No, Sen. Berger, Graduate Degrees Do Matter & NC Should Restore Graduate Degree Pay.

The GOP-led NC legislature’s 2013 decision to end graduate degree pay bumps for new teachers entering the teaching profession was not only misguided, but another wave in the assault on public education that continues here in the Old North State.

And the very person who has influenced more policy on public education since 2013, Sen. Phil Berger, continues to shout that graduate degrees for teachers do not have a positive effect in the classroom. In his most recent interview with WFMY, Berger stated,

“Having an advanced degree does not make you a better teacher. We took the money we would have spent on masters pay and plugged it in to teacher raises.”

I confess there exist studies that have shown that advanced degrees do not correlate with higher test scores and/or higher graduation rates. One only has to follow the work of John Hood to glimpse that. His vociferous opposition to paying for advanced degrees is consistent, especially for someone who has never taught or experienced the absolute never-ending flux that educational reforms in NC have placed on schools and teachers.

But in reality, it is rather hard to measure today’s data with historical data when so many variables in measuring schools have been changed so many times in so many ways – usually by non-teachers like Phil Berger.

Since 1990, we as a nation have transitioned from Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump (and DeVos); we have survived No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. As a state, we have gone from the Standard Course of Study all the way to Common Core (and its supposed amorphous successor). And we have used several versions of EOCT’s, EOG’s, SAT’s, ACT’s, AP’s, ABC’s, and AYP’s.

The point is that we have employed so many different barometers of learning utilizing various units of measurements that to actually compare current data on student achievement to historical data becomes almost futile. Even the SAT has changed multiple times since I took it in high school.

However, there is one constant in our classrooms that has provided the glue and mortar for public schools since 1990 and well before that: experienced teachers.

If the Phil Berger thinks that abolishing the graduate degree pay increases for teachers is a good policy, then he needs to convince North Carolinians that our state does not need veteran teachers who are seasoned with experience. Teachers who seek graduate degrees in education (and/or National Certification) are themselves making a commitment to pursue careers in public education. When the state refused to give pay bumps for graduate degrees to new hires, then the state ensured that North Carolina will not have as many veteran, experienced teachers in our schools in the near future. Those teachers will not be able to afford to stay in the profession. Yet, we as a state cannot afford to lose them.

Some teachers do not wish to earn graduate degrees simply because of time constraints and financial barriers. Some do not need graduate degrees to feel validated as master teachers, but the choice to further one’s education to advance in a chosen occupation should always remain and be rewarded. And if a teacher believes that it is beneficial to earn an advanced degree, then it can only help the teacher’s performance. Besides, it is an investment made by teachers who wish to remain in the educational field, especially when future veteran teachers here in NC will never make more than $52K a year under current salary schedules.

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And there is actually plenty of research that suggests that graduate degrees do matter.

Timothy Drake from NC State said in the Summary Report of his publication entitled “Examining the Relationship Between Masters Degree Attainment and Student Math and Reading Achievement,”

“…the results in math and English-Language Arts suggest that teachers earning a Masters degree in math or those earning one designated as “In-Area” have higher average student performance in math across both model specifications.

In an article from EdNC.org, Kevin Bastian of UNC’s Education Policy Initiative at Carolina stated,

Recent research from the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC) shows that middle and high school mathematics teachers with a graduate degree in mathematics (i.e. an in-area graduate degree) are more effective than peers with an undergraduate degree only. Likewise, in several subject-areas, teachers with a graduate degree in their area of teaching are more effective than they were before earning that degree. These positive results are modest in size but fit with a broader body of research showing benefits to teachers who acquire knowledge and skills in their area of teaching.

Given a primary focus on student achievement, we know less about whether graduate degrees impact other important outcomes. Work in North Carolina — by Helen Ladd and Lucy Sorensen — indicates that middle school students are absent less often when taught by a teacher with a graduate degree. Our own work at EPIC shows that teachers with a graduate degree earn higher evaluation ratings than their peers with an undergraduate degree only. These evaluation results are particularly strong for teachers with an in-area graduate degree.

And teachers who pursue graduate degrees to gain more insight into what they can do in the classroom tend to stay in the classroom if that graduate degree would be rewarded in their salary. Teachers who stay become veteran teachers who gain more and more experience that only enhances school culture and student performance in ways that can never be truly measured.

In a report published in Education Week in March, 2015 entitled “New Studies Find That, for Teachers, Experience Really Does Matter”, Stephen Sawchuck recounted findings by Brown University scholars saying:

 The notion that teachers improve over their first three or so years in the classroom and plateau thereafter is deeply ingrained in K-12 policy discussions, coming up in debate after debate about pay, professional development, and teacher seniority, among other topics.

