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Teacher pay bump for master's questioned

Ohanian Comment: And the drumbeat goes on. The message from the US Secretary of Education is that all children should prepare for college but teachers should not pursue advanced degrees. And why do teachers' professional organizations remain silent about this assault on teacher professionalism?


What do NCTE and the IRA think about Arne Duncan saying MA degrees in math and science might have some value but not those in other subjects? There should be real outrage here, definitely not silence.

What will it take to stir up our professional organizations?

A reader expressed concern about people who pursue degrees at online outfits that offer little more than behaviorist management strategies. I acknowledge that there will always be people who game the system, but I speak here for the best of our profession.

Meanwhile, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, the outfit providing so-called research showing that advanced degree have little value, thanks their current funders:

  • The Annie E. Casey Foundation

  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

  • Carnegie Corporation of New York

  • William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

  • The Joyce Foundation

  • National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

  • Rodel Charitable Foundation

  • The Seattle Foundation

  • US Department of Education

  • Walton Family Foundation

  • By Joe Dejka

    A child enrolled in a Nebraska public school today is more likely to have a teacher with a master's degree than a decade ago.

    While parents may find that trend reassuring, President Barack Obama's education secretary and researchers at a Washington state think tank aren't so sure.

    U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan contends that there's little evidence the extra education makes teachers better, despite school officials' assertions to the contrary.

    Duncan says that awarding automatic pay raises to teachers who earn master's degrees -- a common benefit in Nebraska and Iowa teacher contracts -- is largely a waste of money.

    Cash-strapped school districts should junk teacher pay systems based on education credentials and longevity and replace them with performance-based pay, Duncan says.

    A 2009 study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that Nebraska spends $81 million on the so-called master's pay bump. The center's report ranked Nebraska third-highest among the 50 states for spending on the bump as a percentage of total education spending.

    Iowa spends $64 million and ranks 28th, according to the report.

    Local educators expressed surprise that America's top educator would criticize the bump, which can raise a teacher's pay several thousand dollars a year.

    Master's degrees obtained from quality accredited colleges and universities do, in fact, make better teachers, they say.

    "People aren't going and getting their master's degrees in underwater basket weaving," said Chris Proulx, president of the Omaha Education Association, the teachers union for the Omaha Public Schools.

    "They go and they get a master's degree in elementary education or early childhood development or administration or English as a second language. To tell me that it doesn't impact student learning, it just doesn't make sense."

    Any effort to change contracts to remove the master's bump would require buy-in from teachers unions, which have opposed performance-pay systems.

    "The reality is that salary schedule was created over time through public collective bargaining, and it is a negotiated agreement, and one side cannot just change a negotiated agreement willy-nilly," said Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed.

    Duncan broached the subject of master's degrees during a speech last month titled "The New Normal: Doing More with Less." He said current teacher pay practices are an artifact of "the century-old, Industrial Age factory model of education."

    The nation's school districts spend about $8 billion a year to compensate teachers for master's degrees, he said.

    "There is little evidence teachers with master's degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers," he said.

    Possible exceptions, Duncan said, are teachers who earn master's degrees in math and science.

    However, the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that 90 percent of master's degrees earned by teachers are in education, not English, math or other academic fields better suited to practical application in the classroom.

    In their report, the researchers singled out Nebraska.

    "A Nebraska lawmaker, for example, should probably be aware that, on a yearly basis, roughly $81 million dollars -- $279 per pupil -- are tied up in master's degrees and thus unavailable for other purposes," they wrote.

    Nebraska has seen a substantial rise in teachers earning master's degrees over the past decade-- a trend driven by the growing convenience and availability of master's programs, state and local tuition assistance, teachers' genuine desire to teach better and, of course, the bump.

    Student test scores over the same period on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the ACT remained relatively flat in Iowa and Nebraska, with Iowa students scoring better than Nebraska students in some cases.

    Educators caution against concluding that the surge in Nebraska master's degrees has not improved classroom teaching, when other factors such as increasing poverty and federal policies such as No Child Left Behind have had impacts on education during the same period.

    The number of Nebraska public school teachers holding master's degrees rose from 35.5 percent to 44.1 percent over the decade. In Iowa, the percentage of teachers with advanced degrees has held steady, hitting 29.2 percent last year.

    The number of education master's degrees conferred by Nebraska colleges and universities increased 62.4 percent between 1999 and 2009.

    First-grade teacher Amy Chambers of Norfolk, Neb., set out to pursue a master's degree from Doane College in 2005. She was nearing the top of her salary range on the Pierce Public Schools pay scale. Her contract allowed for a 5 percent pay increase for each nine hours of approved classes taken.

    A teacher completing a master's degree could get an overall bump of $7,100, but the pay raise was phased in over several years as the teacher logged the required credit hours.

    Since her school was making greater use of technology, she studied nights and summers for three years and earned a master's in curriculum and instruction in 2008, with the majority of her courses in technology.

    She said she found it "extremely beneficial" in the classroom.

    "Education has become very research based," she said. "So my focus was on the best methods for teaching kids."

    Education Commissioner Breed said longevity pay and the master's bump do make up a large chunk of money in teacher salary schedules.

    But, Breed said, performance pay has no track record of producing results in the classroom.

    "It's a little disingenuous to say 'We'll just stop using (the money) and use it for these other untried, unproven purposes,'" he said.

    Jess Wolf, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, said earning a master's degree is a way for teachers "to get decent salaries. Beginning salaries are so terrible in Nebraska."

    OPS teachers, who start out earning $33,460 a year, can get a $5,353 master's bump. With 1,642 current OPS teachers holding master's degrees, the bump is costing OPS about $8.8 million a year, or about $176 per student.

    OPS does not reimburse teachers for tuition, spokeswoman Luanne Nelson said.

    In the Westside Community Schools in Omaha, where starting teachers are paid $34,200, the bump is worth $3,000. Westside teachers are required to get a master's within 10 years, but the district reimburses for tuition.

    Eric Weber, Westside's assistant superintendent for human resources, said that by paying for tuition, the district has a say in directing teachers to quality master's programs.

    "We can say 'If you're a high school math teacher, we'd really like you to look at math,'" Weber said. "If you're an English teacher, we really want you to get that master's in English."

    Seventy percent of Westside teachers hold advanced degrees.

    Last year, the Nebraska Legislature appropriated $800,000 in lottery funds for forgivable loans to pay tuition for teachers seeking master's degrees.

    Kathleen Wilson, graduate chairwoman in the department of teaching, learning and teacher education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said teachers gain a deeper level of understanding through advanced education.

    "I can't imagine why you would not want any professional to have continuing education," Wilson said. "I certainly would want my doctors to have continuing education."

    Master's candidates at UNL are taught the "how to" of teaching but also get substantial instruction in academic content, she said.

    Wilma Kuhlman, graduate program chairwoman in the teacher education department at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, said some teachers don't need more academic content. For instance, most high school math teachers already know more content than their students, but they may need better teaching skills, she said.

    Most important is that the master's degree comes from a quality program, she said.

    When Chambers, the Pierce teacher, sought her master's degree, she found Doane's program convenient, particularly because she had young children at home. The college offers classes at 16 locations in Nebraska, and Chambers took classes in Norfolk.

    Because she had already taught for several years, she found the master's coursework more meaningful, she said.

    "They can tell you something when you're getting your bachelor's degree, but when you're in a classroom actually doing it, it's a completely different thing," she said.

    — Joe Dejka





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