Teaching Profession Opinion

Should Certification Require a Master’s Degree?

By Justin Baeder — August 30, 2012 2 min read
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In my last post, I asked whether a Master’s degree is worth the tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, time, and opportunity cost, given that it doesn’t correlate with better teaching performance.

Madeline writes:

Personally, I believe a Master's Degree shouldn't even be attempted until the student has taught successfully for at least 5 years. Why is the degree called "Master's?" If you are graduated in 5 years with the Master's, in essence you are a master of nothing since you haven't practiced anything. And in my experience often those who get a Masters right away don't stay in the classroom but work toward positions in administration. ... I have [more than 5 years of experience] but acquired the Masters because it was in the specific area that I wanted to expand—that's what a Master's does. It then makes the teacher open to other opportunities that the teacher brings to the classroom... For me as I continued teaching and the world evolved into a more technological place, I went back to school again to learn how I could use this new area in teaching students I was assigned.

I concur with Madeline’s conclusion that the Master’s can be a great way for experienced teachers to “sharpen the saw” and pursue their professional interests while also advancing in their careers. But for many people, the Master’s is the path to certification, so it’s earned before the teacher spends any time on the job. It’s therefore worthwhile to examine the difference between the Master’s earned for certification and the Master’s earned for professional development.

I asked in my previous post “Does requiring a Master’s degree result in better candidate selection? In other words, does the requirement effectively weed out poor candidates?” and it’s to this question that I’d like to now turn, with the help of a remarkable policy brief from the Center for American Progress.

In The Sheepskin Effect and Student Achievement: De-emphasizing the Role of Master’s Degrees in Teacher Compensation, which I linked to in my previous post, Raegen Miller and Marguerite Roza put forth some of the most eloquent and compelling arguments about compensation reform that I’ve encountered anywhere.

They note that, like Finland, 8 US states require a Master’s for a full professional license, so most teachers earn the degree; in New York, for example, fully 88% of teachers have a Master’s degree. Is this the path to higher teaching quality? Should we follow in Finland’s footsteps? Miller and Roza pull no punches:

All teachers in Finland have a master's degree, and they get extraordinary results from their students. If we want better results in U.S. schools, then, we should require teachers to have a master's degree, so the argument goes. But this argument has two fatal flaws. First, teachers in Finland hail from the top 10 percent of their graduating class. This selectivity is woven into a set of policies that Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University, has astutely described as a "teaching and learning system." The Finnish system could scarcely be more different than our domestic grab bag of policies arising from approximately 15,000 separate school districts carrying out their responsibility to provide public education, variously conceived by the diverse states of a country with an unmatched tolerance, at least among wealthy industrialized nations, for inequity in school funding and facilities. Secondly, Finnish teachers hold master's degrees that augment their knowledge and skills in a way that's deliberately connected to their instructional challenges. Secondary teachers earn a master's in the subject of instruction, and the master's degree required of elementary teachers equips them with specialized knowledge and skills often found only among special education teachers and school psychologists in U.S. schools. Thus, holding master's degrees means Finnish teachers either have a serious grasp on academic content or are well equipped to problem solve around the individual learning needs of their students. The typical master's degree held by a U.S. teacher and the associated skills attached pale in comparison. link

Does requiring a Master’s improve teacher quality? No. Not when our Master’s programs are so low in selectivity and rigor. New York does not lead to Finland.

A single policy is a blunt instrument that is easily circumvented. If we want teachers to be better-trained and better-qualified, requiring a Master’s degree will only work to the extent that the degree is adequately rigorous. Right now, there are hundreds of US institutions that churn out vast quantities of Master’s students, with widely varying results but uniformly lucrative tuition rates. This is a recipe for degree inflation—why invest in quality when it’s quantity that pays? And why bother with a 5th year post-bacc certification program when you can just as easily squeeze a Master’s into the same timeframe?

Does this mean the Master’s is a bad idea? Certainly not—advanced training that helps forge (truly) master teachers will always have a place in the profession. But our current reality doesn’t match this vision.

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