 But findings from a handful of recently released studies are raising questions about that proposition. In fact, they suggest the average teacher’s ability to boost student achievement increases for at least the first decade of his or her career—and likely longer.

 Moreover, teachers’ deepening experience appears to translate into other student benefits as well. One of the new studies, for example, links years on the job to declining rates of student absenteeism.

 Although the studies raise numerous questions for follow-up, the researchers say it may be time to retire the received—and somewhat counterintuitive—wisdom that teachers can’t or don’t improve much after their first few years on the job.

 “For some reason, you hear this all the time, from all sorts of people, Bill Gates on down,” said John P. Papay, an assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University, in Providence, R.I. He is the co-author of one of two new studies on the topic. “But teacher quality is not something that’s fixed. It does develop, and if you’re making a decision about a teacher’s career, you should be looking at that dynamic.”

This reiterates that we need experienced, veteran teachers – many of whom believe that advanced degrees or even national certification are ways to improve their performance in the classrooms. That is not to say that all teachers who have advanced degrees are better than those who do not. I work with many teachers in my school who have earned just a bachelor’s degree and are master teachers who possess traits I wish to emulate.

What many who work on West Jones Street in Raleigh do not mention is that while beginning teachers have seen a big increase in pay, those with more experience have not. That is one major reason we are seeing fewer and fewer teaching candidates in undergraduate education schools here in North Carolina. It is not inviting monetarily to be a teacher for an entire career.

And we need career teachers.

Because advanced degree pay is abolished, many potential teachers will never enter the field because that is the only way to receive a sizable salary increase to help raise a family or afford to stay in the profession. Furthermore, the amount of money it would take to repay the cost of a master’s degree would still take a teacher many years to make on a teacher’s salary, and in most cases that tuition is being paid to public colleges and universities. In essence, many teachers are reinvesting in the very public education system that they serve.

Ironically, not many of those who agree with eliminating graduate degree pay increases argue against that veracity of National Board Certification, which also leads to a pay increase. North Carolina still leads the nation in NBCT’s (National Board Certified Teachers). National certification is defined by a portfolio process which many schools of education emulate in their graduate programs. Additionally, national certification is recognized across the country and its process of validating teacher credentials has rarely been questioned.

But what really seems to be the most incongruous aspect of the argument against graduate degree pay increases is that it totally contradicts the message we send to students in a college and career ready curriculum. If we want students to be life-long learners and contribute to our communities, then where else to better witness that than with our teachers who want to get better at what they do. When students witness a teacher actually going to school (or knowing he/she went back to school), then the impact can be incredible because it means that teachers still “walk the walk” when it comes to furthering an education.

Besides, most all students know that public school teachers do not get into the profession to get rich.

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One thought on “No, Sen. Berger, Graduate Degrees Do Matter & NC Should Restore Graduate Degree Pay.

  1. Last May I spoke to our state senator, Joyce Krawiecz, about how I felt forced out of NC as a young teacher. I sent her a follow up email, and her email response included:
    “I’m not sure how long you’ve been teaching here, but you have seen several salary increases if you have been here a few years. You were aware of the salary structure when you began, and it has certainly improved. Why would you consider leaving after receiving more than you originally bargained for? ”

    Her response was dismissive and insulting, as though I do not have career aspirations as a teacher. This coming fall I will be leaving NC for TX to pursue a Master’s degree. I will be attending a great university to study education, and I am looking forward to learning more about the craft of teaching.

    However. I cannot pretend as though the largest reason for my move out of NC is not pay. As a teacher with no advanced degree and <5 years experience, I could start at upwards of $60k per year in certain parts of Texas. That's more than I would make in NC if I had 30 years experience with the 12% National Boards pay bump. As it stands, I make $36k. With a very cheap apartment ($540/mo), a car payment, insurance, a couple small loans from school, monthly bills, two cats, pretty modest spending habits, and my own supplemental retirement (because the NC retirement for my age is pretty terrible), I'm still not able to save very much per month. I certainly could not hope to have a family on my budget.

    The most insulting part about Senator Krawiecz's words to me was how she failed to take into account all of the reasons why I would choose to become a teacher besides the money. To name a few: the chance to work with young people, to be part of building a better society, and to help students build skills to succeed. These are all more important reasons to be a teacher than money – however, I cannot pretend like accomplishing my other life goals will be possible as a young teacher in NC on the salary I make.

    So many other teachers I know close to my age have left the state, left the profession, or have plans to do so in the next 5 years. It is frightening to consider the state of NC's public education in 15 years.

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