Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Teachers with Masters Degrees Not Worth Their Pay?

Schools are having trouble paying the bills. The extra pay teachers get for having a Masters degree costs schools nearly $9 billion per year. One college of education, the University of Washington, has proposed a strategy: “decoupling” extra pay for teachers who earn Master's degrees. After all, what are the schools getting for all the extra pay? By all accounts, teachers with Master's degrees do not get any more academic achievement out of their students than teachers not so well endowed.

Not surprisingly, the recommendation went over like the proverbial lead balloon.

The authors expected push back from teachers, and got it. But it was the the reaction of their colleagues from other colleges of education that seemed to take the authors by surprise. Think of the revenue the colleges of education would lose. If teachers do not get paid for their Masters degrees, maybe they will not bother to enroll for Masters programs.

Okay, first, I would not like to think that the colleges of education would even come close to suggesting fixing their research recommendations around self-interested revenue considerations. Nope, I would not like to think that. So I'll put that thought away for the moment and press on.

The University of Washington researchers concluded that students of teachers with Masters degrees in math or science posted achievement gains. Strangely, a separate study found teachers with degrees in math or science had no advantage, at least at elementary and middle school levels. No wonder practicing teachers declare a pox on all their houses. Guidance from the ivory towers is pretty fuzzy.

The University of Washington researchers believe that part of the problem is 90% of Masters degrees are in education, and everybody knows how worthless those degrees are, including the teachers who hold those them. You can hardly spend five minutes in a teacher's lounge without hearing someone complain about what a waste of time, educationally speaking, their Masters was. But at least there's the monetary compensation.

The researchers have an answer. They suggest tying extra pay to student outcomes as if they have completely missed the merit pay debates swirling around them. The most common, and questionable, proxy for student achievement is test scores. Teachers have no control over many of the variables that influence academic achievement. Merit pay proposals perennially fail on the question of equitably evaluating teacher efficacy. The study authors would convert Masters pay into merit pay. Furthermore, colleges of education must surely bear some responsibility for the worthlessness of their Masters degrees they offer.

But I see the issue another way. In my experience, it is usually successful, practicing teachers who go back to school for their Master's degrees. They have already proven themselves in the classroom. So it is not surprising that research fails to correlate increased academic achievement (whatever that is) with acquisition of a Masters degree. The chronology is backwards.

I do not begrudge teachers their “masters pay bump.” When it come to education, society has arrived at very little consensus on anything, except agreement that teachers are paid too little. If schools want to save money, they might start by laying off a few overpriced and unnecessary administrators. I know of a county with population 50,000 and eleven separate one-school districts with enrollments around 150 pupils per “district.” Each “district” has four expensive administrators, superintendent, assistant superintendent, principal, and vice principal. Talk about overkill.

Another thing the researchers do not understand is that the Masters degree can become a mill stone around the necks of teachers who change districts. It may even render them virtually unemployable. Schools routinely reject the applicants with the most education and experience. I have advised graduate students that if they get a Masters, they better plan on never leaving their district.

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