U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is taking aim at the more than $1 billion California school districts spend each year in extra pay to teachers with master's degrees, a core feature of teacher compensation in California and the nation.
In addition to step increases based on years on the job, getting a master's degree is one of the few ways teachers can boost their salaries. A handful of school districts nationally are experimenting with paying teachers based more on teacher evaluations rather than on seniority and advances degrees, but these efforts have yet to translate into a national movement, as a recent article in Education Week reported.
That could change if national education and corporate leaders continue to press the issue.
In a speech in Washington on Nov. 17 [PDF], Duncan said teachers should not be paid based on "paper credentials," but rather on "excellence and effectiveness":
Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have master's degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with master's degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers – with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science.
Duncan was joined in his attack by Bill Gates, the world's richest man with a net worth of $54 billion. Gates decried the $11,000 extra that teachers with a master's degree get in his home state of Washington. He compared attempting to restructure teacher compensation across the United States to "kicking a beehive."
The Duncan-Gates critique was met with derision by California Teachers Association president David Sanchez, who told California Watch it was "unbelievable that (Duncan and Gates) would make incredibly dumb comments like that when in every profession if you get a little more experience, a little more training, you get some additional compensation."
"It is another form of teacher bashing, another form of blaming teachers for everything," Sanchez told California Watch.
At least four out of 10 of California's 305,000 teachers have a master's degree or higher, according to a 2003-04 survey by the National Center of Education Statistics. The proportion is almost certainly higher today. (Nationally the proportion of teachers with more than a bachelor's degree has risen from 40 percent in 1987 [PDF], to 43 percent in 1999-2000 and 49 percent in 2007-08, but no recent breakdowns are available by state.)
California spends an average of $8,977 in extra compensation to teachers with a master's degree, according to a 2009 report [PDF] from the Center for Reinventing Public Education. The total cost to the state is nearly $1.2 billion dollars, which comes to about $187 for every public school child in the state.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell pointed out that the state's role in compensating teachers is limited, because salary scales are set by local districts (there are nearly 1,000 of them) based on collective bargaining agreements. Teacher salaries, he told California Watch, "shouldn't be mandated by the state."
However, he said an advanced degree should only be one of several criteria used to set teacher compensation, including test scores of their students, their types and levels of experience, and length of service.
One problem, he said, is that California doesn't have good methods for measuring teacher effectiveness. He harshly criticized Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for vetoing funds for the state's data system to track teachers (CALTIDES) that O'Connell says will be essential to measure teachers' impact on student progress.
David Pearson, until recently dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education and chair of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, agreed with O'Connell that compensation should be based on a variety of factors. "Multiple measures of any phenomenon that has consequences for individuals (like students) is a good idea," he said.
But he said there are good reasons for the current system of compensation based partially on advanced study. Business people with MBA's typically earn more than those with just a bachelor's degree, he noted, just as cardiologists who have completely intensive medical residences earn more than regular doctors. Typically, no one studies whether those with additional training are more or less effective than those without it.
"The reason we started rewarding teachers with advanced degrees in education was based on the the same assumption, that people who know more will do a better job." he said.
He also expressed reservations about research which shows that students taught by teachers with advanced degrees don't have higher test scores. "No one has ever done an experiment where we randomly assigned kids to teachers with different levels of knowledge and degrees," he said.
Outcomes will also differ, he said, depending on where teachers earn their advanced degrees. Referring to a range of master's programs in teaching at UC Berkeley, he said, "our students get better results than other garden variety programs. They are not only the best and brightest of their generation, they are also incredibly committed."
What Duncan and Gates are proposing would mark a radical change in the way teachers are compensated in both in California and the nation. As a recent Policy Analysis for California Education report [PDF] noted:
Almost every school district in the United States uses a simple table to determine teachers’ salaries. Salary schedules display some minor variations across school districts, but most are based on only two factors: the number of years a teacher has served in the district, and the number of postgraduate credits or degrees the teacher has completed.
The CTA's Sanchez said that teachers should be encouraged to improve their craft through extra learning. "It is not easy for a teacher to go back and get a master's degree," he said. "You do it for a reason, not just to get higher pay," including getting information about new teaching techniques. When he earned his master's degree, he recalled, "I learned so much more about teaching."
But Wally McCormick, superintendent of the Norris Elementary School District in Bakersfield, has a different view. In an e-mail to California Watch, he said that teachers should be rewarded for getting advanced degrees in some specific fields, such as math, speech therapy and some areas of special education, but it shouldn't be standard practice:
Just like smaller class sizes do not make a difference in test scores, advanced degrees do not make better teachers. The last three teachers I've fired or had resign in the face of being fired were all "highly qualified," and they were awful in the classroom. Adding advanced degrees for additional compensation is a way of expanding salary schedules, supports colleges, and increases union dues because dues are usually based upon a percentage of teacher income.
The debate has obviously just begun.