Online Teaching Degree Programs Resource
A quality education is a must for those hoping to work in the teaching field. A degree provides aspiring educators with the knowledge and practical skills needed to provide effective instruction to their students. A bachelor’s degree is generally required to become a teacher, though the level of degree needed can vary depending on location, position, and type of school. A two-year associate’s degree can pave the way to select careers in education, such as teaching assistant. Graduate degrees are required in some states for advanced teaching certification, but even in states where graduate degrees are not required, teachers often seek them to increase their pay or to become better qualified to teach. Graduate degrees can also be a pathway for career switchers to transition to teaching.
As an alternative to traditional on-campus study, online teaching degree programs offer degrees at all levels, from associate’s degrees to master’s and doctoral degrees. Continue reading below to learn more about the education degree pathways that can lead to a teaching career.
Table of Contents
- What Degree Do You Need to Be a Teacher?
- Teaching Degrees by Level
- Associate’s Degrees
- Bachelor’s Degrees
- Master’s Degrees
- Doctoral Degrees
- Recommended Teaching Degrees by Grade Level
- Can You Get a Teaching Degree Online?
- Online Teaching Program Accreditation and CAEP, NCATE, and TEAC
- Teaching and Education Degree Specialties
- Best Advice for New Teachers
- NCTQ Ratings of Teacher Preparation Programs
- Frequently Asked Questions
What Degree Do You Need to Be a Teacher?
Researching the licensing requirements in your state as well as the many types of teaching degrees and careers available is the first step in learning how to become a teacher. In order to teach in K-12 public schools, you will typically need to earn a bachelor’s degree and complete a teacher preparation program. The subject of your bachelor’s degree will vary according to the subject and grade level you wish to teach, which means that the teacher preparation that you undergo might be integrated with your degree plan or it might be planned similar to a minor or second major. For example, if you want to teach in kindergarten through fifth grade, the degree required for teacher licensure will typically be early childhood education or elementary education, which are programs that include formal teacher preparation. If you want to teach in high school, you will earn a bachelor’s degree in the subject you want to teach–such as math, biology, or English literature–and a complete teacher preparation program (typically during your junior and senior years).
However, while a bachelor’s degree is generally a requirement to be a teacher, some teaching jobs don’t require a bachelor’s degree. Preschool teachers, and in some states, kindergarten teachers, may only need an associate’s degree and/or teaching certificate. Teacher’s assistants or aides might also find work with less than a bachelor’s degree. Similarly, there are teaching careers where an education degree above the bachelor’s level is required. This is commonly encountered in specialist positions as well as in positions of leadership, particularly education administrators such as principals, where a master’s degree is considered the minimum.
Teaching Degrees by Level
As noted above, while you’ll typically need a bachelor’s degree to teach elementary or secondary education, there are areas of education where a lower-level degree may suffice–as well as areas where knowledge beyond the bachelor’s degree is required. The following overview of teaching degrees by level can help you determine the degree plan for your desired teaching career.
An associate’s degree in education can prepare you for teaching support positions such as teacher’s assistant (or teacher’s aide) or childcare specialist. In many states, an associate’s degree is sufficient qualification for preschool teacher positions and in some states it may also qualify candidates for substitute teacher positions. The 60 credit hours required for most associate’s degrees in education typically take two years of full-time study to earn. If you earn an associate’s degree from an accredited school you will typically have the option to transfer the credits earned towards a four-year teaching program. During the 2015-16 academic year, 2.4% of K-12 teachers had less than a bachelor’s degree.6
A bachelor’s degree is typically the minimum qualification for earning teacher certification in K-12 public schools. There are many on-campus and online teaching degree programs that include a teacher preparation component in order to help prospective teachers prepare for successful careers. Like their on-campus counterparts, accredited online teaching degree programs at the bachelor’s level typically take four years to complete. During the 2015-16 academic year, 40.5% of teachers had earned a bachelor’s as their highest degree.6
Master’s degree programs in teaching and education can be designed for experienced teachers or for those who have a bachelor’s degree in another subject and are looking to transition into teaching. Available options include the Master of Education (M.Ed.), Master’s in Teaching (MIT), Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT), and Master of Science in Education (MSEd). 47.3% of K-12 teachers during the 2015-16 academic year had attained their master’s degree.6 Online master’s degrees in education for initial licensure are a popular choice for working professionals.
