The 5 Best Master's Degrees in Education
May 27, 2021
Earning an education master's degree can lead to great careers in curriculum and instruction, education policy, education administration, and school psychology. You may even become a teacher.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, education master's degrees account for more than one in five master's degrees conferred each year. Without question, post-graduate degrees are popular among teachers; nearly 60 percent held one in 2017-18.
And teaching is hardly the only option available after earning a master's in education. You may break into fields like curriculum and instruction, education policy, education administration, and even school psychology. Many students enter graduate education programs with teaching backgrounds, but that's not a requirement. Earning an education master's can also be a great way to switch careers.
If you're considering advancing or beginning your education career, learning about the 5 best master's degrees in education is an excellent first step. This article covers:
- Why should an education professional get a master's degree?
- Master of Education
- Master of Arts (or Science) in Teaching
- Master of Business Administration
- Master of Psychology
- Master of Public Policy
Why should an education professional get a master's degree?
If you teach in Connecticut, Maryland, or New York and want to continue teaching after your initial license is up, you must earn a master's. Most states don't have this policy, but it's worth noting that the decision may not be much of a decision.
Beyond state-mandated requirements, there are several great reasons to earn a master's degree in teaching or education. They include:
For upper-level jobs, it may be required
Earning a master's can further your teaching career, even if it's not a requirement. Teachers in states like Massachusetts and Oregon can renew their initial licenses without a master's degree but cannot attain top licensure. A master's can also qualify you for teacher leadership roles, including leading extracurricular activities, mentoring new teachers, and outlining academic or disciplinary programs.
Master's degrees can be essential if you want to work in education but not as a classroom teacher. Many people who become education administrators (including principals and superintendents) start their careers as teachers before going on to earn an education master's, or even doctorate.
Other careers in administration and leadership that you can earn with a master's degree include:
- College program director
- Director of diversity
- Director of education nonprofit
- School community liaison
- Special education director
Improved skills and knowledge
This is the best reason to earn a master's degree in education. There are a few ways to specialize. One popular option is continuing your education in the subject you teach. A master's in English could help you develop more advanced courses for your students or graduate from teaching lower-level grades to high school. Alternatively, you could focus on early childhood education or special education. Graduates from these master's degree programs can take on leadership roles in their fields.
According to figures from the National Council on Teacher Quality, teachers with a master's earn an average of $2,760 more in their first year than they would with only a bachelor's. According to the study, that disparity can increase to nearly $8,000 over time.
That said, school districts have different methods of giving raises. Some school systems reward years of experience rather than advanced degrees. Other factors that can impact what you'll earn include location (urban or rural), the grade you teach, and whether you teach in a public or private school.
Master of Education
Students often pursue the Master of Education (MEd) to prepare for an administrative career, but the degree can also advance teaching careers. The American University Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership, for example, trains students to "evaluate, create, and implement effective policy that facilitates exceptional learning experiences for all students and transforms systems for a brighter and more equitable future."
Typically, you'll earn more with a MEd than a teaching-focused degree. Consider that high-level administrative positions like school principal can pay well over $100,000 per year. The average salary for a MEd-holder is just under $60,000. For a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT), that figure is slightly over $55,000.
Don't confuse this advanced degree with a Master of Science in Education, or Master of Arts in Education, both of which are teaching-focused degrees.
MEds typically take two years for full-time students. Part-time students may take longer to complete their education. Popular specializations include:
Not many schools offer an adult education master's in education, but they are available to those willing to do a bit of research. The Pennsylvania State University - Main Campus College of Education offers a Master of Education in Lifelong Learning and Adult Education, which prepares graduates to teach adult learners. Graduates can work at community centers, higher education institutions, and even in the private sector, taking on roles in curriculum design, administration, or in front of the classroom.
Curriculum and Instruction
University of Pittsburgh - Pittsburgh Campus offers a MEd in Curriculum and Instruction through its School of Education that prepares students to "develop high-impact learning experiences for student learners by developing activities that are engaging, equitable, and empowering, and which will build your students' skills in complex thinking, collaboration, and communication." The Pitt program is designed for educators early in their careers. This MEd program can prepare you for a teaching career but can also lead to jobs in curriculum design and educational leadership.
Early Childhood Education
Earning a MEd in Early Childhood Education can prepare you for teaching, administration, and leadership roles including curriculum designer, elementary school principal, or consultant.
Vanderbilt University offers a MEd in Elementary Education specifically designed for teachers seeking work in urban schools. The program partners with schools to allow students to "connect theory to practice" in subjects like trauma-influenced practices and Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM).
