The Education School Master’s Degree Factory

By 04/04/2011

10 Comments | Print | NO PDF |

One of the most straightforward ways school districts can obtain cost savings without harming students is to eliminate extra pay for teachers who earn a master’s degree. Simply by giving up the extra payment for the master’s degree, school districts in Florida could save better than 3 percent of their teaching personnel costs without losing any of their classroom effectiveness. In a paper just published in the Economics of Education Review, Matthew Chingos and I look at the characteristics of effective 4th through 8th grade teachers in Florida over the period 2002 to 2010.

We found that teachers with an M. A. degree were no more effective, on average, than teachers who lacked such a degree.  Further, we found out that it did not make any difference from which public university in Florida a teacher had earned the degree.  None of them had an educational program that correlated with a teacher’s classroom effectiveness.

Yet a teacher who has taught for 10 years will earn 6.5 percent more (or about $2500), if he or she has collected that extra diploma.  Since about half the teachers have pursued that advanced degree—given the extra dollars, why not?—the state could save better than 3 percent of its teaching personnel costs by eliminating this useless feature of the teacher compensation scheme.

Even pension costs could be reduced, as teachers’ pensions are generally set at the level they earned in the last few years of teaching. For that reason, some teachers take the time to get a master’s degree just before they retire.  I do not fault the teachers, just the silly compensation system that provokes such choices.

Since the state subsidizes the master’s degree training programs by offering them to teachers at a tuition that is lower than cost, even more money can be saved. If the extra compensation for the master’s degree were eliminated, the only people pursuing such a degree would be those seriously interested in obtaining that additional education for its own sake.  Enrollments in schools of education would plummet, and the taxpayer would not have to pony up additional dollars to keep alive programs of dubious value.

Nor is the situation confined to Florida.  Most every school district pays extra for a master’s degree, and all the state-of-the-art research on this subject is finding exactly what we found in Florida.

The extra pay for the master’s degree is an accident of collective bargaining history.  At one time, high school teachers were paid more than elementary school teachers.  When collective bargaining came along, it was decided—to keep all workers on the same pay scale, a primary union objective–to pay all teachers the same, except for experience and credentials. Since high school teachers were more likely to have a master’s degree, they agreed to this arrangement.  Al Shanker led the way in New York City, as I explain in my book, Saving Schools. Subsequently, elementary school teachers, seeing the financial benefits of holding such a degree, have caught up, and they are just about as likely to hold that advanced degree as their high school counterparts.

– Paul E. Peterson

Comment on this article
  • Christina says:

    I agree with the thought behind this article, but I think you might be attacking it from the wrong end.

    I’m in a Master’s program for education right now and I can confirm that even in the highly ranked private school I attend, most of the coursework does little or nothing to produce better teachers. The entrance requirements are also very low, making it very easy for a teacher (or non-teacher turned teacher) to pad his or her resume and move into a higher salary bracket if willing to put in the time and money.

    However, eliminating the extra pay for teachers who have Master’s degrees could also have adverse effects. From my experiences student-teaching, assistant-teaching, and observing in numerous classrooms in several cities, I have noticed that many teachers who get their teaching credentials as undergraduates are far less competent in the subjects they teach than those who major in the subject itself as undergraduates and then get teaching credentials later through a graduate program and/or alternative certification route (such as Teach for America). It is no secret that education schools in general are among the least selective in higher education, and our country’s most competitive universities do not offer education as a major for undergraduates. I firmly believe that, especially in secondary education, the best route is to spend four years truly mastering the subject area – conducting serious academic research in the sciences, becoming truly fluent in the foreign language, etc. – and then add teaching credentials. (This is the norm in many other countries that outperform us, by the way.)

    Taking away the extra compensation for having a Master’s degree therefore discourages highly talented prospective teachers from pursuing this longer but more challenging route, trading academic rigor for a shorter route to a teaching career.

    What we need to do is raise the bar for education schools so that only truly excellent candidates can obtain a Master’s degree and those candidates will actually obtain and refine the skills needed to be successful in the classroom. We could also restructure the pay system so that teachers are not awarding simply for having a Master’s, but rather for having both a degree in the subject and a degree in education.

