School & District Management

States’ Costs Skyrocket on Master’s Degree Pay for Teachers

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 17, 2012 4 min read
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Despite little research supporting the practice, paying teachers for earning advanced degrees continues to cost states billions of dollars—in 2007-08, an estimated $14.8 billion, or 72 percent more than just four years before that, according to a report released today by the Washington-based Center for American Progress.

The report contends that the funding could be better spent on other compensation schemes, such as offering more to teachers in shortage fields, like math or special education; higher salaries to retain the best teachers; or incentives to teachers who take difficult teaching assignments.

Research indicates that, outside the areas of content degrees in math and science, there’s not a lot of evidence to support the idea that advanced degrees make for better teaching. (About 90 percent of the master’s degrees held by teachers are from education programs, the CAP report states.)

The report builds on CAP’s 2009 analysis, which estimated that the degrees cost some $8.6 billion in 2003-04. The study employs much the same methodology—using U.S. Department of Education and National Education Association collected data to compute the average salary increase for earning a master’s and applying that to the average salary figure and total number of teachers. The report’s authors, CAP’s Raegen T. Miller and the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Marguerite Roza, provide a state-by-state breakdown of the figures.

Why the sudden boost in costs? It’s important to keep in mind that time period pretty much predates the recession, and represents a time during which districts were still adding teachers to the rolls. It’s likely that costs have fallen somewhat since then, as a result of layoffs and perhaps salary freezes.

It could also be reflective of a long-standing, but not often discussed, trend in teacher education. Since 1970, the number of bachelor’s degrees in education annually has dropped from 170,000 to about 100,000 in 2007-08. But the number of M.A.s granted in the field during this time period has done the exact reverse, rising from around 87,000 in 1970 to 175,000 in 2007-08, according to an analysis of federal data performed by C. Emily Feistritzer of the National Center for Alternative Certification.

It’s hard to know definitively what’s causing these patterns, but a variety of policies do support the practice. One of them is the tendency of teacher salary schedules to pay teachers a premium for earning a master’s degree. And many states have tiered-licensing systems in place that either require or encourage teachers to get a master’s degree in order to earn a full license. New York and Connecticut are two states that have this requirement.

Teachers have generally resisted efforts to do away with the “master’s pay bump,” an understandable phenomenon given that, while some districts offer tuition reimbursements, many other educators have had to foot the cost of earning the degree on their own.

From a policy perspective, the idea of doing away with paying for M.A.s has been criticized elsewhere, with some teacher educators pointing to international practices. In Finland, all teachers are expected to earn an advanced degree.

But the CAP report calls those arguments into question, noting that M.A. degrees differ substantially in their rigor.

“Finnish teachers hold master’s degrees that augment their knowledge and skills in a way that’s deliberately connected to their instructional challenges,” it says. “Secondary teachers earn a master’s in the subject of instruction, and the master’s degrees required of elementary teachers equip them with specialized knowledge and skills often found only among special education teachers and school psychologists in U.S. schools. ... The typical master’s degree held by a U.S. teacher and the associated skills attached pale in comparison.”

So what could the master’s bump funding otherwise support? One idea is performance pay, though this idea has taken a beating in recent research. In 2010 and 2011, a number of papers were released that found no link to improvements to student achievement for rewarding teachers whose students did better. Advocates of performance pay say that the programs may work by helping to attract a different caliber of individual, not by making people work harder. This is still a matter of debate and study.

On the other hand, teachers generally support the idea of paying teachers who work in troubled schools more, according to a recent survey. Even the national teachers’ unions are behind this idea.

The teacher-preparation field, in the meantime, seems to be on alert about the increased scrutiny being paid to master’s degrees. Not long ago, the president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, Sharon Robinson, penned a Commentary for Education Week on this topic. In it, she called on the teacher-preparation programs to ensure that their degrees add value, or to stop offering them.

I’m not aware of which institutions have begun to study the efficacy of their master’s degree training, but perhaps you are. Post a comment and let us know of interesting work in this area.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.