Master of Educational Leadership – A Guide to Earning Your MEd or Other Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership

master's in educational leadership

When you start looking at all the challenges that face education administrators today, you quickly start wondering how any school system can keep running…

There’s really only one answer to the question of how schools and school systems survive, and even thrive, in the face of all this pressure. And that is motivated, inspired, and well-trained individuals who are willing to step up into the leadership positions that will confront these challenges.

You may not know how to fix all the problems facing American education today. But you’re already sure about your commitment to give it your best by stepping into an educational leadership role where you can have more influence and a chance to effect real change. Achieving that best, and becoming the person who will take the next generation into a brighter future, means earning a master’s degree in education leadership and administration.

How a Master’s in Educational Leadership Degree Can Unlock New Opportunities for Your Career

principal leaning on corridorYou knew the deal when you got into education in the first place: almost as soon as you laid your hands on that coveted bachelor’s degree with the state-required teaching endorsement on commencement day, you were already plotting your return to college.

That’s because pretty much every state either requires or strongly encourages teachers to fulfill ongoing continuing education mandates through college courses. After all, every school system needs educators that are fully up to speed on what’s happening in their field. You can’t go resting on your laurels for a forty-year teaching career with information that is decades out of date.

As a professional educator, a master’s degree was always in your future.

In many schools, a graduate degree comes with a salary bump, as well.

But while most educators see a master’s as a way to advance in their current role or add an additional teaching endorsement, educational leadership degrees open up entirely new career opportunities. That’s because the path to the principal’s office, or even beyond, requires the specialized training and coursework that comes with these degrees.

You’ll also need experience and plenty of motivation. But if you have a desire to lead and the energy to make great things happen, these degrees put you in a position to do it, whether as a principal, assistant principal, superintendent, or other role in administration.

What Is Involved in Earning a Master’s in Education Leadership?

confident adult studentMost education administration master’s degrees take about two years to complete, or around 30 credit hours in a semester system.

They are rigorous programs with high standards and challenging topics to address. There’s no hiding in the back of a massive lecture hall; you’ll be in small classes that require plenty of participation and discussion.

Many of these programs include coursework required by state regulators in order to becoming licensed as a principal or administrator. The exact coursework required can vary from state to state, and from job to job. Most programs will offer either a path to qualifying as a principal or as a superintendent.

You’ll find that graduate credits cost you more than your bachelor’s studies, as well. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the typical public university charged $12,410 per year for graduate studies, while private colleges cost $26,597.

Considering an Online Master’s in Educational Leadership

working on earning master'sThe investment in earning an advanced degree in educational leadership goes beyond cost, however. You also need to be prepared to commit a considerable amount of time and intensive study.

That combination is tough for anyone to put together, but it’s particularly hard if you’re already working in education administration and on the clock full-time, year-round. It’s not like being a teacher with a few months each summer that you can dedicate to your degree.

Choosing a master’s in educational leadership online helps take a lot of those challenges off the table. By shifting all your classes to flexible, asynchronous access, you can fit them in around whatever real-world obligations you already have. Study at different times on different days, catch up on class conference chats after dinner, and stream lectures over your morning coffee from the kitchen table… whatever works for you.

And with the option to study from any location with an internet connection, you no longer have to worry about picking a program close to home. That can both help reduce your costs and open up a wider range of options for finding the right fit. Halfway across the state or halfway across the country, it’s all the same, as long as the program meets the credentialing requirements for your state.

Finding the Right Master’s in Education Administration and Leadership for Your Career Goals

laughing adult students in classThere are many degree variations and specializations on the table when considering a master’s degree in education administration. That means there’s plenty to consider when it comes time to select a degree program that aligns with your goals. Even more importantly, you’ll need to make sure they come with the kind of coursework required by your state licensing authority, as most administrative positions in schools require state-issued licensure.

You’ll find that master’s degrees in education administration tend to fall into two categories when it comes to specialization.

