The 'Master's Pay Bump': Why Ending It Shouldn't Frighten Ed. Schools

December 2009

This commentary by Patricia Wasley and Marguerite Roza appeared in Education Week Vol. 29, Issue 13, Pages 26-27 (December 1, 2009).

To assert that it is misguided to pay teachers more for earning a master's degree (the 'master's bump') can cause quite a dust-up. Deans of graduate programs in education become very upset, and they make their feelings known.

We have heard it all since our university published a study saying just that. If the master's pay bump were eliminated, wouldn't fewer teachers (customers!) enroll in our programs? And, by the way, why would your institution be promoting such a thesis, one contrary to its own best interests?

These are fair concerns that merit further discussion.

This all began with the publication in July of "Separation of Degrees: State-by-State Analysis of Teacher Compensation for Master's Degrees," which one of us, Marguerite Roza, co-authored ("Halt Urged to Paying Teachers For Earning Master's Degrees," Aug. 12, 2009). The report argued that the near-universal practice of compensating teachers for earning a master's degree should be phased out. It cited research demonstrating that "on average, master's degrees in education bear no relation to student achievement."

The report suggested that teacher compensation should instead be structured "in ways that offer greater benefit to students." Current pay-bump policies invite a cynical, wasteful, and expensive logic: since the compensation incentive is automatic, why not simply obtain the cheapest, most expedient degree? After all, if there is no link between the subject matter of the degree and what the teacher does, nor an imperative to improve teacher performance in return for higher pay, the current compensation system rewards the path of least resistance.

The same perverse incentive applies to degree-granting institutions. Graduate programs need only provide their students with a master's degree to make them eligible for increased pay; they don't need to concern themselves with evidence of improved instruction. No wonder studies consistently find that there is no connection between student performance and teachers who hold master's degrees. There are likely to be graduate programs that are exceptions, of course. But which ones? Clearly, there is no substitute for good data to distinguish among them, and yet the vast majority of graduate programs have no data on how well their graduates do in the classroom.

At our university, the University of Washington, in Seattle, we don't hide from these simple facts. Rather, to the surprise of some of our higher education colleagues, we've embraced them.

Here's our thinking: If teacher-salary scales were to be redesigned so that compensation was structured around increased student outcomes (instead of awarding sums after the attainment of any master's degree of any quality), we'd certainly expect that teachers (our clients) would change their degree-seeking behaviors. Many universities rightly worry that teachers would be less likely to pursue a master's degree at all. However, and this is an important point, those who did pursue master's degrees would become more demanding customers: They would seek out master's programs oriented toward genuinely improving classroom effectiveness.

So yes, perhaps in the short term, fewer teachers would seek graduate programs. But restructuring compensation should, at the same time, tip the scales to those programs that have redefined their offerings with a focus on achieving better results in the classroom.

We are redesigning our programs to ensure that they will fit that bill. To train teachers for effective classroom performance, we are aggressively refocusing programs so that teachers will learn to use data to improve their practice, both during graduate work and throughout their careers. Moreover, we have used generous grants from funders to build data systems that provide an immediate feedback loop on the effectiveness of our programs in improving results for children.

The real argument in the "Separation of Degrees" report is not to shift altogether from graduate work for teachers. Rather, it is that, by aligning compensation incentives with outcomes for students, the shift would be toward a subset of graduate programs: those with the most promise for improving teaching practice.

This explains why we are not afraid of this kind of research, which may indeed pose a threat to the larger field of graduate study. Findings such as those in the report, confirmation of a missing link between graduate study and improved student outcomes, are precisely what challenges us to re-evaluate our purposes and the focus of our programs.

Not all master's degree programs are alike, and credibility in the field depends on the awareness of the differences. One of those differences must certainly be the benefit each program reaps for the children in public schools.

It is for these reasons that we also believe it is OK to question the current teacher-compensation structure, one that fuels the market for all master's programs, including those that hold little or no promise for improving instruction.

Redesigning teacher compensation around improved outcomes for students can be a win-win proposition for those colleges of education concentrating their programs on the improvement of instruction for their teacher-students, and, in turn, for the children in their classrooms. Programs committed to doing this need not be afraid.

Patricia Wasely is the dean of the University of Washington's College of Education in Seattle. Marguerite Roza is a research associate professor at the College, and a co-author, with Raegen T. Miller, of "Separation of Degrees: State-by-State Analysis of Teacher Compensation for Master's Degrees."