Paying Teachers For Master's Degrees Is A Bad Idea by Paul Bruno


Late last week the Wall Street Journal ran a story detailing efforts in some states scale back salary bumps for teachers with master's degrees.

Research has shown - consistently and for decades - that earning a master's degree doesn't seem to make teachers more effective, or even to correlate with effectiveness.

As someone who earned his MA from a respectable university, these findings never terribly surprised me. Much of the time in my program was dedicated to educational theory or history with little direct relevance to the classroom, or to dubious theories of teaching and learning.

Even many of the most practical elements of the program - the time spent planning and reflecting on classroom practice - didn't cover much that we couldn't learn on the job.

But whatever the reason that MA programs don't seem to add much value, it's natural that states and districts might start rethinking paying teachers for having master's degrees.

Or, at least, it seems natural to me. Whenever the MA salary bump comes under attack, though, there are always defenses offered that strike me as puzzling. Read on to see why I'm a master's degree skeptic.

The most common and intuitive defense of the master's degree is probably that we should pay for it because we should value the professional qualifications of our teachers. Why shouldn't we reward teachers who have invested in their own professional development?

The problem with that line of thinking is two-fold. First, it begs the question at hand: namely, does a master's degree really contribute to a teacher's professional development? The research suggests very strongly that it does not, at least for most intents and purposes.

Second, to the extent that we are worried about respecting teachers as professionals, we should probably be reluctant to insist that teachers jump through an apparently-meaningless hoop to earn an extra carrot.

I'm never entirely sure what it means to say that teachers should be "treated like professionals", but presumably if anything it means that our time and effort are valuable and not to be wasted.

 A second, subtler defense of master's degrees is that the research literature defines "effective" too narrowly. MAs may not improve math or reading test scores, but maybe there are other reasons to pay for them.

Maybe, for example, paying for master's degrees is useful for recruitment and retention. Ormaybe master's incentives are helpful for expanding the range of professional activities in which teachers can engage.

These stories about the potential value of master's degrees are not impossible. Nor, however, are they clearly supported by any evidence.  

It's not even obvious to me why we should find them plausible. I've met many teachers with MAs, for example, but none of them to my knowledge acquired the degree to qualify for additional responsibilities in the district.

At the same time, we know that master's degrees cost districts moderate amounts of money, are onerous for teachers to acquire, and don't improve student test scores.

Speculation about other, conceivable-but-only-assumed benefits shouldn't stop us from reallocating those salary bumps to across-the-board raises. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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