UW News

July 23, 2009

Report: School districts should rethink pay bump for teachers with masters degrees

A new study from the UW’s Center on Reinventing Public Education and the education think tank the Center for American Progress questions whether extra pay for masters-level teacher experience improves student achievement. The report says school districts would be “foolhardy” not to rethink such premium pay levels.

“On average, master’s degrees in education bear no relation to student achievement,” say education researchers Marguerite Roza of the UW and Raegen Miller in their short paper, Separation of Degrees: State-By-State Analysis of Teacher Compensation for Master’s Degrees. The brief was produced jointly by the two agencies.

“During this time of fiscal stringency, it should raise eyebrows when a state automatically allocates such large sums of the average per-pupil expenditure in a manner that is not even suspected of promoting higher levels of student achievement,” say the authors.

In hard dollars, this means New York state spends an extra $416 per student (about $1.121 billion a year) just because 78 percent of its teachers hold master’s degrees. In Washington state, the analogous numbers are $319 per pupil (or $330 million a year total) for the 56 percent of its teachers with a master’s. These expenditures, respectively, represent 2.78 percent and 3.30 percent of the total federal, state, and local money devoted to education in each state.

Roza is a senior scholar at the UW center and a research associate professor at the UW College of Education. Miller is associate director for education research at the Center for American Progress and was affiliated with the Center on Reinventing Public Education as a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow. The two chart these funding numbers for each state and suggest that the money now committed to the master’s bump in pay could be better spent.

They write, “Teaching candidates with salient and meaningful master’s degrees should be given preferential attention when competing for jobs, all else being equal. A master’s degree in engineering, for example, should be construed as evidence that a candidate possesses a deep understanding of a subject matter that is relevant to teaching mathematics or science.”

The authors acknowledge that changing long-established pay practices and contractual schedules will not be easy. But they argue that from a strategic point of view, this master’s bump in pay “makes little sense because these monies could be channeled into teacher compensation in ways that lead to improved student performance.”

Seeing the issue in the context of how a financial crisis can inspire education reform focused on benefiting students, Roza and Miller conclude:

“In the fiscal climate ahead, school systems serious about improving results for students will have no choice but to reconsider their long-automated ways of spending money, uncover how much money is at stake, and compare current ways of spending to alternative ones with greater potential to benefit students.”

Separation of Degrees: State-By-State Analysis of Teacher Compensation for Master’s Degrees is available at www.crpe.org. It’s the fourth “Rapid Response” brief in the Schools in Crisis: Making Ends Meet series, designed to bring relevant fiscal analyses to policymakers during the current economic crisis.