Join the Field of Educational Leadership with an Online M.Ed.

June 29, 2022

A principal talks with students before school.

Today's K-12 students and educators find themselves up against a wide range of challenges affecting the overall learning experience – from protocols related to the pandemic to new classroom technologies and tightened budgets impacting school resources, among others.

To ensure students can successfully navigate these challenges and make the most of their learning experience, it's critical for schools and school districts throughout Arkansas and beyond to have the best possible educational leadership.

This is where a high-quality master's in educational leadership comes in.

For someone looking to advance their career to a building-level leadership role such as principal or assistant principal, finding the right graduate-level program is key. The first step is understanding what educational leadership is today, who typically pursues that career path, and what characterizes the kind of high-quality program that will help education professionals achieve leadership goals.


What is Educational Leadership?

Educational leadership normally refers to education professionals who, instead of spending their time teaching in the classroom, are in administrative roles at the school and school district level.

Professionals in the field are typically required to have earned a graduate-level degree – a master's for building-level leadership – and pass a licensure exam. Building-level leaders focus their work on everything from curriculum guidance, to finance and budgeting, researching best practices for student engagement, and managing the day-to-day operations of a school.

Photo of Kevin Brady
Kevin Brady

"In the U.S., most graduate-level educational leadership programs are ones that prepare individuals for either building- or district-level leadership," says Kevin Brady, professor of educational leadership and the program coordinator of the University of Arkansas' online Master's of Education in Educational Leadership program. "The most common building-level leadership position would be the school principal, and the most common district-level leadership role would be that of the superintendent."

While the field has evolved over the years, as all professional disciplines do, Brady says that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an especially profound impact on leaders in education. He says over the past few years there has been an exodus of both building- and district-level leaders in Arkansas as well as nationwide.

"Clearly, other industries have been hit hard," Brady says. "But our schools have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic and many of the existing inequities already in schools were really magnified during COVID-19. The last couple of years have been challenging for schools and this is why I'd argue that educational leadership programs and their quality are more important than ever. They're playing a pivotal role in how we provide quality and sustainable leadership at a very challenging time."

"The last couple of years have been challenging for schools and this is why I'd argue that educational leadership programs and their quality are more important than ever. They're playing a pivotal role in how we provide quality and sustainable leadership at a very challenging time."

Kevin Brady, Professor of educational leadership

Who Typically Enrolls in Educational Leadership Programs?

In most cases, individuals who are interested in a role in educational administration have been working as teachers for at least a few years within a K-12 setting. As a result, most master's in educational leadership programs are designed specifically for working professionals, as opposed to students coming straight from an undergraduate program.

In fact, Brady says almost all of the students enrolled in the University of Arkansas online master's program in educational leadership are working teachers looking to transition to a role as principal, assistant principal or another building-level administrative role.

Additionally, Brady says the University of Arkansas online M.Ed. program has increasingly carved out a reputation for serving educational professionals in rural and more geographically isolated school communities – both in Arkansas and nationwide.

"These schools often have notable teacher and school leader shortages. For many of the individuals who work in these school systems, there's no other college of education within a reasonable commutable distance," Brady says. "So, our online program provides opportunities for individuals nationwide to attend a Research 1 institution, which they may not otherwise have the opportunity to do."


What Makes a Quality Educational Leadership Program?

Individuals who are interested in educational leadership have a wealth of options when it comes to finding a master's program, but it's important to keep in mind that not all online M.Ed. programs are created equal.

The University's online M.Ed. in Educational Leadership is designed for current teachers who are considering a transition to building-level leadership. The university also offers an Educational Specialist program, in which students earn the Ed.S. degree geared toward those who already have a master's degree and want to achieve district-level leadership, typically as a superintendent or assistant superintendent.

Another characteristic that Brady says you will typically find in higher-quality educational leadership programs is a heightened focus on quality faculty. That's at the core of the University of Arkansas online M.Ed. program.

"One of the things I find exciting about educational leadership programs is that oftentimes your faculty are a combination of scholars who have published in the field, but also long-term experienced practitioners," Brady says.

Additionally, the online M.Ed. program concludes with a semester-long internship experience, which Brady describes as a capstone apprenticeship, monitored by one of their faculty members through site visits.

"That's an exceptional opportunity to apply what you've learned to professional practice," he says.

"One of the things I find exciting about educational leadership programs is that oftentimes your faculty are a combination of scholars who have published in the field, but also long-term experienced practitioners."

Kevin Brady, Professor of educational leadership

The Importance of Quality Faculty and Real-Time Experience

Offering ahigh quality faculty of proven scholars and practitionersis something Brady takes particular pride in with the University of Arkansas online program.

