Online Degree in Secondary Education

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Expanding the Minds of Young Adults

Teaching at the high school level grants the opportunity to directly influence the academic and personal lives of students during their formative years. Career paths in secondary education are not limited to working in the classroom. Online secondary education degrees — at the undergraduate and graduate level — can prepare educators for positions in areas from curriculum development to special education instruction. Read on to learn about online degree options, coursework, licensing requirements, and employment options in the field.

Secondary Education Teachers: Milestones to Success

Below is a sample career milestone map showing key accomplishments of someone who earned an online secondary education degree.

Gets Qualified

Completes Bachelor of Arts in secondary education after finishing student-teaching experience

Earns a License

Passes licensing examinations and earned a state teacher certification

Steps Into the Classroom

Begins career as a high school social studies teacher

Gains Leadership Experience

After five years in the classroom, becomes a department head

Continues Education

Completes online Master of Education in secondary

Pivots Into Leadership Role

Pursues an administrative role
as a dean of

What It’s Like to Earn an Education Degree Online

University-based teacher preparation programs combine academic instruction and clinical experiences that align with state-based standards and guidelines. Increasingly, these programs are moving online, providing students with alternative options for completing a secondary education degree. Below is an overview of the learning experience for students earning online secondary education degrees.

Field experience

Student-teaching practicums are a central component of teacher preparation programs. Students are required to complete a set number of hours of field experience in a public or private school. Some online programs, which may have agreements in place with local school districts, arrange site placements for students. However, some programs may require students to find a local site and receive approval for the location and supervising instructor. Some institutions may even require a supervisor site visit to check on the student’s progress.

Anywhere learning

Online learning allows students to complete their degree in a flexible manner. Instruction may be delivered in either asynchronous (self-paced) or synchronous (real-time) formats. Many programs follow an asynchronous format, meaning students are not required to attend their classes at a specific time.

Online learning networks

Online programs use learning management systems. Students use these systems to access course materials, complete weekly assignments, get reading materials and hold course discussions. Like campus-based programs, online programs include peer-to-peer interaction — just via a different medium, with interaction fostered through video conferencing, phone calls, chat rooms, online bulletin boards and email.

Technology requirements

Each online program establishes its own list of technology requirements. Students should have a computer with a reliable, high-speed Internet connection, and the latest versions of Web browsers (e.g., Firefox) and related hardware, such as microphones and speakers, are typically recommended as well.

Types of Online Programs in Secondary Education

Public and private high schools in the United States require their teachers to hold valid state teaching licenses. Individuals interested in teaching at the secondary level have several academic avenues to licensure. Some programs exist at the undergraduate level, preparing teachers to enter the classroom with a bachelor’s degree. Other universities offer master’s and postbaccalaureate programs designed to prepare individuals with bachelor’s degrees in a non-education field to qualify for licensure. It is important to note that the definition of secondary education varies from state to state and may start anywhere from grades six through nine and continue to grade 12. Prospective students should contact their state board of education to learn more about teaching-preparation programs and licensing at the secondary level.

Below is an overview of the major types of degree programs in secondary education.

  • Associate’s
    (2 to 3 Years)
  • Bachelor’s
    (4 to 5 Years)
  • Master’s
    (2 years)
  • Doctorate
    (4 to 6+ Years)
  • Graduate Certificate
    (1 to 2 Years)
  • Education Specialist
    (2 to 3 Years)

Available at community colleges, two-year associate degree programs in secondary education are stepping stones to a four-year bachelor’s degree and a teaching license. The curriculum introduces students to fundamental concepts in education, including pedagogy and theory, curriculum and instruction, diversity, and current trends in the field. Students complete core and general coursework in the first year and transition into coursework in an endorsement area (e.g., social science, mathematics, English) during the second year. Most programs require 60 credit hours to graduate and may also include a student-teaching practicum. Depending on the course of study, students may be qualified to teach either grades 7-12 or 9-12.

Bachelor’s degrees in secondary education are considered teacher preparation programs, designed to provide students with the knowledge, skills and experience to qualify for a teaching license. In these programs, students gain experience planning effective classroom instruction, learn about best practices in classroom management, study evidence-based educational research and assessment, and gain familiarity with utilizing technology to support student learning. During the first two years, students take general education and core curriculum courses. During the second two years, they move into teacher preparation topics and classes in an endorsement area. During their studies, students may complete in-person classroom observations and one to two semesters of student teaching under the supervision of a licensed teaching professional. Credit hours vary, but most programs require between 120 and 128 hours to complete.

