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MAT vs. MEd: Comparing Degrees and Leadership Styles

January 30, 2023

Leading a classroom and leading a school district have much in common, starting with a dedication to the education of children and adults. That said, though both roles require a leadership style that students and others respond to, taking the lead in a classroom or other school setting requires a different set of skills from those needed to lead as an education administrator or similar roles.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to innovation in the classroom or to education policy more broadly. Addressing the needs of students from diverse social and economic backgrounds requires using a range of educational leadership styles. Advanced education, such as an online Master of Education (MEd) in Education Policy and Leadership or an online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Elementary Education can prepare the next generation of educators to overcome the challenges of providing all students with equitable education, regardless of their location, socioeconomic status, or abilities.

While there are many similarities between the MAT and MEd in Education Policy and Leadership programs, they differ in their specific goals and the career opportunities they lead to. Understanding the distinctions between MAT vs. MEd programs is an important first step for anyone considering education careers and choosing between the two degrees.

What Is an MAT Degree?

A Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degree is an advanced program designed to prepare prospective teachers for specialized teaching roles. It offers coursework focused on techniques for teaching a certain curriculum, such as science or math. The coursework focuses on knowledge and topics that allow each student to delve deeper into a particular subject area, providing them with the level of expertise necessary to confidently cover different areas within an overarching subject. For example, an MAT specialization may allow a teacher to develop a fuller understanding of chemistry, biology, physics, or astronomy.

Courses can also focus on teaching students in a specific demographic, like elementary school or middle school. Coursework commonly integrates specialized courses with those covering key pedagogical concepts, such as educational psychology and teaching diverse students.

Developing advanced expertise in teaching through an MAT degree program can show colleagues and prospective employers that the graduate is a trusted teaching authority. 

At the same time, an MAT program’s focus on the classroom and the school teaching environment prepares teachers for a long, effective career in the classroom, where they can shape minds and instill a passion for learning into each student they encounter. From a big-picture perspective, these teachers have great potential to improve the practice of teaching, be advocates for other classroom teachers, and advance the profession as a whole.

What Is an MEd Degree?

A Master of Education (MEd) degree is an advanced program typically designed to develop expertise in educational theory. It’s a program that focuses on the operations side of the educational system, thus preparing students to take on leadership roles that can influence the educational process. 

Coursework typically focuses on big-picture philosophies that graduates can apply in the real world to administer guidance or promote change, such as organizational change, quantitative research, and public policy. These goals don’t directly focus on being a better teacher. However, they can have a noticeable impact on teaching, as their application provides the foundation needed to properly support a school’s operations and optimize a child’s learning experience in a classroom setting. Because of this indirect relationship, it’s not uncommon for some MEd programs to require their students to have some teaching experience prior to enrollment.

Earning an MEd degree can prepare individuals to pursue leadership roles associated with the functions of schools or school systems, such as principal or school administrator. Professionals in these roles can help shape the future of education in the short and long term, which ultimately can make those who earn MEd degrees influential figures in the education field.

MEd vs. MAT: Different Leadership Styles 

While MAT and MEd holders utilize and apply leadership differently, it is integral that graduates of both degrees have strong leadership competencies. 

MAT Leadership

The MAT degree program focuses on the practical teaching skills and leadership styles that are most effective in the classroom and other school settings—wherever teachers interact directly with students. These are among the common classroom leadership styles:

  • Authoritarian: Teachers rule
  • Democratic: Students share responsibility for learning management
  • Instructional: Teachers follow all administrative rules strictly
  • Coaching: Teachers serve as friends and mentors, giving students maximum freedom
  • Transformational: Teachers strive to change the way students think about themselves

In reality, leadership styles in education borrow some elements from all five of these broad types, as well as concepts from many other sources.

MEd Leadership 

Alternatively, holders of MEd degrees will apply different leadership styles in their work. Their responsibilities entail leading teams of education managers and professionals working in government, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and private businesses. 

In these roles, school principals and other education administrators and professionals rely on the transactional leadership styles of business as well as the transformational styles that emphasize changing people’s view of what’s possible—for themselves and for their communities.

MAT vs. MEd: Degree Similarities              

Experienced education professionals holding a bachelor’s degree who are considering the different types of education degrees will find many similarities between the MAT and MEd in Education Policy and Leadership programs when it comes to their main areas of focus, which are:

  • Transforming the lives of students and the future of education
  • Addressing the needs of schools in the most vulnerable communities
  • Creating innovative curricula based on the latest advances in psychology, neurology, and cultural fluency
  • Using education as the impetus for social change

A primary goal of both the MAT and MEd in Education Policy and Leadership degrees is to instill a passion for education. Groundbreaking research, innovative coursework, and rewarding partnerships provide graduate students with insights into the obstacles teachers face inside and outside of the classroom. Practical skills developed over the course of both of these programs include coaching, familiarity with data analytics, and curriculum and research development and design.

A primary goal of both the MAT and MEd in Education Policy and Leadership is to instill a passion for education. Groundbreaking research, innovative coursework, and rewarding partnerships provide graduate students with insights into the obstacles teachers face inside and outside of the classroom. Practical skills developed over the course of one of these programs include coaching, familiarity with data analytics, and curriculum and research development and design.

MAT vs. MEd: Degree Differences

Developing and leveraging transformational leadership styles is at the core of both MAT and MEd in Education Policy and Leadership programs. The central difference between the two programs lies in how a transformational approach is applied, and this difference in turn will determine which program fits best for a specific career. 

