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Is a Master's Degree a Good Value in Professional Development?

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In my series exploring the value of a Master's degree, I recently asked whether it's worth the price tag (in both tuition and opportunity cost), and whether it's the best path to certification (or whether it should be pursued after a few years of experience).

For many teachers, the decision to pursue a Master's degree stems from a desire for professional growth more than the desire for a pay raise or to meet a state requirement. As Madeline's email illustrates, many teachers believe a Master's program to be one of the best paths to professional growth. Instructional technology, curriculum, assessment, child and adolescent development, reading intervention, and other topics can be explored in-depth in a Master's program. The pay bump associated with a Master's is designed, in part, to encourage this self-directed but professionally facilitated—and accredited—learning.

Of course, all of these topics can be explored through self-study, conferences, independent reading, professional learning communities, and even Twitter. In any professional learning effort, you'll get out what you put in. Despite this range of cheaper options, some 175,000 teachers each year earn a Master's degree (though many of these degrees are pursued either to meet state requirements or to obtain initial certification).

Coursera, the free online course platform used by leading universities, has some 51 courses in computer science, but only 3 in education (none of which cover traditional College of Education material). There is currently no way for teachers to convert self-directed PD from conferences or online courses into a "lane change" the way a Master's degree does; while some conferences offer course credit through a university partnership, and credits earned this way may count toward an in-progress Master's, standalone credits generally aren't worth much without a degree.

The traditional, university-based Master's degree has an edge over other forms of professional development in that it is accredited and more or less defensible to the general public. Conferences, online courses, and self-directed learning offer no such assurances of credibility, so there's no pay bump associated with them.

So if the Master's is to retain special status as a pay-raising recognition of professional learning, perhaps we should ask whether it is in fact a good bargain. We've already seen that paying teachers with Master's degrees more is not an effective way of "buying" higher student achievement. Is the Master's at least a good deal, relative to other professional development options?

For universities on the quarter (rather than semester) system, 10 hours of class time typically equates to one credit hour. At $300-$500 per credit, an hour of professional development—not including work done outside of class— thus costs about $30-$50. (Of course, tuition rates vary widely, but graduate credit in education is typically on the high end of the tuition scale.)

School-based professional development facilitated by outside professionals can range widely based on travel costs and economies of scale (bringing in a local expert for a large staff can be an order of magnitude cheaper than flying in someone for a small staff), and this type of PD is more likely to reflect school priorities than individual professional growth needs, so let's focus on the more individualized options.

Professional development workshops and conferences for educators typically cost $100-$400 per day, and in my experience contain about 5 hours of content at most (due to breaks, announcements, transition times, etc.). ASCD's Fall Conference, for example, is three days long and costs $443. Each day has about 5 hours of content, not including time for announcements at the morning general sessions. Solution Tree's conferences run about $200 per day. So the $30-$50/hr rate for a Master's program seems fairly competitive.

The real difference, it seems to me, is in the work you're asked to do in a Master's program, and the accountability relationship. If you don't do the work, you don't get the credit, and your tuition is "wasted." In non-university-based professional development, there is typically no written work to complete, and attendance is the primary vehicle for learning and accountability.

Clearly, it's possible for more hybrid models to emerge, but it remains to be seen what formats will be respected by the institutions and regulatory agencies that set pay scales and certification requirements.

What professional development do you find to be of the greatest value?

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