Master’s degrees in secondary education prepare teachers for initial licensure or professional advancement. The major goals of these programs are broad in scope. For example, most programs aim to provide teachers with advanced knowledge of teaching theory and modalities so they can learn how to design an effective curriculum, how to assess student performance, how to address the needs of a diverse student body, and how to leverage technology in the classroom. Prospective students may select from two different tracks: Master of Education (MEd) and Master of Arts/Master of Science (MA/MS).

  • Master of Education
    The MEd is designed for both licensed and unlicensed educators and offers a curriculum focusing on education practices and field-based learning experiences that can be applied directly to the classroom. Many MEd programs cover specialized areas of study, such as special education, educational leadership, and curriculum and instruction.
  • Master of Arts/Master of Science
    An MA/MS includes graduate study in education and a secondary education endorsement area (e.g., history, language arts) and generally requires a thesis. The central focus of MA/MS programs is equipping educators with an expert-level knowledge of education as a formal discipline, which requires studying foundational theories, pedagogy and assessment in their subject area.

Doctoral degree programs in secondary education are terminal degrees, representing the highest level of academic achievement in the field. These programs target individuals interested in theory and research who want to develop professionally, transition into leadership positions or pursue careers as academics. Generally, students must complete between 50 and 72 credit hours of study to earn their degree, which includes comprehensive examinations and an original dissertation. There are two distinct tracks at this level: Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Education.

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
    Doctor of Philosophy programs are designed to develop researchers who will examine and explore educational theory and practice. Such researchers are responsible for driving advancements in educational administration, pedagogies, inclusive education and teacher preparation. Some colleges of education allow students to further specialize their doctoral studies in areas such as educational leadership, teaching and curriculum, special education or a pedagogical area such as mathematics or science education. PhD graduates traditionally pursue careers as college faculty members, administrators or curriculum coordinators.
  • Doctor of Education (EdD)
    The Doctor of Education is for licensed educators who want to engage in coursework that deepens their knowledge of education as a practice while delving into a specific content area. The degree is professionally oriented, aimed at returning educators to their schools armed with the ability to translate their knowledge and understanding of the latest research into effective classroom strategies. EdD students may specialize in topics such as teacher leadership, curriculum and instruction, and educational administration.

Secondary education master’s degrees generally require 60 credit hours of full-time study to complete and may include a student-teaching component or thesis.

Graduate certificates are post-baccalaureate programs for individuals who have completed a bachelor’s degree and would like to finish coursework for initial licensure as an educator in their state. The curriculum and core requirements in these programs vary widely — some only require 15 credit hours of study, while others include up to 45 credit hours of coursework. Graduate certificate programs include core curriculum and endorsement area study as well as field learning experiences.

The EdS is a post-master’s degree that allows students to complete graduate studies that develop and advance their knowledge and competencies as educators. Some teachers choose to use an EdS as a bridge to future studies at the doctoral level. Typically requiring 30 to 33 credit hours, these programs may be completed in two to three years of study. A specialist degree curriculum is designed to build upon a licensed secondary teacher’s endorsement subject area but also offers an opportunity to specialize in secondary fields such as literacy, special education, curriculum and instruction, and gifted education. Most EdS programs can be completed almost entirely online but generally do include a seminar and an in-person research component.

Specialization Tracks in Secondary Education

Teachers must be subject matter experts in a selected field of study taught at the secondary level. In their teacher preparation programs, prospective secondary school educators select from academic specializations that will eventually lead to a subject endorsement on their teaching license. Below is a common list of academic concentrations available to teachers:

  • Bilingual education
  • Computer science
  • Dance
  • Drama/theatre arts
  • English as a second language
  • English/language arts
  • Health education
  • Library information specialist
  • Mathematics
  • Music
  • Physical education
  • Science
  • Social sciences
  • Technology education

Common Secondary Education Degree Courses

Combining classroom-based instruction with real-world teaching experiences, online secondary education degrees are designed to enhance the skills of teachers in any discipline. Below is a list of common coursework found in online secondary education programs.

