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Bruno: More Thoughts On (Not) Paying Teachers For Master's Degrees

5299199423_f8de99f3ee_nI got a lot of feedback on my post arguing that we should do away with bonuses for teachers with master's degrees and use the money for across-the-board raises.

Much of the response was supportive, but many people also objected to some or all of my argument.

Those objections tended to fall into three categories: that I am underestimating the value of MAs, that across-the-board raises are not a good use of money, or that the real problem isn't teacher pay per se but schools of education.

They're serious objections, and they made me think about some of the issues in new ways, but I don't think they are enough to avoid the bottom line I put forward in my original piece.

Read on to see the objections (and why I'm not totally convinced by them).

 Objection #1: MAs may not improve student test scores, but that's a too-narrow view of teacher effectiveness anyway.

As I said before, it's entirely possible that MAs help teachers become better in ways that are not captured by test scores. But it's important to keep two things in mind, here.

First, test scores aren't all that matter, but they most certainly matter to some degree. Believing - as I do - that kids need a great many things besides higher test scores should not cause us to bury our heads in the sand about the fact that students will in general be better off leaving schools with more knowledge and skills of the kind that can be measured by standardized tests.

Second, if you think MAs are adding a lot of value that test score measures aren't picking up, the burden is really on you to demonstrate that those benefits are real. I'm open to persuasion on this, but I'm not aware of any evidence to that effect nor does it seem all that likely that MA programs are making teachers a whole lot better without that also showing up, even indirectly, in the test score data.

Obection #2: The real problem isn't that we're paying teachers for MAs, but that we need better MA programs.

I'm certainly sympathetic to the idea that ed schools are in need of reform, but at best this is an argument for paying for MAs in the future, after ed schools have been reformed and their programs improved.

We should also keep our minds open to the possibility that it's not so much that ed schools "could be better" as that there might not be all that much worth having ed schools do beyond very basic teacher training. The returns to increasing teacher training may diminish very rapidly, which would mean that ed schools don't need to be "improved" or "reformed" as such; they might just be mostly unnecessary for training teachers.

Objection #3: There's probably already a lot of variation in ed school quality, so we should focus on encouraging teachers to attend the better programs.

Researchers have looked at just this question. It turns out that the particular school from which teachers acquire their MA seems not to matter very much.

Objection #4: Across-the-board raises funded by cutting MA bonuses wouldn't amount to much for individual teachers.

According to the Wall Street Journal, MA bonuses amount to about $15 billion. In a country of 3.3 million public school teachers, that works out to about $4,500 per teacher. That's roughly 8% of the average public school teacher's salary of about $56,000.

Those are extremely rough calculations, but districts gnash their teeth - and unions go on strike - over much smaller raises than that.

 Objection #5: There are better ways to use the money than across-the-board raises.

This may be true. For example, Lisa Cohen from the National Council of Teacher Quality emailed with a report arguing that MA bonuses would be better spent on newer teachers, teachers in harder-to-staff placements, or merit pay.

With the exception of merit pay - which most sectors avoid and which has proven difficult (at best) to make work in education - those may be good ideas. Certainly, it may make sense for districts to experiment with them.

Nevertheless, an across-the-board raise is especially appealing because it is worthwhile in its own right, it is a prerequisite for many other reforms, and it's easy to implement effectively.

Objection #6: Many teachers have organized their career plans around existing incentive structures. Changing the rules would be unfair to them.

This is true. Teachers who earned advanced degrees under the assumption that they would be compensated for them should have those agreements honored.

Fortunately, the benefits of eliminating MA pay are great enough over the long term to be worthwhile even if short-term exceptions and accommodations are made for current teachers. (And possibly even for teachers-in-training.)

For most districts, replacing bonuses for advanced degrees with across-the-board raises has the potential to be a reform that is achievable, is good for both teachers and students, and has limited downside risk.

So what are we waiting for? - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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I still think the lane increases for master's degrees are worth it because master's degrees often lead to certifications/endorsements in multiple areas. For example, a teacher with a sp ed and ESL endorsement is immensely valuable to a school to serve as a jack of all trades

@Ajay - It may make sense to pay teachers for earning particular certifications (to the extent that the certification is demonstrated to be useful, and not just an administrative hoop to jump through), but that doesn't really justify the current arrangement of just paying everybody for a MA, especially since the vast bulk of those MAs don't certify the teacher for anything new.

Research shows that the quality of teacher preparation programs vary widely. The best programs produce new graduates who outperform experienced teachers, http://regents.louisiana.gov/value-added-teacher-preparation-program-assessment-model/

Every high achieving nation has gotten that way by improving the selectivity and effectiveness of teacher preparation programs. Finland is the poster child for this strategy. They used to have poor teacher prep programs and lack luster educational outcomes. As part of an education improvement strategy, they shut down all but eight teacher preparation programs, vastly improved the remaining schools of education, and required that every teacher get a masters degree.

Too many education schools are little more than diploma mills with shockingly low standards. It does not have to be that way.

@Ray - To be clear, the subject at hand is master's degrees in particular, not credentialing in general. It may be that there's more variation among credentialing programs than among MA programs, and that's actually what I would predict under my interpretation of rapidly diminishing returns to teacher preparation.

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