Arizona State University - Downtown Phoenix offers an online Online Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on Early Childhood Education. Course material covers:
- Childhood pedagogy
- Community collaboration
- Policy analysis
This specialty leads to roles like education policy analyst, program analyst, and researcher. Schools may include "policy" in the degree title. Many academics pursue this degree, as well as administrators and teachers.
Mills College offers an Online Master of Arts inEducation Leadership that "prepares practitioners and change makers in the field of education for leadership in settings inside and beyond the classroom, including policy and advocacy roles."
Instructional Design and Technology
Another degree that prepares graduates to design curricula, the MEd in Instructional Design and Technology includes coursework on how to effectively utilize educational technology. University of Cincinnati - Main Campus students qualify for classroom careers or can design training programs for the private sector or military. Students complete coursework in:
- Data analytics
- Instructional design
- Technology evaluation
Master of Arts (or Science) in Teaching
Earning a MAT or Master of Science in Teaching (MST) usually prepares you to advance a teaching career. A teaching master's can also help those with a bachelor's degree in a different subject transition careers and earn their first teaching license. These degrees can be offered online and in-person and, like MEds, have multiple track options, including:
- Childhood special education
- Early childhood education
- Educational psychology
- English as a second language (ESL)
- Science and mathematics education
The difference between a MAT and MST varies by school—they typically share many similarities. You may think that these degrees differ by subject matter (science versus arts). While this can be the case, it's not a rule. Broadly, MSTs have a more technical bend. They typically require a thesis, though MATs can have a thesis or capstone requirement. MATs typically include more fieldwork. Both allow school teachers to specialize and improve their skillsets.
Master of Business Administration
You may not think earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) can lead to an education career, but it can. An MBA can lead to roles in policy, district-level administration, or at a non-profit. Students with these degrees can pursue niche careers creating equitable learning environments for underprivileged students.
Stanford University offers a joint MA and MBA degree in education through the Graduate School of Education. The program's goal is to prepare graduates "to recognize the features of education business that render this sector distinctive in form, content, and mission." You complete MBA coursework in the first year, then take courses at the education school. Completing cross-listed courses can make fulfilling requirements easier.
Similarly, you may complete a master's in education administration, which focuses on upper-level management subjects like school finance and education law in addition to traditional topics like curriculum development. In addition to being leaders in primary and secondary education, graduates work at the university level as financial aid directors, registrars, and admissions counselors. This degree can also lead to roles in the private sector.
Master of Psychology
CUNY Graduate School and University Center offers a MA in Psychology that can lead to psychology careers or a doctoral degree program. Students choose from two tracks:
- Industrial/organizational psychology focuses primarily on evaluating the workplace and leads to careers in fields like human resources
- Developmental psychology examines humans throughout their lives
A developmental psychology degree is more likely to lead to a career in schools.
Students in both graduate programs learn research methodology and ethical constructs. They study theoretical and applied concepts in three of these five subjects:
- Biological bases of behavior
- Learning and cognition
- Social behavior
- Theories of personality
A master's in educational psychology may be a better option if you want to work in schools. This degree can lead to careers like:
- Program evaluator
- Qualitative educational research technician
- School counselor
- School psychologist
Master of Public Administration
If you want a macro impact on the education field, consider earning a Master of Public Administration (MPA). This degree sets you up to work in legal and policy-making roles. Graduates typically earn positions in government—local, state, and federal—or work in the private and non-profit sectors.
MPA coursework can focus on subjects like:
- Financial analysis
- Non-profit management
- Social policy
MPA programs typically offer many concentration options. Graduate students at Cornell University can choose from specializations like:
- Economic and Financial Policy
- Environmental Policy
- Government, Politics, Policy Studies
- Human Rights and Social Justice
- International Development Studies
- Public and Nonprofit Management
- Science, Technology and Infrastructure Policy
- Social Policy
While none of these options relate specifically to education, all significantly intersect with education policy.
Which master's degree is right for me?
This depends on your chosen career path and skill sets. For instance, if you are bilingual, you might feel called to go into ESL—teaching or creating policy. A teaching degree can help further your career as an educator, while a Master of Education degree can set you up for excellent jobs developing curricula or leading a school.
Luckily, most graduate programs do not restrict who can apply—though they may ask you to complete additional coursework if you come from a different field. With a solid education record and Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores, you'll have many options.
Where you earn a degree may be just as important as the subject you study. Check to make sure that every graduate school that you apply to has the proper accreditation. According to US News and World Report, you can verify a school's credentials by first looking at the school website, then cross-referencing it with the accreditation agency. Also, check whether the specific degree program needs verification.
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