The value of a master’s degree in education – in monetary, philosophical and educational terms – is under fire as conflicting camps are responding to increasingly high-profile criticism of merit pay systems.
The debate  over how teachers are paid -- and how to attract the best teachers – has been going on for years. But U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan  and education mega-philanthropist Bill Gates  went further – perhaps not coincidentally, within two days of one another – in using recent speeches as opportunities to call on school districts to reward teachers based on their students' performance and other measures of merit -- not based on whether the teachers have earned master's degrees.
That puts Duncan and Gates at odds with the traditions of many school districts, which typically do pay teachers more if they have earned master's degrees. And any shift away from such pay policies worries those at education schools that offer master's degrees.
“We are concerned about the fact that this comment really does kind of take the wind out of the sails of teachers when they are really excited about doing graduate work,” says Donna L. Wiseman, dean of the College of Education at the University of Maryland at College Park. “This could make them feel like it’s not worth their time to enroll in graduate school. And that’s counter to what we think, of course.”
Duncan and Gates targeted pay increases for degree type and years of experience as wasteful spending that should be redirected to teachers who either prove their ability to perform or who take on areas where they’re most needed, such as low-income schools or larger classes. While Gates mentioned master’s degrees but focused primarily on seniority, Duncan’s focus on master’s degrees hinted at the complexities of the debate over merit pay systems.
“Doing more with less will likely require reshaping teacher compensation to do more to develop, support, and reward excellence and effectiveness, and less to pay people based on paper credentials,” Duncan said in a speech  at the American Enterprise Institute last month. “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 master's in math and science.”
Because salary scales differ from district to district, it's difficult to determine the total amount a teacher could earn based on the fact that he or she has a master's degree. But Alison Hilsabeck, dean of the College of Education at National-Louis University, said the degree could make a difference of 5 percent or more.
Many experts agree that a higher degree is not synonymous with higher student achievement. But they also take issue with the research methods used to arrive at that conclusion: student testing, they say, is not a sound way to gauge a teacher’s abilities.
“The research is so inconclusive that I really do wonder why we have such a bold statement when in fact it’s born of a really important question,” says Sharon P. Robinson, CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. She said that Duncan was engaged in "a leap of faith" in saying that master's degrees don't help teachers.
In Florida, the debate over how teacher pay should be set has been intense. After teachers and unions bombarded Gov. Charlie Crist with opposition, he vetoed a bill that would have moved pay differential away from degree and seniority criteria and replaced them with rewards based on evaluations of teachers and on student performance. The legislation is expected to reappear on the 2011 agenda.
Sandra L. Robinson, dean of the College of Education at the University of Central Florida, said the research showed that this year wasn’t the right time to make such a bold move. She wants to see more thorough research that breaks down master’s degrees’ impact on performance by the degree-granting institution, the person’s age, the public school district and so forth. “We could examine the practices that make teachers better, rather than taking away incentives for teachers to get more education,” she said. “It’s logical that we would want our teachers to be learners, since that’s the profession they’re in.” (Preliminary findings from forthcoming Florida research show that children in classes with teachers who took more advanced reading courses themselves scored an average of 10 percentage points higher than children in other classes.)
Some colleges are already shaking up their teacher preparation programs to address questions of merit and teacher effectiveness. National-Louis this year is piloting a master's degree designed to help novice teachers with initial certification develop the skill set to work in high-need urban schools. "Teacher preparation programs don’t generally have the time to turn somebody into a master teacher,” Hilsabeck said. "Our idea is, explicitly move people toward adding value to their skill base and being effective educators in their general classroom.... We have to figure out how to give them the tools that are going to allow them to do that."
National-Louis is a recipient of the federally funded Teacher Quality Partnership grant, which places teachers in residency at urban schools and requires them to return to the same schools to teach after obtaining their master's degree. The program is underscored by the belief that college-public school partnerships are the ideal way to increase teacher effectiveness (an assertion that Duncan and others drove home in a recent report  on revolutionizing teacher preparation methods).
Amid the debate about the value of the master's programs is another question: Will the criticism of master's programs (or a move away from rewarding teachers with the degrees) discourage enrollments? Many in teacher education say that they aren't worried about a loss of students.
“More knowledge is better than less knowledge,” says Margaret Crocco, chair of the Department of Arts and Humanities at the Columbia Teachers College in New York, where a master's is required for long-term teacher certification. “The field of education is not unique in that having a master’s degree won’t automatically make you better at what you do, but I certainly think that it is a very important component of being a successful teacher.”
Wiseman, the Maryland dean, is troubled by an implication that the only reason to pursue higher learning is to make more money.
“I can’t erase the fact that when teachers have master’s degrees it doesn’t improve student achievement,” she says. “But I don’t think a master’s degree is worthless because of that.”