One kind is built around specific positions in education leadership, with titles that include:

  • Master of Arts in Education Administration – Student Affairs Administration specialization
  • Master of Arts in Education Leadership & Special Education Administration
  • Master of Arts in Higher Education Administration
  • Master of Arts in Education with a Major in Administration and Supervision
  • Master of Education in Educational Leadership, School Principal Specialization
  • Master of Arts in Education Administration – Principal (P-12)
  • Master of Arts in Educational Administration – Supervisor of Instruction (P-12)
  • Master of Science in Educational Leadership
  • Master of Arts in Educational Leadership and Management
  • Master of Education in Special Education Administration
  • Master of Science in Early Childhood Studies – Administration, Management, and Leadership

These types of programs almost always meet state licensing standards, and focus on the business of running schools, districts, colleges, and supervising staff.

The other category of specialization revolves more around knowledge and expertise in different aspects of educational leadership. It can be a focus on leadership itself, or in specialized areas of interest for school and district leaders such as:

  • Master of Arts in Higher Education Leadership for Changing Populations
  • Master of Arts in School Improvement
  • Masters in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
  • Master of Education with a Focus in Learning Design and Technologies
  • Master of Education with a concentration in Social Justice and Human Rights

There’s a nearly endless range of different specializations in this category, ranging from applied behavior analysis and autism spectrum disorders to literacy education and teaching pedagogy.

You can think of these differences like the differences in ITP programs between majors in teaching and education, with concentrations in subject matter areas, versus those that major in the subjects themselves but offer an ITP specialization. In both cases, you’re getting the kind of training required to do the job—but you will notice there is a different emphasis in what you are taught.

A Word on the MA in Educational Leadership at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota from Program Director, Craig Sundberg

craig sundberg
Craig Sundberg, EdS Director of the MA in Educational Leadership

Craig Sundberg holds a B.A. in Education from Bethel University, a master’s in Education from Hamline University, a master’s in Administration from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, and Ed. Specialist Certification. Craig is a former coach and teacher, and for 17 years served as an administrator in the Mounds View School District.

Craig has been the director of the M.A. in Educational Leadership at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota since the fall of 2010.  He is responsible for curriculum, program review, assessment, recruiting, hiring, and retaining an exemplary instructional support team while being an integral part of the overall success and advancement of the Graduate School of Education. Craig has been engaged in all facets of growth in the GEDL program since shortly after its inception in 2008. In addition, Craig has also been an integral staff member of the EDS Licensure program and assists students who may seek a transition to administration in Minnesota, upon completion of the MA in Ed Leadership offering. He has developed curriculum and taken part in speaking engagements focusing on social and emotional intelligence in leadership. In addition to his leadership background, he has taught classes at the master’s level in the areas of instruction and educational psychology.

Robert Joss, dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, has defined leadership as “taking responsibility for an organization’s well-being and growth.”

We are experiencing monumental change in areas centering on political, economic, educational, and societal dynamics. How do we equip today’s leaders in accepting the mantle of change while also accepting the responsibilities of making transparent and foundational change over time?

A highlight of the MA in Educational Leadership lies in our focus and intent to have our students see themselves as change agents as they embark on improving education, corporations, non-profits, organizations, and private enterprise through vehicles of data analysis, independent research, communication, supervisory strategies, management, and ethical considerations.

Thoughtful steps have been taken in our required texts, discussion boards, research, etc., which reflect current trends of leadership. Contemporary strategies have been embedded in a timely fashion when updating syllabi for all courses being offered. This produces outcomes which are well supported with current and relevant instructional strategies.

A significant goal of this program is to ensure that the major content areas have a direct correlation to leadership and attributes found in becoming a change agent and transformational leader.  Leadership, as most currently defined, is a highly sought after and highly valued commodity. This commodity is complex and has multiple dimensions. This program assists students with unpacking their unique and differentiated style of personalized leadership.

Our instructors are all practitioners and experts in their field, which give ownership to the curriculum and course of study. Students focus on recognizing their leadership mission and strive toward developing skills to find, interpret, and analyze a variety of literature in order to advance their scholarship and leadership in our schools, business, corporations, or other enterprises.

