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Paying for Master's Degrees: Are There Alternatives?

Philanthropist Bill Gates and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made headlines a couple weeks ago for suggesting in back-to-back speeches that districts should rethink the pay premiums teachers typically receive for earning advanced degrees.

Although researchers who study longitudinal student-achievement data have known about the mismatch between teachers' degrees and student scores for quite some time, the focus on this issue by those two high-profile figures served to bring it to the attention of the public at large. (Important caveat: Most of the studies on this topic have relied on test scores, which don't capture everything we want to know about student learning.)

The American Federation of Teachers, despite having at least three affiliates now moving to pay systems that rely less heavily on master's degrees, seemed unnerved by all the attention. The union put out (twice) a release that urged caution in moving to other, untested systems.

"While we can debate the value of a particular degree, it is undeniable that the more a teacher knows—about the subject matter and pedagogy—the more effective she can be. It's also undeniable that our teacher education programs must better align their work with what teachers need," the union said in the release.

The idea of doing away with the pay bump is the topic that always seems to attract a lot of angry comments from teachers whenever we write about it here at EdWeek. And it's not hard to see why, when you consider that the current pay structure at work in the U.S. education system encourages teachers to go get these degrees. In fact, some states, like New York, actually demand it. And getting such a degree is one of the few avenues teachers can pursue in order to earn higher pay.

So teachers ask a fair question of Gates, Duncan, and others who say it's time to re-envision this system: What do you replace it with? What should teachers get raises for taking on?

They're good questions, and here are a couple of possibilities I'm seeing in the field:

Limit Pay to Specific Degrees: Over at the Education Intelligence Agency, Mike Antonucci asks the question of whether it makes sense to limit pay for holding only those degrees that are better correlated with achievement, rather than chucking out all master's degree pay wholesale. Right now, the strongest link between degree and achievement is in the content areas of math and science. Lest you think Antonucci, a teachers' union critic, speaks alone on this issue, I once interviewed a National Education Association UniServ field leader who also raised the idea of limiting pay increases to degrees in math, science, or cognitive science on student development.

This would still be a big change for the field. About 90 percent of teachers earn general degrees in "education" rather than a specific field. When you consider the lack of continuity within the teacher-preparation world, both from program to program and even within institutions, it's not hard to see the benefit of moving to a more narrowly defined set of degrees.

Link Pay to Evaluations: Though popularized through the Race to the Top contest, versions of this idea have been floating around for about a decade. Cincinnati was among the first districts to consider the idea, in the early 2000s, though the teacher corps ultimately voted down a proposal to link pay and evaluation.

Meanwhile, much attention has focused on the District of Columbia's soon-to-be-implemented performance-pay system. In addition to rewarding teachers deemed "effective" on the teacher-evaluation system with one-off bonuses, the D.C. plan also contains a mechanism whereby teachers deemed effective several years in a row can actually skip forward several "steps" on the salary schedule—which means permanent increases in pay.

Design Alternatives: John Tarka of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers told me recently that, while the new contract signed in his city does away with the master's degree pay, most teachers will still have to take graduate credits because state rules require them to take a certain number of college credit-hours every few years to maintain a current license. Tarka told me that, ideally, he'd like to see the union and district design their own recertification and professional-development courses so that they'll be better aligned to the district's curriculum and standards. That seems a basis on which to build a different pay system, too.

What other options can you think of?

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