If you have a passion for research and teaching, a doctorate in education can help you prepare for a career in education administration in K-12 schools as well as on college and university campuses. A doctorate in education is commonly required for research-oriented roles, including college faculty who often perform research as well as teach. Those who earn a doctoral degree in education also often work in positions designed to help improve education policy on the state or national level. Just 1.3% of K-12 teachers had a doctoral degree during the 2015-16 school year, although an additional 8.4% had earned an education specialist degree, which is a closely related degree frequently viewed as falling between a master’s and a doctorate.6
Recommended Teaching Degrees by Grade Level
To help determine what degrees are most in-demand for teachers, the US Department of Labor’s (DOL) Occupational Information Network (O*NET) conducts periodic surveys of current educators asking which degrees will best prepare future educators to lead in the grade level(s) they teach. This table provides a visual guide to which degrees are most recommended for teachers of each grade level.
|Grade Level||% Some College, No Degree||% Associate’s Degree||% Bachelor’s Degree||% Post-Bachelor’s Certificate||% Master’s Degree||% Post-Master’s Certificate|
|Elementary School Teachers||—||—||73%||11%||11%||—|
|Middle School Teachers||—||—||64%||13%||13%||—|
|Secondary School Teachers||—||—||53%||24%||15%||—|
According to data from O*NET OnLine.1,2,3,4,5
Can You Get a Teaching Degree Online?
Online degrees, including online teaching degrees, are in demand. In the fall semester of 2017, over 3.1 million college students across the US–in other words, 15.7% of all college students–were enrolled in exclusively online courses.7 Whether a bachelor’s or master’s, these degree programs commonly feature online teaching courses with at least one semester of student teaching, which must be in person. Although you can likely arrange to complete this requirement in a school in your local area, this part of the coursework would not be fully online. However, even if an online teaching degree leading to certification won’t be completed 100% online, the components of these programs that are online can still offer greater flexibility than their on-campus counterparts. It also helps to keep in mind that in-person components such as student teaching are typically due to state teacher licensing guidelines–requirements like these are designed to help you become a better teacher!
There are many schools that offer online bachelor’s degrees in education that have few or no on-campus requirements. According to 2015-16 data, 45.7% of undergraduate students enrolled in education programs took at least one online course during the school year and 9.7% of undergraduate students studying education were enrolled in fully online education degree programs.8 Note also that this statistic focuses on “pure” education programs, such as elementary education; students who were majoring in math but taking teacher preparation courses would not be included, meaning that even more future teachers are studying online than this figure reflects.
At the master’s degree level, there are numerous online education degrees designed for those who already hold teacher certification in at least one area that might not require any in-person component. Online graduate degrees in education are even more popular than their undergraduate counterparts; in 2015-16, 34.3% of graduate students studying education were enrolled in a fully online education degree program, and 58.2% of graduate education students took at least one online course.9
At both the bachelor’s and master’s levels, it’s important to ensure that any online program you consider will lead to initial teacher certification in the state where you want to work, whether you are pursuing an traditional online teacher certification program or alternative online certification program. You can read more on certification qualifications for online teaching degrees in our accreditation section below.
On Campus vs. Online Teaching Degrees: Is Online Study Right for You?
An online program can be the right fit for motivated students who are seeking flexibility above that typically offered by on-campus programs. Prospective students considering an online program should ask themselves the following questions:
- Can I manage my time well enough to make sure that I “attend” class and complete coursework on time?
- Will I do well in a course where the learning is more self-directed, versus face-to-face with professors and peers?
- Am I comfortable enough learning new technologies to be able to complete coursework and learn using online software?
- Do I have a newer computer with reliable high-speed internet access?
- Will I be able to complete an internship or practicum in a school district local to me to earn this degree?
