Teacher Preparation

Master’s Degrees in Education: A Better Way?

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 22, 2009 1 min read

There are times when you know a story is going to upset a lot of people, such as this one I wrote this week on the cost of paying teachers more for earning master’s degrees in education. Read the comments for a taste of the reaction, which ranges from anger (i.e., “The studies that show this are bunk because they’re based on test scores”), to defensiveness, (i.e., “I paid for this degree and it made me a better teacher”), to frustration, (i.e., “OK, if ED master’s don’t correlate to improved student achievement, what does?!”).

And it’s true that is hard to paint all education M.A. degrees with the same broad stroke. Even the most vocal critics of education schools can point to some truly superb programs out there, as well as exciting innovations that are starting to come out, like teacher residencies.

That said, though, what the report and these comments reveal is that right now this system does not seem to be working well for anyone. Attaining these degrees is expensive for teachers and doesn’t necessarily make them better instructors. It’s expensive for districts to pay out for the degrees and ties up funds that could be spent on other things (giving teachers release time for collaboration and in-school professional development, for instance). One could even argue that the policy ends up hurting education schools, which are not always given their fair share of resources by their parent universities because the universities know that the incentive system built into salary schedules will result in an endless supply of people wanting master’s degrees regardless of quality.

The discussion about whether there’s a better way to pay teachers more shouldn’t just be about performance-based pay, but about comprehensive reforms.

It’s what Jim Carlson, an NEA UniServ director in Wisconsin whom I quote in the story, is doing. Essentially, his proposal is to align compensation increases with practices that are correlated with student achievement: Boost pay if teachers earn degrees in content areas. Reward teachers for conducting “action research” and finding effective practices (see this story on the Teacher Advancement Program, which charges master teachers with doing this, for more details). Create a career ladder to give teachers more opportunities to help with professional development.

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