Exploring Education Leadership Master’s Degree Coursework and Experiential Training

student high fiveYour classes in these programs will generally fall into two buckets.

The first is the standard sort of leadership and administrative training that executives need to run any kind of major organization. Of course, in a master’s degree in education administration, those classes will naturally come with a specific slant toward the business of running a school or school district.

Classes in this area include subjects such as:

Management and Leadership in Education

You’ll cover ground-level basics in school and district administration, all the fundamentals of processes and procedures needed to keep your team on the same page. You’ll also learn leadership skills like strategic communication, planning, project management, and other essentials for keeping your organization on track with your priorities.

School Finance and Budgeting

These courses cover the basics of accounting and finance. You’ll learn how money is allocated to various aspects of operations and the differences between those and capital projects like school construction. You’ll learn how to draw up budgets and present them to school boards and staff.

Legal and Ethical Considerations in Education

Schools today are heavily regulated by both state and federal law. Those laws are changing all the time, so these classes will get you up to speed in the latest developments and obligations you face. You’ll also learn even more about the strong ethical standards that are the cornerstone of American education, diving into both the philosophy and practical implications.

Human Resources and Educator Training

As a principal or administrator, you’re going to be responsible for managing your staff and keeping them at the level of expertise your community expects. So HR management classes are a must in a master’s degree in administration education, teaching you the administrative and interpersonal skills you will need to hire, fire, evaluate, cultivate, and promote your staff.

Enrollment Management

With population and migration in flux across the country, most schools deal with challenges in predicting enrollment and scaling their services to match. You’ll learn how to make forecasts, develop systems to manage enrollment, and stay ahead of long-term trends in your area.

Of course, there’s going to be some variation from program to program. You’re likely to get more coursework in psychology and organizational behavior in a master’s degree in educational leadership, while the nuts and bolts business courses will be the highlight in a master of arts in educational administration.

school staff

The other category of coursework you can expect to study in these programs are those dealing with some of the major challenges and topics facing educational administrators today. These can be more varied, but often include classes in subjects like:

Leading Diversity

According to the Census Bureau, the Diversity Index of the United States increased from not quite 55 percent in 2010 to just over 61 percent in 2020. In some states, it was as high as 76 percent. It’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. Educational administrators today aren’t just expected to deal with diversity, but also to provide real leadership in the challenges facing society in diversity, inclusion, and social justice. This coursework offers both perspectives and tools for meeting that tough task head-on.

Supervision to Improve Instruction

Most administrators come from the ranks of teachers, so you already know just how tough it is to teach effectively with mandates in curriculum, standardized testing, and community pressure piled on. These courses put you on the other side of the table, dealing with the kind of leadership needed to help your staff bring their instructional game up to the next level while still checking all the boxes for formal requirements.

Education and Policy Analysis

Similarly, administrators and supervisors also have roles to play in shaping community education policy and making recommendations for education systems. You’ll get coursework covering the history of educational policy in the country, comparisons to other systems, and the pressing topics of today that policy needs to address.

Curriculum Development

Administrators are also responsible for building out a curriculum that meets all the needs of both students and the community. Although you may not be directly involved in constructing curriculum, you will certainly have to act as referee and final judge among those who are building them. You’ll have to ensure that all the relevant standards are met and answer questions from the community and other professionals. So the process of curriculum development isn’t one you want to neglect, and these classes will bring you up to speed.

Education Technology

Classes in educational technology deal with both the positive and negative side of new breakthroughs. You’ll learn about developments in remote learning, virtual presentations, and online testing; you’ll also find out how administrators are dealing with challenges like handling mobile devices in the classroom, dealing with subjects like video game addiction, and understanding the impacts of social media on your student body.

Expanding Your Expertise Through Electives and Intensive Research Opportunities

principal and young students in corridorMaster’s degrees are also famous for including participation in research and theoretical investigations in education theory. That means training in research methodology and design and an opportunity to put it to use.