If you can answer yes to these questions, an online teaching degree might be a good option for you.
Online Teaching Program Accreditation and CAEP, NCATE, and TEAC
Another important factor to keep in mind is the accreditation of the teaching programs you consider. All states have accreditation requirements for teacher preparation programs. At a minimum, you should make sure that the school you are considering holds regional accreditation and that it holds state board of education approval for the preparation of teachers. Both regional accreditation and state approval are typically required in order to qualify for a teaching license or certificate, whether the program in question is completed online or on campus. Additionally, each state sets its own education requirements for prospective teachers, and while these requirements are broadly similar, there may be differences in prerequisite coursework for licensing teachers from state to state.
In addition to regional accreditation and approval from the state board of education, many schools seek additional, voluntary accreditation from organizations like the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). CAEP is a widely recognized national accreditor for teacher education programs in the United States which was formed through the consolidation of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC).
While CAEP accreditation does not replace regional accreditation or state approval requirements in most states, many states will consider it when evaluating teaching programs for approval. This is because CAEP requires accredited programs to meet strict standards in five core areas: Content and Pedagogical Knowledge; Clinical Partnerships and Practice; Candidate Quality, Recruitment, and Selectivity; Program Impact; and Provider Quality, Continuous Improvement, and Capacity. A school’s ability to meet or exceed these core standards to earn CAEP accreditation serves as an indicator of overall quality in teacher preparation, both online and on campus.
Although the official merger of TEAC and NCATE to form CAEP was completed in 2013, the differing length of the accreditation cycles from both NCATE and TEAC (NCATE: seven-year cycle; TEAC: two-, five-, and seven-year accreditation cycles depending on the case; CAEP: five- or seven-year cycles) means that current TEAC- and NCATE- accredited schools are still considered accredited through legacy standards. Accreditation continued through spring 2016, so educator preparation programs are able to use previously earned NCATE/TEAC accreditation through 2023. CAEP is still working to phase these programs into the new standards review and accreditation process. It is a good idea to check with your state’s teacher licensing office to see which accreditations are recognized as meeting teacher certification requirements.
Teaching and Education Degree Specialties
As you research whether an associate’s, bachelor’s, or graduate degree would be the best fit for your teaching goals, you will also need to consider a major or specialty area. Most bachelor’s degree students complete one to two years of general education courses and begin taking courses in the specific content area(s) (such as reading or math in the case of middle and secondary school teachers or elementary education in the case of K-5 teachers), that they want to teach prior to applying to their school’s teacher preparation program. Therefore, when you apply for admission to a teacher education program, you will need to identify the grade levels you wish to teach and typically also choose a subject specialty. Some schools offer pre-professional education programs that can help students explore different areas of teaching and meet admissions requirements prior to formally applying to the school of education. A pre-professional education track may be declared as early as the first semester of the freshman year, depending on the school’s admission policies and requirements.
This process aligns with the teacher certification process at the state level, since the areas in which you are certified to teach (your specialties) are known as endorsements. Each endorsement area has different coursework and testing requirements, which are set by the state board of education. This means that to make sure that you qualify for the subject(s) and grade level(s) you want to teach, you should take the time to review your state’s certification guidelines and plan your education accordingly. The advising office at your school can also assist you in designing a course plan that fits your goals.
Since teacher preparation is specialized in this way, different types of teaching degrees can lead to different career paths. Following is an overview of a few of the major categories of teaching degrees. You can also visit our guide to teaching careers to learn about the national outlook for teachers, including our Best States to Be a Teacher Index.
A degree in curriculum and instruction prepares graduates to work in strategic roles in individual schools or in school systems, helping write and develop the curriculum for each grade level. This specialty degree, which can come in the form of a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, a graduate certificate, an education specialist degree, or a doctoral degree, teaches graduates how to implement state requirements in the curriculum while ensuring student achievement through effective learning. Coursework may include Cognition, Development, and Instruction, Instructional Decision-Making, 21st Century Teaching and Learning, and Curriculum Development and Evaluation.