"For example, on our faculty, we have currently one professor of practice, Dr. Christy Smith, who has considerable experience in educational leadership. And we're in the process of hiring another professor of practice," he says. "So, this translates into the fact that many of our courses are applied to the realities of educational leadership practices. Students are getting the knowledge and skill sets from people who either currently are or have been former building- or district-level administrators.

"I think this brings credibility to the program," Brady adds. "So, for example if you have someone teaching about school finance, and that person has real-world experience with district-level construction expenditures, personnel revenue generation, or whatever the topic is, she or he has actuallydonethat."

That kind of real-world expertise is invaluable to the students in the program.

What faculty in the online M.Ed. program do not do, Brady explains, is incorporate what he refers to as "busy work." Students in the program feed off the applied nature of the assignments and frequently tell him how valuable it is to be learning about the most contemporary and current realities facing educational leaders.

"We also have four or five adjuncts who have been with us for over a decade," Brady says. "They are current practitioners, and they bring a really important depth and relevancy to our program. Our students want these contemporary realities; they want to know how to handle different scenarios. And they're getting that insight from people who are dealing with it in real time."


How Has Educational Leadership Evolved?

While the typical and traditional outcome of a master's in educational leadership program is to assume the role of principal or assistant principal, the field continues to evolve and there are other, non-traditional types of leadership roles that are of interest to students, as well.

"The idea of leadership is becoming more diverse," Brady says. "Some students are contemplating careers in academia, that's a growing consideration. Others are at a stage where they want to secure the master's and license but maybe aren't ready to make the career move right now. But when the time comes, they'll be ready and have the requisite credentials.

"And then others are taking on more non-traditional leadership positions in education, for example, special education teachers who want to become directors of special education or others who want to be curriculum leaders or curriculum developers," he says.

Other areas that continue to emerge as career paths for those who want to be leaders in education include technology, finance and educational policy.


Engagement and Interaction in the Online M.Ed. Program

One of the key strengths of the online M.Ed. program is the high level of engagement and interaction with faculty and fellow students.

"Unlike many programs that post information online and maybe have a very sophisticated platform (I mean we have that, too!), for every course in our program, we have weekly live online classes students attend that take place in real time," Brady explains. "Every week, there's a live discussion between professors and their students. We use Blackboard, but we also use Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate to meet weekly."

This type of engagement adds a critical element to the effectiveness of our program, Brady says. It provides students with a sense of community and belonging within the program where they can directly interact with faculty, as well as fellow students. The program's faculty have done extensive study and training in best practices for online pedagogical teaching and learning, and many faculty offer weekly virtual office hours so students can set up convenient Zoom sessions."

It's an element that sets the program apart from other educational leadership programs both in Arkansas and nationwide.

"In our program, you're going to see your professor in real time, you're going to interact with other students in real time, and you're also going to have the convenience of the traditional online experience."


A Focus on Mentorship in Education

In addition to the heightened emphasis placed on teaching, faculty in the University of Arkansas online program also understand the importance of mentorship when it comes to working with their students. This focus on mentorship has always been a pillar of the online M.Ed. program, but it became amplified as students and faculty worked through the pandemic.

"During classes, students and faculty alike would talk about the chaos happening with their schools and classes almost turned into therapy sessions," Brady says. "There was a lot of support going around, a lot of advice and listening. Our faculty were obviously a big part of that."

Brady points to the extensive work the online M.Ed. program's faculty have put into researching how to provide meaningful mentorship in a fully online program, and the importance mentorship plays in the success of students at the graduate level.

"Students who come into our program are going to receive mentoring from someone who has reviewed the existing research literature on best practices," he says. "They're entering an educational leadership program where all faculty members view mentoring as an important characteristic in a student's graduate program experience."


Bringing a Passion to the Purpose of Educational Leadership

Brady has been working in educational leadership for over two decades. He earned his doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and worked as a budgetary analyst at the New York State Division of Budget and in legal affairs in New York before transitioning to teaching.

He came to the University of Arkansas after serving on the educational leadership faculty at the City University of New York (CUNY) and North Carolina State University. He says the University of Arkansas online program doesn't fit the mold compared to many online M.Ed. programs.

"We've made concerted efforts to provide a high-quality, research-based online learning experience," Brady says. "We are noticeably smaller than many of the online M.Ed. programs out there, which means students gain more personalized attention and mentorship. Our faculty brings a nice blend of leading scholars in the field and successful, upper-level, real-world practitioners. This approach has been very successful. Our students always come back and tell us how valuable their experience here was for them."

If you would like to learn more about professional development in education and pursuing educational leadership options, visit theonline M.Ed. program page at the University of Arkansas ONLINE.

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Master of Education in Educational Leadership

This master’s degree program provides professional preparation for educators seeking administrative positions in elementary and secondary schools. The program now has a 100 percent pass rate on the School Leaders Licensure Assessment (SLLA). An internship (not online) is required for building-level licensure. Apply anytime through rolling application process.

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