Teaching Profession Opinion

Dumbing Down America’s Teachers

By John Wilson — June 25, 2013 3 min read
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In every profession I know, advanced degrees are encouraged, recognized, celebrated, and rewarded. Now there are those who want to eliminate any rewards for teachers who seek to improve their skills and knowledge through further study at colleges and universities. The attacks on advanced degrees by researchers who link everything to student test scores began in 1997 with Dan Goldhaber’s study showing no statistical difference in student progress on tests among students of teachers holding masters’ degrees. Goldhaber’s study was followed by Roza and Miller studies on the amount of funds invested in advanced pay at a time when politicians were looking for cuts. Then Secretary Duncan and Bill Gates weighed in to declare in unison that we were spending money on something that did not work. Now the attacks have escalated even further.

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman of Tennessee pushed through a plan to redesign the teacher salary base pay by eliminating pay for doctorates and post-master’s degrees as well as limiting step increases to four times within 11 years of teaching and none after that. It is clear that his Teach For America experience influenced his belief that additional education for teachers does not matter and that experienced teachers add no value. I cannot think of a more anti-intellectual policy than the one in Tennessee, but then again, that state did have the Scopes trial on evolution there. Commissioner Huffman apparently wants to return to the era of that infamous trial with his policies.

Not to be outdone on the anti-intellectual front, the North Carolina House and Senate budget proposals eliminated all salary incentives for advanced degrees, including master’s degrees but hold harmless those who currently hold advanced degrees. This is a state that is ranked 48th in salaries. This is a legislature that is proposing no increase in teacher salaries. Since this legislature takes its orders from Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers, and Art Pope, we can assume they embrace the philosophy of “starving the beast” to destroy public education as we know it.

All of these opponents of paying teachers for advanced degrees are wrong. First, teaching is more than a test score. Researchers who limit their studies to test scores do teachers and teaching a disservice. In reporting results, they selectively report that no teacher with a master’s degree made a difference when we know that research found many teachers who did. To limit the success of a teacher to one dynamic is in itself flawed. Teaching is a complex system and should be researched as such.

Research reports that teachers make more than 1,500 education decisions during their day. Many, if not most, of these decisions will have nothing to do with a test score, but they may make the critical difference in the success or failure of each student. The more education and experience a teacher has, the better decision-maker the teacher will be. I want teachers who value learning, sacrifice to advance that learning, and use their classrooms for innovation, using their new knowledge and skills to enhance the learning experience for their students.

I received a master’s in education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill immediately following college graduation. I know it made a difference in my teaching. I was able to gain practice with additional internships. I was able to gain more knowledge and skills in my teaching area. I was able to research and study the impact of language development on poor children, knowledge that drove my approaches to students throughout my career. I am offended by politicians who pronounce that advanced degrees do not matter.

If politicians or researchers can prove that an advanced degree does not matter for teachers from certain university programs, then I say redesign those programs or shut them down. But for the teaching profession, I say advanced degrees are worthy of keeping. Additional education is not just for students; it is also for their teachers.

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.