Early childhood education programs are designed for teachers focusing on the education of young children, usually from birth through age eight (preschool through grade 3). Undergraduate and graduate early childhood education degrees prepare graduates to teach young children using techniques that relate to their natural development, often through play and demonstration. Courses in an early childhood program may include Instructional Technology, Foundations of Language and Literacy Instruction, Intuitive Thought and Symbolic Function, Child Development in the Family, Media for Children, Child Development, Learning, Motivation and Assessment, and a practicum.
Educational technology degrees focus on teaching through computers, online methods, and mobile technology. Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, as well as graduate certificates, are available in this specialty and prepare students to work in K-12 schools, government agencies, and even corporate enterprises. Students in these programs may take courses such as Educational Technology Field, Theory, and Profession, Instructional Design, Educational Psychology, Online Course Design, Graphic Communication and Interface Design, and Educational Game Design.
Education administration degrees prepare graduates for careers in administration and management. There are certificates, bachelor’s, master’s, educational specialist, and doctoral degrees available in this specialty, but most programs are offered at the graduate level. People with this degree go on to hold such jobs as school principals, deans, and consultants. Common classes in an education administration curriculum include Leadership Development, Organizational Analysis, Facility Design and Fiscal Management, Personnel: Administration, Supervision, and Evaluation, and Curriculum: Theories, Development, and Evaluation.
A degree in elementary education prepares graduates to teach students at the elementary school level, from kindergarten through fifth grade (and up to sixth grade, in some states and school districts). Elementary education programs focus on developing the ability to teach all core subjects, including math, science, and reading, to grade school students. Bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees are offered in elementary education. Typical course examples for this type of program include Principles of Education, Classroom Management for Teachers, Educational Philosophy for Teachers, and science, math, and reading courses.
Degrees in English as a second language (ESL), also known as TESL (teaching English as a second language), ELL (English language learners), ESOL (English for speakers of other languages), or TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages), can be graduate or undergraduate degrees or graduate certificates. Graduates of these programs are prepared to teach students for whom English is a second language at public or private schools and in tutoring environments, and may be able to find jobs teaching abroad (though these do not always require a degree in ESL, but often rather a certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL)). Coursework may include Foundations of First and Second Language Learning, Pre-K-12 Methods of Teaching ESL, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, and a practicum.
Some schools offer a bachelor’s degree in education (commonly abbreviated as a B.Ed.) with a specialization in the subject areas to be taught, such as a B.Ed. with an emphasis in Early Childhood Education. Broader education degrees are more common at the master’s level and are designed for those who already hold a teaching certificate. Examples of general education degrees at this level include master’s degrees in teaching and learning, teacher education, and comparative education.
Library science degrees are offered at the baccalaureate and graduate levels, but the majority are found as graduate programs. These degrees, which are typically specialty degrees such as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) or Master of Library Science (MLS), prepare graduates to work as school librarians, in public libraries, and in corporate libraries. Library science degrees may offer specializations such as archives and records management, digital humanities, information architecture, or library technology management. Those who are looking to work in school libraries generally specialize in academic or school media and may take an additional specialty in a secondary area such as science or Western literature. Coursework may include Human Information Interactions, Resource Selection and Evaluation, Overview of Research Methods, and Management for Information Professionals.
Physical education degrees may be offered as associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, or master’s and doctoral degrees and focus on the study of health, wellness, and the body. Physical education teachers are equipped to teach children (or adults) about the importance of physical exercise and healthy eating habits so that they can carry those habits across the lifespan. Physical education programs commonly include courses such as Human Anatomy and Physiology, Educational Psychology, Lifespan Motor Development, Assessment of Learning in Physical Education and Sport, and History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity.
School counseling degrees are most commonly offered as master’s or doctoral degrees, since a graduate education is required to become licensed as a school counselor in most circumstances. However, there are also certificate and education specialist programs in school counseling, as well as bachelor’s degree tracks that offer preparation for a master’s in school counseling. Programs that are designed to lead to licensure prepare future counselors to work with children in K-12 environments, seeing to their academic, developmental, and career needs through ongoing advising and assessment. Coursework for school counseling degree programs may include classes such as Development through Childhood and Adolescence, Theories and Techniques of Counseling, and Career Counseling and Development.