Whether as a part of your own thesis or capstone project, or as assistance with a professor’s larger research programs, you will receive some experience in conducting and evaluating investigations into modern educational administration and leadership principles.

Most master’s degrees also come with a wide range of elective options to help you focus your studies.

Just about any kind of advanced degree in modern education or leadership theory will have classes you can take to improve your understanding of the most pressing issues in both education and society. String them together in the right way, and you’ll develop a unique set of expertise that will drive home your value to future employers.

Internships and Culminating Projects Drive Home the Lessons of an Education Leadership Master’s Degree

smiling educational leaderFinally, just as ITP (Initial Teacher Preparation) programs come with extensive student teaching practice to help you hone your skills in real-world environments, master’s in education leadership programs usually have internship or practicum courses as part of the package. Instead of dropping you into a classroom, however, you’ll find yourself in the front office or at district headquarters, shadowing principals or other education executives.

You’ll perform valuable work in these positions, while observing how educational leadership gets done in the face of genuine challenges. Even online master’s in education leadership degrees typically include some sort of experiential training in a local school or district office.

Even online master’s degrees in educational leadership will usually arrange for local internship or practicum placements to help you gain real-world experience.

And as with all advanced degrees, master’s in education leadership require the completion of a thesis or a practical capstone project. These requirements are designed to help you integrate all your other training into a single representative, culminating experience. Both require significant research and will absorb much of your attention during your studies.

A traditional thesis can run for hundreds of pages and take many revisions even before having to defend it in front of a committee of experts. It requires original thought and expression of educational leadership ideas or theories and demonstrates your grasp of all the material you’ve been taught.

The more modern capstone project option still requires some writing, but is aimed at a more practical expression of your experience. These can be research explorations, analysis of current practices in a school, or even action projects that make changes to real-world school systems.

Choosing the Right School for Your Master’s in Educational Leadership Studies

happy adult studentPicking the right school for your graduate studies is a step that will have major career implications. Finding a school that offers the right kind of program to match your needs for both any required state license and for the practical training you need to get the job done is just the first step.

So on top of your basic needs for a master’s program that has the right specialization and coursework, you’ll probably be looking at factors like:

Reputation carries a lot of weight in education circles, so having that school’s name up on the top of your diploma is going to matter.

First-rate professors are something you already value by virtue of your own experience in the classroom—you’ll need a program where both practical and academic credentials are top-notch.

The right educational resources can be key… from libraries stuffed with references, to academic and career guidance, to adequate writing labs.

Excellent education industry connections are always valuable, to land you in key internships and on the right research projects.

One must-have for programs that prepare you for licensure is specialty accreditation from CAEP (Council for the Accreditation of Education Preparation) – formerly NCATE (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education) and the TEAC (Teacher Accreditation Council). In addition to accrediting ITP degrees, the organizations also cover master’s programs offering advanced administration and supervision training.

NCATE and TEAC merged into CAEP in 2014, but you may still find some programs that haven’t renewed yet that hold current NCATE and TEAC accreditation.

CAEP brings the same exhaustive investigation and careful analysis. So you have every assurance that a specialty accredited master’s in educational leadership will meet the standards your next employer is looking for.

What Can I Do With a Master’s in Educational Leadership?

Master’s programs in educational leadership are usually very clearly aimed at one of three general categories of employment:

  • Principal
  • Superintendent
  • Specialized administration positions

Depending on your state, there may be different licenses and licensing requirements that cover each of those jobs. But either way, you’ll probably have a pretty clear idea what kind of position you are aiming for long before you start looking at your degree options.

Education leadership roles can cover a lot of ground, though, even when they come with the same job titles. A superintendent in a small rural school district with three schools will be expected to have pretty different qualifications from a major urban district superintendent with dozens of schools and tens of thousands of students under supervision.

The Jobs You Can Do with a Master’s in Educational Leadership and the Salary You Could Earn

Jobs you can get with a master’s in educational leadership tend to be among the better-paying positions available in the field of education.

