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Master’s bump: $330 million a year for nothing

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Nov. 25, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
November 24, 2010 4:44 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The Legislature is facing the greatest revenue crisis in generations. Somebody in Olympia ought to be talking about $330 million that gets spent every year for no apparent purpose and with no apparent results.

That, according to a Seattle-based think tank, is how much the state spends on the “master’s bump” – the roughly $11,000 a year extra it pays more than half of Washington’s teachers because they’ve earned master’s degrees.

Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Bill Gates both singled out the master’s bump as an example of waste in public education. We hope they caught somebody’s attention in Olympia.

In theory, the additional degree would translate into better performance in the classroom. But there’s no evidence that it actually does. Multiple national studies have found that the additional pay, on average, buys little improvement in the quality of education.

The exceptions, according to a 2009 report from the Gates-funded Center on Reinventing Public Education, are master’s degrees in science and math. But something like 90 percent of teachers’ master’s degrees are earned in education courses, which are often lacking in focus and rigor.

Like seniority pay, a master’s credential from an undemanding program becomes another way for a teacher to earn more money without necessarily becoming a better teacher.

It gets worse. The state of Washington turns out to be exceptionally enthusiastic about the master’s bump. The Center on Reinventing Public Education, after crunching numbers from all over the country, found that this state pays the highest bump in the entire nation.

Based on 2008 numbers, the center concluded that Washington diverted 3.3 percent of all federal, state and local education money to the bump. Only a couple other states, Nebraska and Georgia, break 3 percent.

It gets even worse. The master’s bump is another example of this state’s perverse tendency to keep highly trained science and math teachers out of its classrooms.

Although graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and math – STEM – tend to be rigorous and useful, they’re worth no more to teachers than other graduate degrees. A teacher who invests in a STEM degree often becomes valuable to potential private employers. With no special incentives, they have less reason to hang around in the public schools.

This is true of less-educated math and science teachers, as well. The unintended consequence of their early departure: Washington winds up paying STEM teachers – who tend to have less seniority – less than it does other teachers.

It probably can’t happen in a hurry, but Washington ought to be spending less on automatic bumps and more on rewards for the most successful and scarce teachers. And $330 million a year could go a very long way toward putting the incentives where they belong.

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