RALEIGH, N.C. – North Carolina’s long-standing practice of handing out 10 percent pay raises to teachers when they earn their master’s degree is about to come to an end.

gift moneyEducators who want to qualify for pay raises – sometimes referred to as a “master’s bump” – will need to have their degree in-hand by April 1, 2014. North Carolina teachers who already receive raises for holding an advanced degree will be “grandfathered in.”

North Carolina joins Wisconsin and Colorado’s Douglas County School District as the nation’s leaders in scrapping the practice, which has been a dominant feature of teacher union-negotiated salary schedules for decades.

While opposition to “master’s bumps” seems to be coming only from conservative quarters, there is actually a bipartisan consensus that the practice is out-of-date and needs to be replaced. It’s a safe bet that more states will follow suit in the coming months and years.

The main reason for this opposition is a growing body of research that finds no significant correlation between an educator’s level of college degree and his or her effectiveness in the classroom.

That was the key finding of “The Sheepskin Effect and Student Achievement,” a 2012 report from the left-of-center Center for American Progress. In the report, researchers Raegen Miller and Marguerite Roza conclude that teachers with master’s degrees “are no more effective, on average, than their counterparts without master’s degrees.”

A big part of the problem, according to the report, is that graduate-level courses for teachers do little to help educators improve their “instructional efficacy.”

“Some master’s programs double as teacher education programs with curricula that are a ‘confusing patchwork’ lacking in rigor and often absent coursework that a reasonable person might imagine fundamental,” Miller and Roza write.

For example, few education schools train teachers in the science of reading, a key skill in improving student achievement. Add to that the 10 percent of master’s-seeking teachers who take courses only to become school administrators – not master teachers – and it’s obvious why ending degree-based raises is on the radar for education reformers.

Even Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s left-wing schools chief, has concluded the impact of a general education master’s degree “is zero on student learning,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

A lost opportunity

The other major reason more and more lawmakers and policy analysts oppose degree-based pay raises is because they consume a significant portion of a school district’s budget.

Just a few years ago, Wisconsin and North Carolina were spending $231 million and $170 million annually on the raises, respectively. All told, the nation’s school districts paid out $14.8 billion in master’s bumps during the 2007-08 school year, according to the Center for American Progress study.

And that amount does not take into account the typical teacher union contract demand that school districts pay some or all of a teacher’s tuition costs for an approved graduate program.

Miller and Roza believe that money represents a “lost opportunity” for schools that could better spend those dollars on programs that actually benefit students.

Instead, they recommend “more complex teacher compensation systems, in which higher pay goes to teachers in shortage subject areas, to effective teachers who support novices or tackle the most challenging assignments, and to teachers with extraordinary instructional impact.”

North Carolina lawmakers are moving in that direction. StarNewsOnline.com reports, “Once the master’s supplements are phased out, the plan is to put teachers on a merit pay system, where teachers’ salaries are tied to their students’ end-of-grade test scores.”

Lawmakers have already implemented an annual pay-for-performance fund of roughly $10 million, and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is proposing a new “$30 million innovation fund to provide $10,000 stipends to 1,000 top teachers – about 1 percent of the state’s teachers,” reports CharlotteObserver.com.

No longer worth the investment?

Teachers aren’t the only ones who will have to adjust to the end of degree-based pay raises.

Without those financial incentives, many teachers will simply stop pursuing advanced degrees, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. That means state universities will have to entice potential teacher-students by offering programs that actually help them become more effective in the classroom, and thus eligible for merit-based raises.

That’s already happening in Wisconsin, where struggling graduate schools of education are refining their course offerings and ramping up their marketing efforts, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“The dropping of the master’s bump in many districts is also raising new questions about what kind of outside training is relevant to help teachers improve outcomes with their students, and what those teachers … will consider to be worth the investment,” reports the Journal Sentinel notes.

About 55 percent of Wisconsin teachers and 28 percent of North Carolina teachers hold a master’s degree. Those numbers are expected to drop significantly in future years.

It will be interesting to see if this trend against credential-based raises reaches the eight states that currently require educators to hold an advanced degree as a condition of receiving their full professional teaching license, and the 16 states that require extra pay for teachers with an advanced degree.

Miller and Roza believe state policymakers would be wise to dispense with both policies.

“These policies heed a conventional wisdom that’s oblivious to strategic concerns around bolstering the quality of the teacher workforce, improving student outcomes overall, and closing achievement gaps between groups of students defined by ethnicity or economic status,” they write.

School districts “could and should avoid directing new resources toward them,” Miller and Roza conclude.

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