March 4, 2021

Master’s of None: The Fallacy of Advanced Ed Degrees

7:00 AM: leaves house.

8:00 AM: arrives at school.

3:00 PM: finishes teaching a full day of classes.

4:20 PM: arrives across town for graduate school courses.

9:40 PM: finishes classes.

11:00 PM: arrives home.

Then he writes his lesson plans for the next day.

New York City associate special education teacher David Firestone’s schedule mirrors that of many practicing teachers taking graduate education courses. Why do teachers endure schedules like Firestone’s? They more or less must: the vast majority of states and school districts give teachers pay raises for completing graduate coursework as a way of improving teachers’ practice.

The system works for teacher unions who want benefits that are equally accessible to all members and who prefer linking pay to credentials and seniority—rather than to performance. And it provides vast amounts of tuition revenue to universities providing coursework.

But there’s a problem: research has repeatedly found that the courses don’t improve teacher performance, students of teachers with master’s degrees don’t perform better on standardized tests, and many teachers themselves say the graduate education courses are a waste of time. School districts are spending billions of dollars a year on an improvement strategy that mostly doesn’t work.

So what’s going wrong? FutureEd partnered with Washington Monthly’s Grace Gedye to explore the issue.

How Teacher Prep Programs are Falling Short:

  • Too much time on theory and not enough on practical teaching skills. Jessica Chirico, a social-studies teacher who got her master’s at Hunter College, went so far as to note that pedagogical theorists cannot help when kids are throwing paper balls or looking out the window. Firestone noted that he learned how to submit the documentation needed to attain his teaching license, but a master’s degree did not teach him how to write a lesson plan. 
  • Professors are too far removed from the classroom and use out-of-date pedagogy. Often the professors are academics who are no longer in classrooms and have little to share about the practicality of their lessons. One teacher recounted that he once got lectured on not lecturing students. Even when programs offer hands-on experience, master’s candidates are often paired with inexperienced teachers or those nearing retirement.
  • The programs aren’t rigorous enough. A 2006 study led by Arthur Levin, then-president of Teachers College, Columbia University, found programs to have low selectivity, low rigor and low graduation standards. And he and his colleagues found that harried teachers routinely sought the simplest, least time-consuming course options, or courses that prepared them to become administrators rather than support their classroom instruction. That, in turn, led to schools of education competing for customers by making their programs less demanding. Laura Lozito, a social-studies teacher, even mentioned choosing a master’s in education program rather than history after realizing she didn’t have time in her schedule to meet the greater demands of the history program.

While some states like North Carolina are decoupling master’s degrees from pay raises given these challenges, others are concerned that it would mean cutting teachers’ pay amid a push for higher salaries. But Georgetown University’s education-finance expert Marguerite Roza, among others, argues that giving all teachers higher salaries without requiring them to take graduate courses would be better than having some teachers go into debt to attain master’s degrees.

The District of Columbia Public Schools has moved in that direction using comprehensive teacher evaluations to determine pay and bonuses rather than giving extra pay for master’s degrees or seniority. And it has developed an innovative, school-based professional development program that puts teachers at the center of their own efforts.

Relay Graduate School of Education, an independent nonprofit grad school that focuses exclusively on teacher and school-leader education, has developed another option. Relay’s hyper-practical programming includes mentoring by current teachers in the first year, full-time teaching with feedback in the second year, and courses taught by long-time teachers throughout its master’s program.

“Our future depends upon the quality of our teaching force,” Levine told us. That means we need to get smarter about how we build expertise in our nation’s classrooms and about how we compensate our teachers.


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