Federal

Halt Urged to Paying Teachers For Earning Master’s Degrees

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 21, 2009 5 min read

States spend millions of education dollars each year rewarding teachers for earning advanced degrees that show little correlation with improved student achievement, a recent analysis concludes.

The policy of giving teachers salary “bumps” after they earn master’s degrees in education “is in the drinking water everywhere, but we know the relationship between the degree and student achievement is nonexistent,” said Raegen Miller, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank.

Mr. Miller, a former union president in Palo Alto, Calif., co-wrote the policy brief—one in a series on school financing in the economic downturn—with Marguerite Roza, a professor at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at Washington University, in Seattle.

By uncoupling such degrees from salary schedules, states and districts could free up funding for other types of compensation policies that might promote student achievement, the authors suggest in the report, which was released late last month.

The brief arrives as the transformation of teacher-compensation systems rises to the top of the national agenda, propelled by the $200 million in additional money provided through the federal economic-stimulus package.

Big Numbers

Districts in every state provide additional pay for teachers who hold master’s degrees, either by granting the teachers annual stipends on top of their base salaries or by altering the district salary schedule to award “lane” increases to those who earn the degrees.

A handful of other states, such as New York, require teachers to hold such degrees to obtain the highest level of licensure. Regardless of the mechanism for awarding pay increases, the salary bumps are typically career-long, not just one-shot bonuses.

Costs of Advanced Education

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SOURCE: Center on Reinventing Public Education

Counting federal, state, and local funding sources, most states devote 1 percent to 2 percent of their current annual education expenditures to those added costs, according to the report. In all, states spend about $8 billion annually compensating educators for holding a master’s degree in any subject.

Researchers have found that in certain content areas, such as high school mathematics and science, holding an advanced degree bears a positive relationship to student achievement. But many more teachers hold master’s degrees in education or school leadership, and there is far less evidence of such a relationship for those degrees.

A frequently cited study from 2007, for instance, used a value-added methodology to analyze teacher characteristics and student test-score data in North Carolina. It found that elementary teachers holding a graduate degree were no more or less effective than other teachers at raising student achievement.

The cost to states of rewarding teachers for such degrees varies depending on the number of teachers in the state, the percentage of those who hold the degree, and the average salary bump teachers receive from acquiring the degree. In terms of per-pupil expenditures, the cost is highest in New York, at $416 per pupil. In that state, 78 percent of teachers hold a master’s degree, for which they are paid more than $7,000 annually. The cost is lowest in Texas, which has only 27 percent of its teachers holding an M.A., and awards such teachers only about $1,400 a year in additional pay, an expenditure of $27 per student.

Uncommon Change

Although dozens of states and districts have begun to set up performance-based pay systems over the past decade, far fewer have examined the cost of master’s degrees.

Even some of the most prominent performance-pay models, such as Denver’s ProComp plan, allow teachers to make more for earning master’s degrees.

More recently, detaching compensation from the attainment of master’s degrees was one of the initial proposals of District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee when the city’s collective bargaining agreement came up for renewal last year.

That proposal, though, was overshadowed by a controversial two-tiered pay proposal that would have allowed some teachers the opportunity to take part in a performance-based system in exchange for relinquishing tenured status for one year. (“Pay-for-Tenure Swap for D.C. Teachers Under Debate,” Aug. 27, 2008.)

In phasing out bonuses for advanced degrees in education, states could use the savings to institute comprehensive changes to teacher compensation, the report indicates. Although the research connecting performance-based pay to improved student achievement is thin and inconclusive, piloting and evaluating such plans would allow districts to home in on ways of better aligning pay to goals for boosting student learning, Mr. Miller said.

Such reforms could be politcally challenging, but districts and states could render them palatable if they grandfathered in current teachers and changed policies only for those entering the profession, the report suggests.

“The variation between states on these pay increases shows that not everyone has the same feeling about the value of these degrees,” Mr. Miller said.

Stakeholders’ Views

Stakeholders with the most to lose from such a restructuring of teacher pay could be schools of education, whose enrollments are supported by the salary incentives currently in place.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, however, has generally supported efforts to link graduates of teacher colleges to their students’ performance and to better integrate content-area coursework and pedagogy.

“Paying teachers for earning a master’s degree was a response to issues of inequity and caprice that existed in the last century,” Sharon P. Robinson, the president of AACTE, said in an e-mail. “With the advent of new fiscal constraints, districts must give thoughtful consideration to teacher pay, with teachers, and with a view toward new principles in human-capital management as well as questions of productivity.”

The idea is not necessarily anathema to teachers’ unions, either.

For instance, James R. Carlson, the UniServ director for the Kettle Moraine, Wis., local of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a National Education Association affiliate, and the director of the Educator Compensation Institute, recently unveiled a proposed compensation system that would grant salary bumps only to teachers who earned advanced degrees in a content area or in cognitive science.

“We have to embrace contemporary research if we’re going to generate new sources of income in the compensation system,” Mr. Carlson said. “The status quo is not good enough.”

Under his proposal, teachers could make more by earning certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, conducting “action” research, and taking on extra roles as lead teachers and mentors.

UniServ staff members provide bargaining expertise to local NEA affiliates, and Mr. Carlson hopes that, with the right incentives, several interested local affiliates will consider the proposal.

“Hopefully, better economic times will convince state legislators to fund pilot projects to see if these things are worth doing,” Mr. Carlson said. “That’s the right way to go about this.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week

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