• The state House budget would restore salary supplements for public school educators with a master’s degree
  • Decades of empirical research failed to establish a relationship between master’s degrees and student performance
  • Possible research-based compromises include restoring master’s pay for teachers who obtain their degrees in their teaching subject or supporting teachers who pursue National Board Certification

Two weeks ago, House Republicans released their full biennial budget proposal. The House plan included sizable pay raises for teachers who have at least 15 years of experience. For early-career teachers who would miss out on the increases proposed for their more experienced counterparts, budget writers included eight weeks of paid paternal leave and, most notably, the restoration of salary supplements for those with a master’s degree.

The motives for awarding salary supplements for advanced degrees are laudable. Lawmakers assume that educators who complete a master’s degree obtain advanced knowledge and skills that make them more effective in the classroom. Presumably, financial incentives would also encourage their colleagues to do the same, thereby boosting the overall quality of the teacher workforce. An ancillary benefit is that it boosts graduate enrollment at beloved state colleges and universities. While college and university coffers benefit from offering graduate programs in education, public school students generally do not.

When it comes to master’s degrees in education and student performance, however, the science is settled. In their July 2021 Smart Money 2.0 study, National Council on Teacher Quality researchers point out, “It has long been established that there is no evidence that a master’s degree makes teachers more effective.” Consider a partial list of peer-reviewed studies using data from North Carolina public schools over the last 15 years (emphases added):

  • “… we find inconclusive effects for advanced degrees.” (Moiz Bhai and Irina Horoi, “Teacher characteristics and academic achievement,” Applied Economics, 2019)
  • “Although salary supplements for all graduate degrees are not well-supported by extant research (including findings from this study), my analyses show that in-area graduate degrees are related to teacher effectiveness…” (Kevin C. Bastian, “A Degree Above? The Value-Added Estimates and Evaluation Ratings of Teachers with a Graduate Degree,” Education Finance and Policy, 2019)
  • “Even with this careful attention to selection bias, we confirm the findings of prior studies showing that teachers with master’s degrees are no more effective than those without.” (Helen F. Ladd and Lucy C. Sorensen, “Do Master’s Degrees Matter? Advanced Degrees, Career Paths, and the Effectiveness of Teachers,” CALDER Working Paper, 2015)
  • “Emerging from Table 4 is the conclusion that having a graduate degree is not predictive of higher achievement compared to having a teacher without a graduate degree.” (Charles T. Clotfelter et al.,” Teacher Credentials and Student Achievement in High School: A Cross-Subject Analysis with Student Fixed Effects, Journal of Human Resources, 2010)
  • Numerous studies, including several based on North Carolina data, show no significant relationship between advanced degrees and effectiveness, with the possible exception of high school teachers who receive advanced training in their field of specialty. An evidence-based salary schedule, accordingly, would pay no automatic premium for these degrees.” (Jacob Vigdor, “Scrap the Sacrosanct Salary Schedule,” Education Next, 2008)
  • “… despite the fact that teachers are rewarded for obtaining such a degree in the form of a higher salary—presumably as an incentive, at least in part, to make them a more effective teacher—having a graduate degree exerts no statistically significant effect on student achievement and in some cases the coefficient is negative.” (Charles T. Clotfelter et al., “Teacher Credentials and Student Achievement: Longitudinal Analysis with Student Fixed Effects,” Economics of Education Review, 2007)
  • “The most surprising result is the consistently negative effect of a master’s degree on student achievement. The coefficients suggest that, all else constant, teachers with master’s degrees are less effective than those without.” (Charles T. Clotfelter et al., “Teacher-Student Matching and the Assessment of Teacher Effectiveness,” Journal of Human Resources, 2006)

Accordingly, there is little doubt that salary supplements for advanced degrees are poor investments. That was the conclusion reached by North Carolina lawmakers when they discontinued state teacher salary supplements for teachers who started a master’s degree program after 2013, those required to have a master’s degree for licensure, and teachers who received the supplement before 2014.

Lawmakers reasoned correctly that scarce taxpayer resources could be redirected to programs that offered more direct benefits to teachers and students, such as targeted bonuses for reading and mathematics teachers in elementary and middle schools. Today, North Carolina remains the only state to remove advanced degree supplements from its state salary schedule. If budget conferees in the state Senate agree to retain the House’s teacher compensation plan and the budget becomes law, that distinction will end.

Providing supplemental pay for advanced degrees can add up to a nontrivial sum. The House budget plan would appropriate $8 million per year for that purpose, a sum sure to grow as more teachers would be incentivized to pursue their master’s degrees in search of higher pay.

One possible research-based compromise is to restore master’s pay for teachers who obtain their degrees in their teaching subject. A study cited above, Dr. Kevin Bastian’s 2019 Education Finance and Policy article, suggests that “in-area graduate degrees are related to teacher effectiveness.” Thus, under a revised graduate degree supplement plan, a math teacher with a master’s degree in mathematics would receive additional pay, but a math teacher with a master’s degree in education would not. Another possibility is to support teachers pursuing National Board Certification, which has a slightly better research track record.

Education dollars, like all resources, are scarce. Legislators would be wise to direct them toward efforts that most benefit student achievement. Research has demonstrated supplemental pay for master’s degrees does not.