    Or we could abandon the whole structure and reward teachers based on actual performance – not test scores per se, but on the quality of their teaching and of student output.

    But that’s another story.

  • […] Dr. Paul Peterson writes in Education Next, explaining how he and fellow researcher Matt Chingos have added one more proof to the gigantic pile of evidence that shows the ineffectiveness of “master’s […]

  • […] EdNext, Paul Peterson writes that we should scrap extra pay for teachers with graduate degrees: Simply by giving up the extra payment for the master’s degree, school districts in Florida could […]

  • Justin Snider says:

    Paul —

    I’ve looked at the study and cannot determine whether you and your co-author tried to separate out the effect of having a master’s degree in a subject-area the teacher actually teaches — i.e., an MA in English — versus the effect of having a master’s degree in education (i.e., an MA in education, or an M.Ed.). It appears you’ve lumped both of these very different types of master’s degrees together, and I don’t see a discussion of why you think this is acceptable methodologically. What grounds do we have for believing that the effect of a master’s degree in a subject-area actually taught is the same as the effect of a master’s degree in education?

  • RoyRog says:

    I interpret the result of your study is that (to quote Michelle Rhee) “more education doesn’t make better teachers.”

    Really? Really?? REALLY???

    Perhaps Education Next should sometimes consult with an educator such as Nancy Flanagan who has an actual, solid background as a classroom teacher.

    If I may quote Nancy from her Feb. 8, 2011 blog,

    “More education doesn’t make better teachers? Kind of encapsulates our national ambivalence about the value of education, doesn’t it? It’s no wonder that we’re always looking for cheap, short-cut answers to the persistent, looming question of how to better educate kids in poverty. If only we could do it without those annoying and expensive teachers, schools and resources…”


    “Reducing teaching to a technical job, one that can be done with minimal “training” in how to raise test scores, says something distasteful and shallow about our social values. Improve graduate programs in education across the board? Absolutely. Re-think the way we compensate teachers for graduate coursework? Sure. But let’s not throw the educational baby out with bathwater.”


    “But did the master’s make me a better–more effective–teacher?”

    “Depends on the definition of ‘more effective.’ Does a master’s degree help educators understand the disciplinary content they teach at a deeper level? Will a master’s degree fill teachers’ pedagogical tool kits or push them to see the big picture of education in America? The best graduate programs in education do exactly that.”

    “Can a graduate degree help teachers leverage increases in student achievement, based on standardized test data?”

    “Ah. There’s the real question. And it’s a genuinely important question, because that’s the way teacher effectiveness is currently measured.”

    Here is the link to her entire blog post:

  • Zenpundit says:

    Curious, what mechanism would you use to determine compensation for teachers and approximately what mean salary would your system produce compared to the current one?

    Compensation is designed to create incentives for the kinds of performance and personnel an employer wishes to hire and retain. As such, it contains a normative judgment regarding the worth of the job itself as well as some metric to measure how well an individual fulfills the responsibilities of the position.

    What is a good teacher “worth” in dollar figures and how should those dollars be allocated to them?

  • Karl Wheatley says:

    For those of you who trust test scores a lot, other research shows that when teachers get their masters after they are licensed and teaching, scores do go up.

    For those who don’t trust test scores as a sufficient indicator, this research cannot prove what it claims to. Teachers with masters may improve schools and student learning in ways not assessed on low-level standardized tests.

  • Paul E. Peterson says:

    Zenpundit – Compensation plans are best evaluated by their overall design, not their “mean” or “average” salary level. That, of course, is best set by the market. Unfortunately, schools today do not operate in a market environment so it is difficult to determine what salary is required to recruit effective teachers.

    The “normative” judgment you call for is required only in a system where decisions are made politically.

  • Paul E. Peterson says:

    Karl – Could you provide a citation for the study you are referring to? Our research reveals no impact of acquiring a master’s degree.

  • James Clinger says:

    Their is some research by Goldhaber and Brewer that indicates that having a masters in math improves the teaching performance of math teachers (as measured by increases in student learning of math). Their research does not indicate that most other masters have any positive impacts. Some impacts are negative. Of course, well over 90% of all masters degrees obtained by teachers are from colleges of education.

  • Comment on this Article

    Name ()


    Sponsored Results

    The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

    Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

    Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform