by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
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):
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.