Masters degrees don't produce better teachers

Teacher compensation in Maryland is still largely determined by two factors: years of experience and earning a master's degree. Yet, change is afoot. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute last month, decried the lack of evidence linking master's degrees with improved student achievement and called for "reshaping teacher compensation to do more to develop, support and reward excellence and effectiveness, and less to pay people based on paper credentials."

Baltimore's new teacher contract implicitly acknowledges, for the first time in Maryland, that no evidence exists to support the notion that performance of students is improved when they are taught by a teacher who holds a master's degree. Accordingly, Baltimore City Public Schools will no longer award its teachers an automatic increase in compensation for earning one. But until the Maryland State Board of Education also changes its regulation that effectively requires a teacher to earn a master's degree to maintain his or her teaching license, Baltimore City's bold move will be thwarted. As one of only five remaining states with this prerequisite, it is time for the state board to reevaluate this certification requirement.

Despite the fact that the 1989 Sondheim Commission recommended making a priority of holding schools accountable for educational outcomes (test scores, graduation rates) rather than how schools achieve these outcomes, the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) continues to regulate the "inputs." For example, the MSDE requires Maryland teachers obtain a master's degree (or its equivalent in coursework) to qualify for an Advanced Professional Certificate that permits them to continue to teach. Maryland already has an elaborate accountability system that holds school districts responsible for student learning. Local school systems should be left free to decide how to improve teacher quality.

There are several reasons why now is the time for the state to remove obstacles, such as the master's degree requirement, from the path of developing and compensating teachers for effective teaching.

There is no evidence that earning a master's degree leads a teacher to produce greater student achievement. Reviewing research conducted during the last 50 years yields the undeniable conclusion that students of teachers holding master's degrees make no more progress than students of teachers not holding advanced degrees. In June, the National Council on Teacher Quality published the report "Building Teacher Quality in Baltimore City Public Schools" (funded in part by an Abell Foundation grant) that includes an analysis of the impact of teachers' advanced degrees on student learning. University of Maryland, Baltimore County faculty members Metin Ozdemir and Wendy Stevenson find that in 90 percent of the studies, a teachers' advanced degree either had no impact or, in some cases, actually had negative effects on student achievement.

Taking these graduate courses is a significant burden, both in time and money, for already overworked teachers. Because their primary motivation is to preserve their teaching license and advance up the salary ladder, busy teachers often pursue the fastest, cheapest and most accessible path to earn these degrees, and not necessarily the education that might lead to improved student outcomes.

Requiring master's degrees costs Maryland school districts a significant amount of money in two ways: tuition reimbursement and automatic salary increases not related to a teacher's performance. Teachers are reimbursed in part for approved university coursework at a considerable cost to local school systems. Baltimore City Public Schools, for instance, spent $7.6 million in FY09 on tuition reimbursement; a large percentage of that for required coursework for re-certification. Yet tuition reimbursement is a fraction of the money spent nationally on salary increases for the 56% of teachers who have earned Master's degrees. Baltimore City alone spends nearly $31 million a year to compensate teachers for graduate coursework---funding that could be redirected in the future towards paying teachers based on effective performance and increased student achievement.

Teachers and leadership within Baltimore City Public Schools have found no rationale to continue rewarding teachers based on earning a master's degree. The state owes it to the citizens to produce the evidence that such a requirement for teacher recertification improves educational outcomes or delete the requirement, allowing local school systems, like Baltimore City, to determine which practices and additional training lead teachers to improve student outcomes.

Robert C. Embry, Jr. is President of The Abell Foundation, and, formerly, a member of the Board of School Commissioners of Baltimore City and President of the Maryland State Board of Examiners. His e-mail is

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