Kicking the Beehive

Like teachers in many states, North Carolina public school teachers have historically received an automatic 10 percent salary increase by earning a master’s degree. Now North Carolina is believed to be the first state in the nation to eliminate the financial reward for earning the master’s.

In July, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed a budget that wipes out the increase. McCrory and members of the N.C. legislature sought this elimination as part of a broader reform effort to tie financial bonuses to actual teaching and student learning. At a Chamber of Commerce conference in August, Governor McCrory said that teachers are “professionals who should be rewarded based on their individual value to their students and their school.”

Eliminating pay for master’s degrees will save the state money. Almost 28 percent of N.C. teachers (27,000 teachers) hold master’s degrees, costing the state’s taxpayers $181 million in 2010.

While the master’s bonus cuts will directly impact teachers and K-12 budgets, they may have a bigger impact on North Carolina’s 34 public and private colleges offering graduate education programs. Nationally, education programs confer about 90 percent of teachers’ advanced degrees. Thus, many of these schools rely on the pay bump to keep a steady flow of students.

A number of administrators have expressed concern about falling enrollment. At Appalachian State, for example, enrollment in the master’s in education program is down 35 students this fall, and administrators expect a bigger decline next year. Others are apprehensive, too. 

  • “We are worried; some students pursue their master’s in education no matter what, but I know of at least a couple who have decided to put it off because of this cut,” Russell Binkley, a professor at Western Carolina University’s School of Teaching and Learning, told the Pope Center.
  • “We have heard that some teachers plan to move out of state—to states that pay teachers better and recognize the advanced preparation of teachers with master’s degrees,” Mary Delaney, head of the department of education at Meredith College, explained in an e-mail.
  • “When there’s no promise of return on investment, the assumption is that [bonus cuts] will cause a decrease in applications,” said Dawn Lucas, dean of education at Pfeiffer University, in a recent Inside Higher Ed interview.

Because the changed law is scheduled to take effect in April 2014, some education programs are encouraging students to graduate ahead of schedule in order to meet the deadline.

“Our program is typically completed in 2 years and students are pushing to complete it in 1.5 years. They are taking extra classes, which is demanding for full-time working teachers,” Paola Sztajn, a professor of mathematics education and the interim head of North Carolina State University’s elementary education department, told the Pope Center.

Undoubtedly, one reason why the legislature felt comfortable eliminating the extra pay for a master’s degree is the lack of empirical support for the claim that the additional diploma improves teaching. Although some evidence shows that master’s degrees in specific areas like math and science can improve instruction, most teachers obtain these degrees in education and the correlation between master’s degrees and student learning is slim. (Nor have education schools received good press recently; critiques of education schools have led them to be branded as an “industry of mediocrity.”)

On the question of the value of master’s degrees, North Carolina’s non-partisan Fiscal Research Office of the General Assembly has stated that “multiple studies, including several examining N.C. data, indicate that teachers with advanced degrees perform no better than teachers without advanced degrees.”

One such study, conducted by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, focused on North Carolina teachers. It concluded that the master’s credential is statistically insignificant in terms of improving student achievement.

Still other studies, like those produced by economists Eric Hanushek and Steven Rivkin, show that “a master’s degree has no systematic relationship to teacher quality as measured by student outcomes.”

Even the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning think tank and general proponent of teachers unions, came out in 2012 against master’s bonuses. The CAP report criticized many master’s degree curricula as “a ‘confusing patchwork’ lacking in rigor and often absent coursework that a reasonable person might imagine fundamental.”

The CAP report also said that in the 2007-2008 school year, state and local governments spent almost $15 billion for the master’s pay increase, following years of expenditure increases “many times” higher than inflation.

Eliminating the automatic pay increase has support from high-profile education players such as Arne Duncan, the current secretary of education. “There is little evidence [that] teachers with master’s degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers—with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science,” Duncan said during a 2010 speech at the American Enterprise Institute. And philanthropist Bill Gates told a meeting of state education administrators that “restructuring pay systems is like kicking a beehive,” but tough decisions need to be made, and one of them is to eliminate extra pay for master’s degrees.

Yet some remain steadfastly sympathetic to the previous policy. “Supporters of this change latch onto studies that suggest master’s degrees are not associated with student achievement,” wrote Paul Fitchett, an assistant professor at UNC-Charlotte’s college of education, in a public letter. “However, these findings are far from conclusive and fail to consider an important aspect of receiving an advanced degree—namely, that teachers who receive their master’s are often more invested in teaching.”

In an opinion piece for Raleigh’s News and Observer, Susan Perry Gurganus, a professor emeritus at the College of Charleston (South Carolina) and Raleigh native, writes, “Those who claim that teachers’ credentials are unrelated to student learning generally cite limited studies by politically driven groups. It’s high time to stop churning out legislation predicated on ideology and anecdote.”

Lamentations about the ill effects of these bonus eliminations aside, there is a legitimate concern for students who entered master’s programs thinking they would automatically obtain salary increases. These students may soon find relief from the looming 2014 cut-off date. Governor McCrory and state representatives Bill Brawley and Ruth Samuelson, along with several others in the North Carolina legislature, hope to extend the original date. “If you start a program based on a promise that was made, that promise has got to be kept,” Representative Brawley told the News & Observer.

So, the master’s bonus has been eliminated for the future—beginning in April or, possibly, later in order to let current master’s degree candidates receive the salary increase. However, thousands of teachers are already getting the extra pay every year, based on what seems to be an erroneous assumption about its effectiveness. North Carolinians will be carrying these costs for years to come. But at least the N.C. legislature has taken a step in the direction of focusing on teacher quality, rather than teacher credentials.