Those numbers also vary a lot by geographic location. For starters, different states provide different funding mechanisms and levels for their school systems, which will affect salary levels. Then there are the inevitable differences between rural, suburban, and urban school systems. These differences exist both as a wider factor in the market—urban teachers have to pay urban housing and transportation costs—and in terms of the size and degree of challenge involved in the job.

Many teaching positions already offer contractual salary bumps for earning a master’s degree, but administration positions can improve on that. It can be tough to pin down what exactly to expect for compensation in an educational leadership position.

Again, the three general categories of educational leadership jobs come in handy when it’s time to compare salaries.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t have these exact roles, or even very many of the specific job titles commonly used in their collection of official salary data. But they do have categories that generally fit the categories of leadership positions you can get with advanced degrees in educational leadership.

Subject Matter Specialists

subject matter specialistIn the same way that these positions are often licensed as an extension of a basic teaching license, BLS often covers these salaries under their broader categories for teachers at different levels and roles – ECE, kindergarten and elementary, middle school, high school, and postsecondary. 

Any subject matter specialist who has taken the time to get an advanced degree and qualifying license can expect to be paid for the extra effort. That means salaries for subject matter specialists likely be in the 90th percentile, which is the top of the ranges that BLS tracks for teachers. That means salaries for subject matter specialists would be close to the figures shown here:

Supervisory Roles

supervisory roleBLS doesn’t break supervisory positions out by grade level or role. For the most part, all educational administrators, from elementary schools all the way up to district superintendents, are covered in the single category for elementary, middle, and high school principals:

Postsecondary, or college, education administrators actually do have a separate category. As with primary and secondary administration, this one category covers a lot of territory… everyone from the college president to the provost in charge of student parking. The number listed above is the median; you can expect positions of less responsibility to fall into the lower 25 percent, with an average of $74,730, while chancellors hit the top 10 percent at more than $190,770 per year.

Educational Support Positions

educational support positionsBLS actually does separate out most of these support roles, at least generally—librarians, coaches, and counselors have their own categories, while other staff specialists in various roles from curriculum development to gifted and talented program administrators fall into the category of instructional coordinators.

Since master’s degrees and licensing are all ground-level qualifications in these positions, we’ve listed the median rates of pay as of 2021 for each:

If coaching is your dream and that last number looks a bit low for a master’s degree holder, don’t get too bent out of shape—many part-time positions knock down the average. And as one of the few areas in the educational job market that is subject to some real competition for top talent, if you’re a winner on the field, you’ll probably be a winner at the negotiating table.

It’s an old but still accurate observation that the highest paid public employee in almost two-thirds of all states is a coach working for one of the state’s public universities.

Of course, each of these positions, in every category and role, are affected by the same forces as other jobs. In other words, geography and cost of living will be a factor, as will supply and demand. Naturally, jobs in larger schools or districts with responsibility for more students or staff are going to pay better.

handshake graduatesOn top of those typical issues, there are also big differences in the ways that different states fund their school systems and determine staff salaries and compensation. Being in state with stronger or weaker teacher’s unions can also factor into salary levels for some positions. Working at a private school can also bend your salary in different directions, depending on the status and funding.

On the other hand, most of these jobs are in public education and can count on the traditionally strong benefit packages that public employees enjoy. You should count good health insurance, generous pension benefits, and solid vacation time—although, as an administrator, you may well be saying goodbye to your beloved free summers, since many of these roles work year-round.

But if you ask anyone who has gone on to earn an education leadership job and land a job in school administration, they’ll tell you it’s worth it. The extra study, the extra hours, and the added pressures all come with a kind of compensation money can’t buy: a chance to shape the future for thousands of kids.

2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Postsecondary Education Administrators, Education Administrators, Kindergarten through Secondary, Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals, Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers, High School Teachers, Middle School Teachers, Special Education Teachers, Preschool Teachers, Librarians and Library Media Specialists, Postsecondary Teachers, School and Career Counselors and Advisors, Postsecondary Education Administrators, and Instructional Coordinators reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023.

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