A degree in secondary education prepares graduates to teach high school students (grades 9 through 12). Most students in a secondary education program major in a specific subject area such as English, science, biology, mathematics, or a foreign language. Secondary education degrees may be bachelor’s degrees or graduate degrees. Coursework for a secondary education program may include classes such as Psychology in Teaching, Learning and Cognition in Education, Adolescent Development, Education and Social Issues, and Philosophy of Education.
Special education degrees, which are usually offered at the bachelor’s and master’s levels (though also as graduate certificates and educational specialist degrees) follow a tightly-focused curriculum in order to teach future educators how to work with students with exceptional needs. Special education teachers may work with children from pre-K to 12 with learning disabilities and/or emotional or psychological disorders. In some schools, special education teachers may take coursework or complete programs preparing them to work with students in gifted and talented programs, as both are considered under the umbrella of “exceptional education.” Coursework may include Diverse Family Systems & Transitions, Global Perspectives and Foundations in Special Education, Managing Behavior & Instruction, Language Variance and Assistive Technology, and Elementary Curriculum Methods for Special Educators.
Teacher’s aide degrees are usually found at the associate’s degree level. Teacher’s aide graduates often work in public or private schools, daycares, nurseries, or after-school programs as teaching assistants. The traditional job of a teacher’s aide is to offer support to other teachers, but this role can vary widely with each position and workplace. Teacher’s aide degree programs may include classes such as Skills for the Effective Teacher Aide, Child Development, How Children Learn, Classroom Management Techniques, Technology in the Classroom, and After-School Day Care Programs.
While some data sets suggest a national teacher shortage and others suggest more localized demand, nearly all states are seeing shortages of qualified educators in math, science, and special ed. #edchat #teachershortage https://t.co/sfYbgYVQEw
— TCD (@teacherdegrees) February 3, 2020
Best Advice for New Teachers
For even more advice from current teachers, see our teacher interview series.
“As soon as you begin preparing for your teaching career, find support wherever you can, whether it is with co-workers or with your online personal learning network. Ask for help, accept suggestions, visit as many classrooms as possible, and work to find your teaching voice.” -Kathryn Laster, Texas math teacher and campus instructional specialist
“There will most likely be a student who tests you, or presses your buttons. While it can be your greatest challenge, try to connect with that student. This is crucial because if you can find a way to make that student shine, then you are doing your job well. I would [also] say that flexibility has been key in my teaching – with students, colleagues and families.” -Marisa Kaplan, New York instructional coach and past elementary school teacher in New York
“I wish I had known and been taught more about standards-based grading, research-based teaching and assessing methods. As I have researched more about these, my teaching has improved and I’ve learned more effective ways to teach and assess. My students’ grades are better, they are learning more and they are having a much more enjoyable time in my class.” -Chris Mitchell, science teacher in Seoul, South Korea
“Be prepared to clearly articulate your learning goals and assessments. As teachers, we like to think lessons are about learning, but to many students and parents, they are more grade centric. If you have clear assessment policies and expectations, it will make your job easier. I wish I had been exposed to more assessment research and theories before entering the classroom…Looking back to the beginning of my career, not all of my assessments graded what I thought they did.” -Lisa Butler, Pennsylvania middle school Spanish teacher
“Don’t expect yourself to be perfect at everything at once. Pick the two most important areas of instruction in your teaching assignment and hone in on crafting those skills. When I began teaching, I focused on small-group reading instruction and math because I felt those areas would have the strongest impact on my students’ success.” -Megan Favre, Texas third grade language arts teacher
“There’s a huge amount of expectation among brand-new teachers. I would encourage them to stick with it. I know that a lot of them give up and say ‘It’s just too much.’ But, I think that teaching, in many ways, is a calling, and despite the fact that American society has been undervaluing their teachers, I would encourage them to keep at it because the rewards are great when working with others.” -Jon Bergmann, co-author, Flip Your Classroom and Illinois K-8 lead technology facilitator
NCTQ Ratings of Teacher Preparation Programs
The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released its first report on the quality of more than 1,100 teacher preparation programs in June of 2013. The list has now expanded to include data on over 2,500 teaching programs. The NCTQ’s review is intended to be a consumer tool for comparing the quality of teaching programs. The NCTQ is a non-partisan organization that advocates reforms to increase the number of effective teachers. Our schools page provides more information about top programs nationally and by state.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What’s the best teaching degree for someone who wants to teach elementary school?
