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Pay Hikes for a Master's Degree

Do teachers who earn a master's degree deserve an automatic increase in salary?  That's a straightforward enough question, but it is not easily answered. To understand why, it's necessary to put the issue in context.

Of the 3.4 million public school teachers, about 52 percent held a master's degree in 2008.  This compares with about 38 percent of K-12 private school teachers.  The U.S. spends an estimated $15 billion annually on salary increases for this advanced degree.  Whether it is money well spent is another story.  That's because with the exception of math and science, research shows that teachers with a master's degree are no more effective in raising student achievement than teachers with only a bachelor's degree ("Pay Raises for Teachers With Master's Under Fire," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 5).

I think a lot depends on the field in which the master's degree is earned.  If the degree can be shown to be linked to classroom instruction, I strongly support salary bumps. Although California did not require a master's degree when I applied for my teacher's credential, I earned mine in journalism at UCLA.  What I learned during the one-year program proved invaluable in subsequently teaching composition in my English classes.  If I had decided to go for a master's degree in, say, political science, however, I see no benefit accruing to my instruction.  Nevertheless, it's interesting to note that Finland requires all teachers to have a master's degree.

As public education slowly but inexorably moves toward a business model, I expect to see certain fields being singled out for salary increases, not only at the master's level but also at the bachelor's. I'm referring now to the physical sciences, math, special education and strategic languages.  (The latter includes Mandarin and Arabic, which are taught in only a small number of schools across the country.)  Because qualified teachers in these four fields are extremely hard to find, school districts will eventually have to pay more to recruit and retain them.  Supply and demand are going to win out in the salary wars ahead.

Teacher unions so far have resisted the trend, but they are fighting a rear guard action.  I have great respect for teachers who excel in all subjects.  But it's impossible to deny that we are on the threshold of a new era in education.  We see this at the college level, where professors with demonstrated expertise in STEM command higher salaries than their colleagues in the humanities. I see a similar practice  happening in K-12.

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