among 62 credits, students in UMich's MA in Elementary Education spread their time between robust coursework, field experience, and—when applicable—an ESL intern program for endorsement. The program takes place over four or five semesters, with the optional ESL internship in the final months.
Also ranked as one of the top programs in the country, Vanderbilt's elementary education degree focuses specifically on working in urban-based schools. Topics revolve around creative inclusion and diverse learning experience by partnering with local organizations for both practicum and research.
Be aware that the top on-campus and online programs confer various degrees. Some programs focus on academics and research. Others are designed for classroom teachers. ECE master's programs may be delivered on-campus, online, or in a hybrid format. Don't rely on diploma names, school rankings, or resource guides when choosing among programs. Go to each school's website and read about each program before submitting any applications.
ECE is a broad field with opportunities both in and out of public school and private school classrooms. Educators with this degree become:
Become a core member of the educational leadership at a school by shaping the courses, learning guideposts, and assessment style of a school or department.
Oversee the education and management of a daycare, balancing your background as an educator and business acumen.
Many schools designate an early childhood education department chair to support the needs of faculty members and help direct the curriculum.
Work within a nonprofit, government-funded, or private company to both steer the education of local students and identify the needs of the community.
After earning your teaching certification, work with students from Pre-K through 3rd grade at a public or private school.
English language learning teachers work with young students to develop their linguistics skills. These professionals often earn a specific teacher certification as well.
In addition to forming appropriate curriculum and teaching styles for a Head Start program, the director often works within government regulations to determine eligibility and assist families in the admissions process.
Focus on the early years of education, typically for four and five-year-olds. Pre-K teachers must have an in-depth understanding of young cognitive development and how to create a safe and comfortable classroom experience for all children.
Balance the curriculum and managerial skills needed to guide a preschool. Candidates may choose to work in the public or private school system as well as in community centers that host a preschool program.
Graduates with a passion for leading their community may pursue this highly administrative track. Principals bridge the gaps between the school board, faculty, staff, and students, using their range of curriculum and managerial skills to fulfill a cohesive mission.
This role typically requires a specific master's concentration as well as certification in your state. Teachers work one-on-one with students who have unique learning abilities and styles, as well as those with major physical differences.
The vice principal has their hand in many different projects at once—from building curriculum, reaching assessment goals, setting admission requirements for private schools, and bringing the community together.
You'll become an expert in the period of fast-paced development that starts at birth and ends at about age eight. Very little your students do will surprise you, and you'll be able to respond to their changing needs in real time as they progress in their understanding of the world around them. Bonus: If you're a parent (or plan to be), you'll also benefit from this knowledge as you raise your own children.
Your early childhood education master's degree will deepen and broaden your existing knowledge of teaching and learning while also exposing you to cutting-edge educational theories you might never have encountered on your own. All those concepts you've meant to study if you only had the time? Graduate school will force you to make the time.
Teaching involves more than just conveying information for students to absorb. Great teachers understand the gestalt of childhood learning and childhood development. ECE graduate programs dig into child psychology, research methodologies, learning theory, curriculum design, classroom management, and diversity sensitivity.
There's nothing dull or dry about early childhood education, and the same is true of ECE master's programs. You might take core classes like The Artistic Lives of Young Children and Integrating the Garden Into the Elementary Curriculum or learn about the role games can play in education. Your master's in early childhood education will help you grow in your creativity and step into the minds of your young students.
Assessing students is essential in ECE because everything is a foundational skill in preschool, pre-K, and early elementary. A great master's in early childhood education program will train you to be a more careful and dispassionate observer in the classroom.
ECE may look like child's play, but the reality is that early childhood education creates the foundation upon which all other learning is built. Young children absorb more than the ABCs in preschool, pre-K, and early elementary years. They learn how to solve problems, how to concentrate, how to communicate, and how to overcome setbacks. One can't overstate the lasting impact you'll have on your students.
A master's degree can boost your teaching salary in a big way in many public school districts—to the tune of over $400,000 in increased income over your career. If you use your degree to transition into administrative roles in education, you'll probably earn substantially more.
Your ECE master's will give you a higher level of expertise and specialization than that of your peers. It may also lead to increased job security. Once you're settled into a teaching or administrative position, replacing you will be more difficult and costly.
Completing a graduate degree program and the associated field experiences will net you new knowledge, new skills, and new bona fides for your resume. You'll qualify for many teaching and administrative jobs for which you previously weren't qualified.
Money, opportunity, and respect from colleagues are great, but there's something priceless about the personal satisfaction people feel after gaining new expertise. Everything you learn in your degree program will contribute to your effectiveness as an educator, and you'll enjoy more of those precious "You did it!" moments with your students.
There are many good reasons to earn a master's degree in early childhood education. The ten reasons to get a master's in early childhood education we share here only scratch the surface. MAT and MEd programs focused on ECE have much to offer teachers passionate about working with younger learners.
But here's the catch. As much as you might want to learn more about childhood development and strategies for working with young learners, the ROI of a master's in early childhood education will depend on your goals.
You might not need a graduate degree to teach grades K through three in most states, but you will almost always earn more if you have one. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the average elementary educator salary is about $61,000. After graduating with an early childhood education master's, you might earn anywhere from $1,400 to $11,000 more per year. Public school district salaries are usually a matter of public record, and pay increases in nearly all districts occur on a set schedule determined by experience and education level. That means you can easily find out how getting a master's degree for teachers will affect your salary by reaching out to the state department of education.
If, however, you enjoy working with very small children, it may be a long time before you recoup your investment in this master's-level teacher education. Most preschool teacher salaries fall somewhere around $30,000 per year, and preschool directors only earn about $12,000 more. Obtaining a master's in early education will certainly teach you a lot about your young students. Still, higher education might not be a sound financial investment unless your professional goals include transitioning into elementary education someday.
(This article was updated on September 30, 2021.)
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