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Education Master's Programs: Add Value or Shut Down

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It’s true—some education master’s programs do not add value to teaching quality or student learning. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Bill Gates were right in their recent suggestions that school systems rethink the current practice of granting pay raises automatically to teachers who earn master’s degrees. This statement may be surprising coming from an association of education schools but, in fact, it is well known that some programs are essentially a drive-by freeway en route to a higher rung on the pay scale. I believe firmly that such programs should cease to exist.

We need master’s programs that provide distinctly advanced content knowledge. These programs should significantly broaden teachers’ understanding of how children learn and develop, how different students respond to various teaching strategies, and how successful learning environments should be designed for the wide diversity of our nation’s pre-K-12 learners. As well, master’s programs should satisfy an educator’s desire for further intellectual development.

"It is impossible to generalize about master’s programs, as one size does not fit all."

We need master’s programs that are tailored to teachers’ particular needs in their specific school situations. Residency programs, funded by Congress, offer a master’s degree to postbaccalaureate candidates after they complete a full year of teaching under the direct supervision of an expert teacher. This is a compelling example of the value an advanced education degree can add. A higher salary for successful completion of such programs is clearly appropriate and a major incentive for participation.

Yet, it is impossible to generalize about master’s programs, as one size does not fit all. Across the country, some programs operate effectively while others are in the throes of reform. In addition to residencies, we see such innovative examples as virtual master’s programs (e.g., University of Southern California); master’s programs focused on STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and math (e.g., the University of Central Florida’s Transition to Mathematics and Science Teaching Program and the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship programs in several Midwestern states); and unique district-customized programs such as the Benwood Initiative in Chattanooga, Tenn., focused on literacy and math.

A Call for Accountability: Whether extra pay is awarded for education master’s degrees or not, we must employ a rigorous program of accountability; encouragingly, a strong movement for teacher-preparation program accountability is already under way. The recently announced creation of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, CAEP, is a positive move toward unifying teacher-preparation programs across the country under one accreditation umbrella. This will give us a higher and more uniform means of judging the quality of the master’s degrees our schools of education award. Fortunately, this reform and other efforts in states are driving the change we need.

For instance, Louisiana recently required a total redesign of the state's public master's in education programs. The state demanded assurance that faculty members had the depth of knowledge to effectively teach advanced-level courses for all degree concentrations. National experts reviewed the programs, and many universities now offer fewer concentrations for their graduate degrees. Louisiana’s Blue Ribbon Commission for Educational Excellence decided to continue pay increases as a means of motivating teachers to acquire additional certifications and assist schools in needed areas.

Kentucky’s Education Professional Standards Board—multi-year, collaborative process with P-16 educators across the state—terminated all education master’s programs as of Dec. 31, 2010, that no longer met Kentucky’s revised standards. Starting in 2005, committees began refashioning the state’s priorities relative to how institutions should educate experienced teachers and school leaders, emphasizing closing achievement gaps and addressing teacher skills linked to student learning. A committee of pre-K-12 practitioners, administrators, and education leaders then reviewed all proposed new master’s programs and approved only those that met rigorous criteria.

Georgia’s colleges of teacher education worked for more than three years with the state’s Professional Standards Commission in an effort to create an enhanced connection between advanced degrees, work in schools, student achievement, and teacher salary increases. Adopted by the Professional Standards Commission last spring, the new policy outlines criteria for the eligibility of “certificate upgrades” for those who hold specific education master’s degrees—and, thus, equating to higher pay. Such master’s programs must be approved by the state on the basis of their quality, and certificate upgrades are granted only to educators receiving master’s degrees in the fields in which they are currently certified or to those entering a new field.

Master’s degrees in many fields translate into higher salaries because the knowledge and skills they produce are essential and proven to add value. The Master of Social Work is a terminal practice degree and vital to higher pay. Graduates with a master’s in nursing—or advanced-practice nurses—are in increased demand and receive significantly higher pay on average than the lower-ranking registered nurses. Master’s degrees are also becoming ever more specialized in many fields. In business, the “chartered financial analyst” designation, a specialty area in asset management, is favored over the M.B.A. for those entering the investment world. And in law, specialized LL.M. degrees in fields such as tax law are now offered. These specialized degrees typically command higher salaries for those entering the fields because of the clear benefit they bring to the table.

So, yes, there definitely should be a “rethink” of education master’s programs. It is essential to ensuring that teachers have the advanced skills and knowledge necessary to teach our children. My organization, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, is already collaborating with the Data Quality Campaign to encourage state collection of reliable impact data and to research the proper use of such data to evaluate preparation programs. Colleges of education are also deeply engaged in measuring candidates’ effectiveness through direct assessment of their classroom performance—specifically, candidates’ ability to create solid instruction and the right conditions for student learning.

An across-the-board plan to decouple master’s degrees from teacher pay is simplistic. A better approach would be to determine those programs that do add value in the intellectual capacity and professional skills that schools and districts need. Then, those at the local level can easily assess the advantage of the credential in the labor market.

The public should not pay for credentials that are unrelated to the work at hand or that inflate the operating costs of schools with no apparent benefit to students. Master’s programs must add value or shut down.

Vol. 30, Issue 21

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An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the requirement for redesigning master’s programs in Louisiana. Louisiana recently required a redesign of the state's master’s in education programs at its public universities only.

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