To Earn a Master's or Not To Earn a Master's Degree – That is the Question Teachers Face

Teaching is a fulfilling career, but it can also be quite challenging. Given the amount of energy and time teachers spend planning lessons, teaching lessons, and evaluating lessons, why are so many teachers in the United States striving to earn a masters degree on top of all they already do? In short, earning a masters degree is a wise choice for improving one’s knowledge base and positioning oneself for a more lucrative career. While holding a masters degree is not a basic requirement to teach, many educators pursue a masters degree for teaching or other reasons, such as pay raises and employability. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “More than 1 out of every 5 master’s degrees was awarded in education in 2012–13. And the payoff for these degrees was usually relatively high.” Furthermore, in New York, (88% of teachers have a Master's degree).

If you are new to the field of education, you may see these statistics and ask the question, “Do I need a masters to teach?” The shortest answer is no. However, teaching requirements vary from state to state. For example, while you may not be required to hold a masters degree to start teaching, you may need to earn a masters degree to hold a teaching license that does not expire.

So, do you need a masters degree to teach? You’ve come to the right place to find the answer. We’ll walk you through some different scenarios that could influence your decision to go back to school.

General teaching requirements

Teaching is a huge responsibility. You are expected to teach the next generation to succeed in the future. Therefore, the saying “those who can’t, teach” is far from true. Not just anyone can teach. In fact, even though the requirements vary from one state to the next, there are several steps one must take to become a teacher.

First, all states require teaching candidates to hold a bachelor’s degree. Next, all states have unique teaching licensing procedures, but they all require teaching candidates to pass a teaching certification test, such as the Praxis. These are standardized tests designed to test the candidate’s knowledge of teaching pedagogy and curriculum.

Additionally, all teaching candidates will need to complete a period of supervised teaching before they receive their teaching license. While there are different pathways to teaching, this is a standard requirement. For example, those who pursue a bachelors degree in education will complete a student teaching rotation while in school. However, as many states face teacher shortages, they are allowing individuals to become teachers through alternative pathways. For instance, those who pursue teaching without a degree in education may be allowed to start teaching in a classroom if they hold a bachelor’s degree and pass the state required teaching exam, but they will still have a period where they are supervised before they receive their license.

Now that you know the basic requirements for entering the classroom as a teacher across the U.S., let’s break down the potentially different answers to the question: Do you need a masters to teach?

What teacher training do you have?

As long as you meet the basic requirements discussed above (and specified by the state where you hope to be employed), these are the minimum requirements for teaching. However, there are many reasons why earning a masters degree will help you in your teaching career. It is important to note that you can choose to earn a master of arts in education (MA), a master of education (M.Ed.), or a master degree in your content area. The type of master degree you choose to pursue will lead to some slight differences in your path.

Do you need a master's degree to teach if you do not have a Bachelor's Degree in Education?

It is not required, but you will most likely have to consider alternative pathways to becoming a licensed teacher. These alternative pathways typically require teaching candidates to take some general education courses in addition to the other basic requirements. While you may not be required to earn a master's degree, you will most likely be required to take college-level education courses.

In some cases, it will work to your benefit to pursue a masters degree in education. For instance, in (Should I get a Masters Degree for Teaching?), the author explains, “If you already have a bachelor’s degree in a non-teaching profession, getting a Master’s in education is generally a faster option than getting a second bachelor’s degree. Even if you’re able to apply general education credits from your first degree into your second teaching degree, a fresh new bachelor’s in education will likely take at least three years. In contrast, a Master’s can usually be finished in two years, and sometimes slightly less.” In other words, you will save time and money potentially by pursuing a masters in education instead of going back to school and starting all over.

Do you need a master's degree to teach if you have a Bachelor's Degree in Education?

No, but if you have future plans of moving into another field of education, such as school administration to become a principal, you will need to pursue a masters degree. Additionally, other school positions require a masters degree such as school counselors and media specialists. Therefore, if you aim to move out of the classroom and into one of these areas, you will need to earn a masters degree.

What setting do you want to teach in?

While you do not need to have a masters degree to teach, the setting where you plan to teach will make a difference. For example, do you plan to teach in public or private school? David Recine argues, “Prestigious private schools and reputable, well-funded public school systems may prefer to hire teachers with a higher level of education.” In contrast, the National Center for Education Statistics explains, “Compared with public school teachers, a lower percentage of private school teachers had a master's or higher degree (43 percent).” Ultimately, it is up to the hiring committee. Some schools place great importance on the level of their teachers’ educations, even providing the statistics to parents and the community. In these cases, it is favorable to hold an advanced degree.

