More School Districts Dump Master’s Pay Bump

Should teachers be paid more for holding graduate degrees?

Many states and school districts have linked teachers' pay and job security to student test scores, and now some are slashing the extra pay for master's degrees. In the United States, about $15 billion is spent annually on salary bumps for teachers who earn master's degrees, and more districts are deciding the bonus just isn't worth it.

In North Carolina, lawmakers voted in July to drop the automatic pay increase option that rewarded teachers for earning master's degrees. North Carolina isn't alone; schools in districts Tennessee are adopting salary scale policies that put a focus on factors such as teacher performance and less emphasis on advanced degrees, according to Stephanie Banchero of The Wall Street Journal.

In New Jersey, Newark recently decided to pay teachers for master's degrees only if they were linked to the district's new math and reading standards. Florida, Indiana and Louisiana already embraced policies requiring districts to put more weight on teacher performance and less on degrees.

"Paying teachers on the basis of master's degrees is equivalent to paying them based on hair color," said Thomas J. Kane, an economist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director for the Center for Education Policy Research.

Research shows that holding a master's degrees does not necessarily play a role in raising student achievement, according to Mr. Kane, who, however, noted that researchers also found that teachers with advanced degrees in science benefit students. Mr. Kane and other critics are recommending that schools change pay plans to reward teachers on their accomplishments such as advancing student achievement.

Teachers unions are worried about new pay and reward policies and are concerned schools will create pay schemes too reliant on student test scores. They are also concerned about slashing the master's bump and not replacing it with other methods to move teachers up the pay scale.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, urges districts and local unions to craft contracts that reward teachers for master's degrees that are relevant to classroom instruction.

"What is so ironic to me is that the same people who keep telling kids that it is really important to gain additional knowledge are the same ones saying ‘not so much,' when it comes to teachers," she said.

In North Carolina, teachers are generally unhappy with the new policy to slash the extra pay for master's degrees. A high-school English teacher in Pikeville, N.C. testified that she is working on an online master's degree in instructional technology at East Carolina University to learn how technology in the classroom and also to get a pay raise.

According to the most recent federal data, about 52% of the nation's 3.4 million public elementary and high school teachers held a master's or other advanced degree in 2008, compared with about 38% of private school teachers. Federal data shows that the national average salary for a teacher with five years of experience and a bachelor's degree was $39,700 in 2008, compared with $46,500 with a master's.

The master's bump cost school districts an estimated $14.8 billion during the 2007-2008 school year, the most recent data available, according to Marguerite Roza, a research professor at Georgetown University who specializes in school finance.

While the master's pay represented only about 2% of what districts spent, Ms. Roza argues it would be better directed toward paying teachers for classroom effectiveness or recruiting highly talented educators.

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