The overarching difference between the two degrees is that the MAT degree emphasizes the educational needs of individual students in specific school environments, while the MEd degree in Education Policy and Leadership reimagines ways that various leadership styles in education, all of which are grounded in social justice, can be used to transform entire schools and school systems.

MAT vs. MEd: Career Options and Concentrations          

The MAT and MEd in Education Policy and Leadership programs each address specific career goals of potential candidates. Most MAT students are classroom instructors seeking their advanced degrees, while those enrolling in the education leadership program come from both administrative and instructional backgrounds.

The MAT in Elementary Education curriculum has three primary tenets:

  • Converting learning weaknesses into strengths
  • Taking an interdisciplinary approach to creating a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education
  • Instilling a sense of social justice throughout the curriculum

By contrast, the MEd in Education Policy and Leadership prepares tomorrow’s education leaders to influence public policy in ways that ensure a more equitable distribution of educational resources. The result is more opportunities and improved educational outcomes for our most underserved communities.

MAT Specializations 

The two programs are further distinguished by the specializations they offer. The MAT curriculum emphasizes cultural competency and an appreciation of the community’s diversity. In addition to promoting the STEM skills that future careers will depend on, the program strives to engender a sense of community among students and faculty. The program’s coursework includes Effective Teaching for Diverse Students, Teaching Science in the Elementary School, and Children’s Literature: A Critical Literacy Perspective.

MEd Specializations

The MEd in Education Policy and Leadership program might appeal to someone with a strong desire to steer the American educational system toward social justice and equitable education. It promotes different leadership styles in education by providing the tools leaders need to implement effective policy based on law, economics, and cutting-edge education research. The program’s focus on policy studies prepares students to lead education agencies, school districts, and nonprofits. Among its courses are Economic Inquiry in Education, Education Law and Policy, and Quantitative Research in Education.

Typical Career Paths for Each Program               

Earning an MAT or an MEd can lead you toward different types of careers within the education field. While these paths feature roles that have different responsibilities and tasks, they both focus on the primary goal of providing a better educational experience for students so they can thrive.

MAT Degree

A MAT degree commonly features tracks that can prepare students to pursue a teaching job at an early childhood, elementary, or secondary education level. Each track focuses on preparing candidates with the skills and knowledge needed to provide a solid education experience that meets students at their specific level. Some programs may be connected to a network of local and nationwide schools; this network could potentially aid students in locating a teaching role after graduation.

American University’s online MAT program is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparers (CAEP) and is geared toward students seeking a teaching license in elementary education. Many graduates of American University’s MAT program land positions teaching kindergarten through fourth-grade students or participating in an early childhood education specialty.

MEd Degree

An MEd degree can prepare students to pursue a wide range of leadership and administrative roles across multiple sectors of the education system. These roles can be directly related to a specific school, such as a principal, or they can focus on overseeing multiple schools, such as a district administrator or a superintendent. In some cases, the degree may prepare students to take on roles pertaining to educational research, where they can seek out innovative ways to move educational concepts forward.

Graduates of the American University’s MEd in Education Policy and Leadership can utilize these career paths to cultivate influence in the education field outside of the classroom, such as by splitting their workday between classroom instruction and mentoring other teachers. They’ve also taken on roles designed to enhance teaching careers, such as by advocating for equity in teacher pension policies. Once they attain education administrator positions, they can leverage their training in various educational leadership styles.

Salary Figures and Job Outlook 

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that, as of 2021, 86 percent of elementary school teachers and 83 percent of kindergarten teachers were employed by local public schools, while 12 percent of elementary school teachers and 14 percent of kindergarten teachers worked for private schools. As of December 2022, the salary survey site Payscale lists the median annual salary of MAT holders as around $60,000, and the median annual salary of elementary school teachers with an MAT degree as approximately $57,300.

As of April 2022, Payscale lists the median annual salary of education policy master’s degree holders as $70,000. The BLS reports the median annual salaries as of May 2021 of three positions commonly held by MEd recipients as follows: postsecondary education administrators, $96,910; elementary, middle, and high school principals, $98,420; and training and development managers, $120,130.

MEd vs. MAT: Which One Should You Choose?

One way for candidates to know if an MEd or MAT program fits them better is to consider the outcomes realized by past graduates of each. Alumni who completed the MAT program are now changing the lives of students in the US and countries around the world. While a degree is no guarantee of employment, former American University students now teach bilingual students, conduct research, design educational games, and serve as curriculum specialists. 

Alternatively, alumni who earned an MEd in Education Policy and Leadership are employed by government agencies in policy-setting roles, as well as by nonprofit organizations such as Jumpstart and Leadership for Educational Equity.

In both programs, students benefit from the school’s world-class research and innovative coursework taught by award-winning faculty.

Prepare to Make a Difference 

Regardless of their degree path, both MEd and MAT graduates are equipped to have a sustained, positive influence on their communities. By applying their knowledge and skills to education, they can directly influence the next generation of students in a unique way. This makes earning either degree a satisfying achievement.

American University’s MAT degree and MEd in Education Policy and Leadership degree are designed to prepare you to make a powerful impact. You’ll gain expertise and develop the skills needed to shape key educational concepts and drive equitable education, either in the classroom or in an administrative role. 

Learn how an advanced degree can help you make a difference in students’ lives.