Educational Leadership & Policy

Why You Should Consider a Master of Education Leadership

Why You Should Consider a Master of Education Leadership
Leadership in education is critical: someone needs to make those big, unifying decisions about how to run schools and teach students. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry November 20, 2020

Are you an educator who wants to make a significant difference in students' lives? Do you want to transform education in our nation's schools? A master's in educational leadership can help you achieve these goals.

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Everyone recognizes the influence teachers exert on education outcomes. The impact of educational leadership on achievement—while it probably generates fewer headlines—is no less essential.

Take administrators. Their impact is second only to that of teachers in the classroom, according to a recent study from Teachers College at Columbia University. In fact, a whopping 25 percent of student achievement may come down to the effectiveness of school principals, according to a NewLeaders study.

What this means is that educational leadership is extraordinarily important. Educational leaders can potentially play a significant role in students’ lives—and in the education system’s evolution.

Leadership positions require very different skills from those associated with success in the classroom. Some people assume that educational administrators are just former teachers looking for a change. However, the reality is that the best educational leaders do what they do because they are committed to making schools better.

Earning a master’s in educational leadership won’t automatically turn you into an effective administrator, but it can:

  • Introduce you to the newest educational theories
  • Show you how to implement those theories at the school level
  • Help you communicate with stakeholders more effectively
  • Give you the tools to manage a school or even an entire district

In this article about why you should consider a Master of Educational Leadership, we cover:

  • What does leadership mean in education?
  • Who is most likely to pursue a graduate degree in educational leadership?
  • What do students in educational leadership master’s degree programs study?
  • What professional goals does this degree support?
  • Do educators with this degree earn more?
  • Can someone work in education administration without this degree?
  • Is a master’s in educational leadership worth it?

What does leadership mean in education?

The term educational leadership encompasses everything it takes to achieve school- or district-wide educational goals. This includes everything from teacher development and non-teacher staff management to oversight of daily operations to making choices about what curricula and technology will and won’t be used in classrooms. It can also include things like:

  • State-wide strategic planning
  • Education policy reform
  • The use of technologies like data analytics to assess school or district effectiveness

Many administrative and student-focused roles fall under the educational leadership umbrella. Principals and vice-principals are educational leaders, as are district administrators and private school directors. Some resource guides include career and guidance counselors and instructional coordinators in their lists of educational leaders. In general, any role that falls into a school’s managerial or administrative hierarchy can be considered an educational leadership position. Education policy and consulting roles can also fall under the leadership umbrella.

Leadership in education is critical because someone needs to make big, unifying decisions about how to run schools and teach students. When it comes to what quality education looks like, the goalposts shift constantly. New research into educational theory and educational psychology drives these changes. It’s up to educational leaders to put that research into play in the classroom.


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Who is most likely to pursue a graduate degree in educational leadership?

Master’s in educational leadership programs prepare students to step into advanced administrative roles in educational organizations. These graduate programs can take many forms and confer many degrees and still qualify for accreditation. Some colleges and universities offer a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership. Others provide a Master of Science in Educational Leadership. There are Master of Educational Leadership, or MEDL, programs. At some schools, educational leadership is offered as a specialization, like the Master of Education in Educational Leadership. Many schools bundle educational leadership and educational policy into one degree.

Regardless of how colleges and universities name these degrees, however, they’re almost always designed for teachers and aspiring administrators who want to make education better. Admission requirements vary. Some schools have strict prerequisites applicants must meet. Many programs either require or strongly prefer licensed teachers with classroom or professional learning experience.

Don’t assume that all master’s in educational leadership programs are just for teachers, however. Various competencies contribute to effective educational leadership. According to Boston College‘s Lynch School of Education and Human Development—which offers an MEd in Educational Leadership and Policy as an online program and in a hybrid format—students in educational leadership master’s programs may include:

  • Community-based organizers
  • Educators
  • Policymakers
  • Professional seeking to make meaningful changes in education
  • Religious leaders

What do students in educational leadership master’s degree programs study?