Additionally, the level you plan to teach makes a difference in whether or not you need to pursue a masters degree. Let’s take a look.

Do you need a master's to teach if you want to teach elementary, middle or high school?

You are not required to hold a masters to teach in elementary, middle, or high school. According to statistics, more secondary or high school teachers hold masters degrees than elementary teachers. One of the key differences here is the type of masters degrees that teachers pursue. Elementary teachers tend to pursue masters degrees in education, whereas secondary teachers have the flexibility to either pursue a masters degree in education or a masters degree in their content area (such as a high school English teacher earning a masters degree in English Literature).

Do you need a master's to teach if you want to teach at a college?

While there are cases where one does not have to have a masters to teach in college, generally, you will need to hold a masters degree at minimum. The Bureau of Labor Statistics explains, “About 30 percent of these workers had a master’s degree, about 13 percent had a bachelor’s degree, and nearly all remaining workers had a doctoral degree. Postsecondary teachers without a doctoral degree might work as a graduate teaching assistant or qualify to teach a subject such as nursing (with a master’s degree) or vocational education (with a bachelor’s degree).”

Do you want to specialize as a teacher?

As you consider your future, you should think about whether you plan to specialize in a certain field or content area. If so, it is helpful, and sometimes required, to earn a master’s degree in this specialized area. For example, while you are not required to hold a masters degree to teach science education, your school may prefer those who teach gifted education hold a masters degree. Additionally, some states have additional education requirements for certain specializations, such as special education.

The big master's degree debate

One of the main reasons teachers seek a masters degree is because of automatic pay raises. Erik Gilbert writes, “Outside of North Carolina (and Louisiana), most teachers still get automatic pay raises for earning a master’s degree. The size of those raises varies by state, but it’s a low-paid profession and, unsurprisingly, a great many teachers are anxious to increase their pay.” However, these automatic pay raises can be a cause for debate.

Some argue against automatic pay raises as the additional degree does not necessarily correlate to better results or higher student achievement. Studies have shown this to be the case in most subject areas with the exception of math and science. For this reason, many are against giving teachers a pay raise for earning what they consider a “paper credential” that does not lead to more effectiveness in the classroom.

However, other countries are encouraging their teachers to pursue masters degrees. (The Independent (based in the UK) explains, “The inspiration for a teaching profession with Masters degrees comes from Finland, the country that scores highest in international comparisons. Balls has not said that teachers will be required to do the qualification, but the Government has said that it wants teaching to become a Masters-level profession.” Furthermore, the Australian Education Union believes, “Teachers should study postgraduate degree before joining the workforce.”

As you can see, it is a hot topic. Nevertheless, it is a personal decision. If you live in the United States, you should not base your entire decision to earn a masters degree on the potential pay raise (as this may change).

So, to have a master's degree or not to have a master's degree - it is up to you

For many teachers, earning a masters degree is worth it. The degree makes them more desirable as a teacher, builds their resume, and makes it possible for them to move into other areas in education. They believe the degree will help them as teachers in the classroom and to advance in their career. For others, it may be necessary if they plan on a move from classroom teacher to school administrator. However, for others, the cost and the time investment are not worth it.

While it is not necessary to hold a masters to teach in primary and secondary schools, earning one will not hurt you. It may be the very thing that lands you the job over another candidate.

Works cited

Automatic Pay Raises for Teachers Create Perverse Incentives in Graduate Education. (2017, July 02). Retrieved May 22, 2018, from https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2016/07/automatic-pay-raises-teachers-create-perverse-incentives-graduate-education/

Baeder, J. (2012, August 31). Should Certification Require a Master's Degree? Retrieved May 22, 2018, from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/on_performance/2012/08/should_certification_require_a_masters_degree.html

Do teachers need to take Master's? (2011, October 23). Retrieved May 22, 2018, from https://www.independent.co.uk/student/postgraduate/postgraduate-study/do-teachers-need-to-take-masters-863540.html

Robinson, N. (2017, November 24). Teaching should require postgraduate degree, education union says. Retrieved May 22, 2018, from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-24/teachers-should-have-postgraduate-degree-union-says/9186450

Should I get a Master's Degree for Teaching? (2016, March 18). Retrieved May 22, 2018, from https://magoosh.com/praxis/should-i-get-a-masters-degree-for-teaching/

Should I get a master's degree? : Career Outlook. (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2018, from https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2015/article/should-i-get-a-masters-degree.htm

Teacher Credentials Don't Matter for Student Achievement. (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2018, from http://www.nber.org/digest/aug07/w12828.html

The NCES Fast Facts Tool provides quick answers to many education questions (National Center for Education Statistics). (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2018, from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=28

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