Course Description
Introduction to Secondary Education

In this course, students receive an introductory overview of secondary education, learning about the educational system, the role and responsibilities of secondary educators, and classroom instruction.

Learning and Instruction

This course covers core concepts in education, including teaching methods, principles of learning and instruction, educational psychology, classroom management, cognitive development, and modern models of instruction.

Applied Educational Psychology

Students are introduced to educational psychology, studying both theoretical concepts and practical applications related to teaching, instructional development and teacher-student relationships.

Adolescent Development

This course offers secondary teachers an understanding of human development and how social, environmental and hereditary factors impact students’ ability to learn within a school environment.

Cultural Diversity in the Classroom

In this class, students are introduced to cultural diversity within educational settings, discussing contemporary trends in K-12 education and learning how to work with students from culturally diverse backgrounds.

What to Look for in an Online
Secondary Education Degree Program

There are multiple considerations when it comes to selecting an online versus a campus-based program of study. Below are seven factors to think about when reviewing online secondary education degrees.

  • Is the program accredited?Students should attend online secondary education programs that are accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). Graduating from an accredited program is a teaching licensure requirement in most states.
  • How long does it take to complete the program?Undergraduate programs can last beyond four years of study because they include student teaching, while master’s programs may be completed in as little as two years.
  • Does the program provide a research-based curriculum that is founded on current pedagogical theory?Ensure that the college to which you are applying is accredited – while employers understand that more candidates are receiving their degrees online, it is still important that degrees were earned through reputable institutions.
  • What are the entrance requirements? Students should review entrance requirements, from GPA to prerequisite coursework.
  • How are field experiences handled? Online students are required to complete classroom-based practicums. Some programs may have agreements with local school districts, others may require students to get approval for their local placements, and some may require students to attend on-campus training sessions.
  • Does the program satisfy licensing requirements?The Department of Education in each state maintains a list of approved programs that satisfy licensing requirements. Prospective students should ensure their targeted program is state-approved. This is especially important for students attending an online program based in another state.
  • Does the program prepare students for licensure examinations? To earn a teaching license, graduates must successfully complete state-based knowledge assessments. They should research how program alumni performed on these tests.

The Value of an Accredited Education Degree

Accreditation is a voluntary quality assurance process conducted by third-party, nongovernmental organizations. There are two types of accreditation: institutional and programmatic. For education, the primary programmatic accreditor is CAEP, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (formerly TEAC and NCATE). CAEP reviews and accredits schools, colleges and departments that offer teacher preparation programs.

Accreditation is valuable for two major reasons. First, it validates the quality of the curriculum and overall program, verifies that teachers understand their subjects, and ensures students receive appropriate training that allows them to teach effectively. Second, state licensing agencies typically require educators to have graduated from an accredited program.

For more information, visit our page on the overall accreditation process.

How to Prepare for a Master’s Degree
in Secondary Education

Created for new and experienced teachers alike, master’s degrees in secondary education help teachers develop the skills necessary to become leaders both in and outside of the classroom. The map below is a sample timeline for a certified high school teacher who wishes to return to graduate school to complete a Master of Arts in secondary education.

Time Before Program Start Date
Step 1

Complete a bachelor’s degree and teacher preparation program and earn a teacher’s license

1 to 5+ years
Step 2

Gain professional experience as a high school teacher

1 to 5+ years
Step 3

Prepare for and take the GRE

6 months to 1 year
Step 4

Prepare essay/personal statement of interest; gather letters of recommendation; request official transcripts

3 to 6 months

Step 5

Apply to the program

3 to 10 months

Returning to graduate school is a big decision as it has long-lasting ramifications for teachers personally, financially and professionally. Graduate school is not for everyone, so prospective students should be prepared and ready for the rigors of advanced academic study. Furthermore, gaining entrance to master’s programs is competitive, but the following steps may help applicants as they prepare to go back to school.