The curriculum in full-time and part-time Master of Educational Leadership and other educational leadership master’s programs differ considerably from school to school. It’s typical for 30 to 40 credit hours of core coursework to cover topics like:

  • Curriculum design
  • Curriculum and instruction implementation
  • Decision-making in educational settings
  • Economics in schools
  • Educational policy
  • Ethics in educational leadership
  • Learning environment optimization
  • Legal issues in education
  • Professional development for teachers
  • Operations management
  • Organizational planning
  • School administration
  • School finance
  • Strategic planning in education

How those topics are covered in an educational leadership degree program will depend on how a school approaches this degree. Core classes and electives in Boston College’s Master of Education in Educational Leadership and Policy program include:

  • Educational Policy Analysis
  • Educational Policy in Practice
  • Educational Law and Public Policy
  • Ethics and Equity in Education
  • Family and Community Engagement
  • Instructional Leadership
  • Introduction to Educational Leadership and Change
  • Leadership for Social Justice
  • Organizational Theory and Learning
  • School Leadership for Emergent Bilinguals
  • Using Data and Evidence for School Improvement

As you research this degree, read program guides carefully. Some colleges and universities let master’s in educational leadership students choose concentrations or specializations like Pre-K-12 Administration, District Leadership, Early Childhood Education, and Learning Design. Some programs include a practicum or capstone course in a seminar format or a culminating research project with a thesis.

Students in the Boston College program, for example, must pass a written examination to prove they have a fundamental understanding of educational leadership before they can qualify for graduation. Other programs help students prepare for a principal certification or principal licensure—usually by building field experiences into the curriculum.

What professional goals does this degree support?

A master’s in education leadership will usually satisfy the department of education requirements to step into school administrator roles in public education. It will also help you qualify for many other administrative and executive positions in public and private schools and at the university level. Keep in mind, however, that educational leadership is a multidisciplinary field. With a MEDL, you’ll be qualified to work as an administrator, education expert in government and private agencies, lobbyist, curriculum designer, advisor in legislative and legal settings, or education policy analyst.

It doesn’t matter whether you earn an online degree or study on campus. According to Mills College‘s School of Education—which offers an online Master of Educational Leadership—some of the more common roles master’s in educational leadership graduates assume include:

  • Community college program director
  • Director of admissions
  • Director of diversity
  • Director of museum education
  • Education-focused nonprofit director
  • Elementary school principal
  • Head of an independent school
  • Middle school principal
  • School community liaison
  • Secondary school principal
  • Special education director

This is clearly a versatile degree and a good choice for anyone interested in becoming a school leader but is unsure what the future holds. With a master’s in educational leadership, you might also become:

  • Director of education policy for a university, state agency, or school board
  • Instructional coordinator helping district administrators define, implement, maintain, and assess academic standards
  • Superintendent of a public school district
  • University dean managing a specific department at a college or working on behalf of a specific student population in higher education

Do educators with this degree earn more?

You will almost certainly earn more with a Master of Educational Leadership than you would without one. However, be aware that administrator salaries can vary widely. The good news is that in the public school system, salaries are often tied to education so that earning a graduate degree results in a predictable raise regardless of whether you advance into a leadership role. The not-so-good news is that the size of that raise may or may not justify the cost of a two-year educational leadership master’s, which can range from $10,000 to $50,000 or more.

In all probability, this degree won’t make you wealthy, though you’ll probably have no trouble paying off any student loans you need to pay for your education. The average education policy analyst salary is about $61,000. The average instructional coordinator salary is only a few thousand dollars higher. Meanwhile, public school principals and deans earn about $100,000, while a college provost earns about $150,000.

Can someone work in education administration without this degree?

Educational administration is a diverse field with some roles open to educators who don’t have master’s degrees. While many states require that principals and administrators in public schools hold master’s degrees—and there are lots of private schools and universities that hold administrators to the same standard—there are also districts, schools, and colleges that don’t specify what type of master’s degree candidates need to qualify for leadership positions. That means you may be able to work in administrative roles or in related fields like curriculum development and instructional design without a degree in educational leadership if you have teaching experience, a master’s degree in teaching, or even a graduate degree unrelated to education.

Success in educational leadership is about more than just meeting minimum requirements, however. You might qualify for positions in administration without a master’s in education leadership, but if you want to thrive in those positions, pursuing an MS, MA, or MEd in Educational Leadership will give you the skills and knowledge you need.

Is a master’s in educational leadership worth it?

The bottom line is that, yes, a master’s in educational leadership is worth it if your goal is to have the biggest impact on students that you possibly can. A teacher can change the lives of a classroom’s worth of students each year. Meanwhile, educational leaders can positively impact the lives of hundreds or even thousands of students by improving the quality of education in a district, getting resources into underfunded or underperforming schools, improving access to education for underprivileged and minority students, and supporting effective teachers so they stay in the school system.

This article was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most recent data on the subject.

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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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