Over the last decade, the number of teachers in this country has increased faster than student enrollment. This is due almost exclusively to class size reductions at the elementary level: while the student/ teacher ratio in secondary schools was almost identical in 2006 to what it was in 1990, in elementary schools it has fallen by 14 percent. Since teacher salaries are by far the largest expenditure in schools, the drop in class size equates to a sizable sum in total expenditures on schools. None of this is new to someone who follows education policy closely. What is new is that teachers increasingly possess not just the traditional bachelor’s degree, but many more now possess Master’s degrees in education. That has significant consequences for the field.
The Condition of Education published a chart showing common undergraduate degrees awarded in 1996-97 and 2006-07. Of engineering, visual and performing arts, psychology, health professions, education, social sciences, and business, education was the only field with flat growth. A grand total of 525 more students graduated with bachelor’s degrees in education in 2007 than did in 1997, a growth of 0.5 percent. This compared to 101,597 more business students, a growth rate of 45 percent.
For Master’s degrees the story is the opposite. Education had the highest growth rate of all fields, with 62 percent more graduates in 2007 than in 1997.
At first blush this might seem like a good thing–more qualified people entering an important profession is a good thing, right? The trouble is that the research on the value of a Master’s degree in the classroom has consistently shown little to no effect. In other words, these degrees are little more than additional credentials, credentials that cost districts around the country a lot of money. How much money? Below are the salary schedules for teachers in Santa Ana, California and Omaha, Nebraska. Scroll over the dollar signs to see how each of these districts has opted to compensate teachers according to their years of service and credentials.
Fortunately most districts pay their teachers more like Omaha than Santa Ana. Santa Ana’s mountain is an extraordinarily strong incentive for teachers to earn a Master’s degree, a degree that has been shown to matter little in educational effectiveness. Yet, even Omaha’s more modest bonus for Master’s degrees is an incentive that costs the district millions of dollars each year (not to mention the fact that most districts subsidize the cost of teachers going back to school to earn those same higher credentials).
At a time when district budgets are under strain, the Master’s bonus should be reconsidered. If you want to learn more about how this can be done and the impacts of the way districts structure their salary schedules, read my recent report on the topic here.