  • Demonstrate commitment to educationDesirable candidates must demonstrate their contributions to student learning. This can include not only taking on the standard teaching requirements but also serving on school committees and coaching sports teams.
  • Make connections and networkStudents interested in specific programs can connect with alumni from the program. Making connections, visiting campus (if possible), and meeting with faculty members and graduate directors can all make a real difference when it comes time to review applications.
  • Take a GRE prep courseAlthough not required by every master’s in secondary education program, the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is still a reviewed component by many application committees. Programs typically have a cut-off score, so students should prepare for the test and retake it if necessary to raise their scores.

Job Market for Secondary School Teachers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 6 percent job growth nationally between 2014 and 2024, although that number can be higher or lower based on location, local and state budgets, and demand in specific school subjects. Like job growth, the earning potential for high school teachers also varies from state to state and even between school districts. Numerous factors influence pay, including teacher experience, education level and school location. Nationally, the median salary for high school teachers is approximately $56,000, but ranges from the upper $30,000s to nearly $90,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career National Median Annual Salary (May 2014) National Projected Job Growth (2014 – 2024)
High School Teacher $56,310 6%
Middle School Teacher $54,940 6%
Special Education Teacher (High School) $57,810 6%
Career and Technical Education Teacher (High School) $55,200 0%
Instructional Coordinator $61,550 7%

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, OOH

Credentials and Certifications
in Secondary Education

Becoming a teacher means not only completing a bachelor’s degree and teacher preparation program, but also meeting certification and licensing requirements. Future teachers must earn a teaching license and subject endorsement to teach at the secondary level. They may also choose to further their knowledge and skills through credentialing programs. Below is an overview of the secondary school licensing process and opportunities for professional certification.

Secondary Education Teaching Credential

Although each state department of education sets regulations regarding licensing of secondary school teachers, the basic requirements are similar. Prior to enrolling in any teacher preparation program, prospective students should contact their state department of education to learn about the licensing and certification requirements and process.

Below is a checklist of common licensing steps for secondary school teachers.

  • Bachelor’s degree or higher from an accredited institution of higher education
  • Completion of an approved teacher preparation program
  • Student teaching (or equivalent) experience
  • Completion of state-required credit hours in a content or subject area for endorsement (e.g., language arts, reading)
  • Passing scores on state-based licensure tests and/or Praxis

Educators trained in an out-of-state online secondary education program may have additional requirements to meet prior to being issued a teaching license. Common requirements include the following:

  • Proof of completion of a similar or comparable state-approved program
  • Valid teaching license from other state (if completed)
  • Passing score on a comparable out-of-state basic skills test
  • Passing score on content- or subject-area examination

Secondary Education Teaching Certifications

Developing professionally is one way high school teachers can earn higher salaries or pivot into leadership positions. Beyond a graduate education and post-bachelor’s/post-master’s certificates, the certification and credentialing options for high school teachers is somewhat limited in scope. The two major providers of high school credential programs are the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence.

  • American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence

    In addition to being recognized as a professional credential, a certification from the American Board is recognized as an alternative form of teacher certification in 11 states. To earn American Board certification, candidates must complete a bachelor’s degree and pass two examinations: one on teaching knowledge and one in their subject area.

  • National Board for Professional Teaching Standards

    Candidates can select from 25 academic areas for NBPTS certification. They must have a bachelor’s degree or higher, hold a valid teaching license, and have at least three years of teaching experience. To qualify for the subject certificate, applicants must successfully complete individual components in each area. High school certificate subjects include the following:

    • Art
    • Career and technical education
    • English as a new language
    • English language arts
    • Exceptional needs specialist
    • Health education
    • Library media
    • Mathematics
    • Music
    • Physical education
    • School counseling
    • Science
    • Social studies (History)
    • World languages

Alternative Online Teaching Degrees

Teaching is a wide-reaching and rewarding occupation that allows for an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of different student populations, from toddlers to adults. Below are three potential academic avenues open to those who are not interested in secondary education but who want to teach.

Online Early Child Education Degree

The goal of early childhood education programs is to prepare professionals to work with children and families in infant-toddler programs, Head Start facilities, preschools and child care centers.

Online Elementary Education Degree

Elementary education degree programs are designed to prepare students to work in K-6 educational programs by covering an assortment of subject areas, such as science, social studies, performing arts and mathematics.

Online Adult Education Degree

Adult education degree programs prepare students for careers in adult literacy and basic education, professional education, community development, or even cooperative extensions.

Websites for Secondary Education Teachers