Answer: If you want to be a teacher in an elementary school, an elementary education degree is typically the best route towards earning certification. Elementary education programs focus on the unique developmental and learning needs of young children and generally include coursework in active learning methods as well as student internships in elementary schools. If you’re considering pursuing a career as a teacher in preschool to third grade, an early childhood education (ECE) degree might also be a good option.
Question: How long does it take to earn a teaching degree?
Answer: The length of time it takes to earn a teaching degree depends on the program and whether you are studying full-time or part-time. With full-time study, a bachelor’s degree in most areas of education can typically be earned in four years. If you already have a bachelor’s degree and are looking into switching careers, many schools offer master’s degrees in teaching that can be earned in as little as one year.
Question: Can I earn my teaching degree online?
Answer: If you are a first-time student looking into earning a bachelor’s degree, you will likely need to complete student teaching to qualify for a teaching license, which must be done in person. However, many schools do offer bachelor’s degree programs for teachers that allow other coursework to be completed online. If you already hold a bachelor’s degree and are looking to switch careers into teaching, an online master’s degree might help you meet certification requirements. There are also alternative routes to teaching that may have components that can be completed partially or fully online.
Question: If I already have a bachelor’s degree, do I need to earn another bachelor’s degree to become a teacher?
Answer: In most cases, a second bachelor’s degree is not necessary to become a teacher. Most states have established alternative routes to teacher certification for those who previously earned a bachelor’s degree but did not complete an education program. Depending on the routes available in your state and your educational background, you may be able to qualify for a teaching license in as little as one year. Earning a master’s degree is another option that can help you qualify for a teaching career in many states.
Question: How do I find out if a teaching degree is accredited?
Answer: There are various different accreditations that a school or teacher preparation program can have. If you are looking to become certified as a teacher, the two most important accreditations are regional accreditation from an agency recognized by the US Department of Education and approval from your state’s board of education. Each state’s board of education publishes a list of approved teacher preparation programs on its website, which you can check to make sure that the program you are researching will help you meet the requirements for certification. Some states may also accept CAEP or other national accreditations.
Accredited and Online Education and Teaching Degrees
1. O*NET OnLine, Preschool Teachers, Except Special Education: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/25-2011.00
2. O*NET OnLine, Kindergarten Teachers, Except Special Education: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/25-2012.00
3. O*NET OnLine, Elementary School Teachers, Except Special Education: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/25-2021.00
4. O*NET OnLine, Middle School Teachers, Except Special Education: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/25-2022.00
5. O*NET OnLine, Secondary School Teachers, Except Special and Career/Technical Education: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/25-2031.00
6. National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics, “Number and percentage distribution of teachers in public and private elementary and secondary schools, by selected teacher characteristics: Selected years, 1987-88 through 2015-16”: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_209.10.asp?current=yes
7. National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics, “Number and percentage of students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by distance education participation, location of student, level of enrollment, and control and level of institution: Fall 2016 and fall 2017”: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_311.15.asp?current=yes
8. National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics, “Number and percentage of undergraduate students enrolled in distance education or online classes and degree programs, by selected characteristics: Selected years, 2003-04 through 2015-16”: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_311.22.asp?current=yes
9. National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics, “Number and percentage of graduate students enrolled in distance education or online classes and degree programs, by selected characteristics: Selected years, 2003-04 through 2015-16”: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_311.32.asp?current=yes