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The Impact of Master's Degrees

My daughter is a third grade teacher pursuing her master's degree in curriculum and instruction. I am often challenged by the questions she is raising as a result of her debriefing and reflecting on course issues. Yesterday she was pondering a problem area to choose for an action research assignment.

Her father asked her why she was pursuing a master's degree and how she hoped to benefit from the continued education. She responded that when she started the program, her primary motivation was the salary bump the district offered for a master's degree. Other than years of service, she saw no other way to increase her salary as a classroom teacher. She also wanted to gain the credentials that would make her eligible to serve as an instructional coach or resource teacher.

What she didn't expect was how much she would learn about becoming a better teacher. Already, she has learned how to design better formative assessments, how to create integrated lessons, and how to differentiate instruction so more students succeed. Over the next few semesters, she will produce an action research project that will affect her classroom, and potentially the entire school. She could, if asked, demonstrate the impact of her graduate learning on her practice and her students.

Providing salary rewards for master's degrees has been a common strategy for rewarding teachers for continuing their education. In the early years of my career, my school district required master's degrees within the first five years of teaching. Absent a comprehensive professional development program, pursuing a master's and doctorate were the only continuing growth opportunities available to teachers. As districts recognized their responsibilities to provide professional growth for their staff, many dropped the requirement while still maintaining the stipend.

Over the past several years, questions have been raised regarding the effect of master's degrees on teaching quality. The most conclusive research has documented links between improved student learning and teachers with master's degrees in their content areas. Based on these findings, some school systems narrowed their stipends to master's degrees in the subject matter teachers were teaching.

As school districts assumed greater responsibility for providing professional development support, the master's degree was also brought into question. In a comprehensive professional development system, three purposes are addressed: School improvement, program implementation, and individual growth. In my view, pursuing a master's degree can represent one form of individual professional growth, and rewards can be structured in a way that asks teachers to demonstrate its impact on classroom practice and student learning.

Continuing learning is a hallmark of a learning profession. Stakes are being raised for all professional development, and master's programs that are part of a comprehensive professional growth program must be held to the same standard. I have confidence that the professionals who pursue master's and the programs that confer it are equally committed to our common purpose - higher performance for themselves and their students.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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