Professional Learning Deserves Professional Pay

The recently released 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a periodic review of test results among elementary and secondary students in the United States, contained an interesting nugget. It suggests that, contrary to most of the recent research, having a teacher with an advanced degree is associated with higher student achievement. According to the report, students in grades 4 and 8 whose teacher held a master’s degree scored higher on NAEP reading than students who were taught by teachers with no more than a bachelor’s degree. And it’s not just a statistical blip – the previous four NAEP reading assessments dating back to 2005 revealed the same finding. This finding is also noteworthy because most studies that have found a relationship between teachers’ advanced degrees and student achievement were in secondary mathematics, not in elementary reading.

You can bet this trend identified by NAEP won’t be publicized by many so-called education “reformers” who have targeted pay differentials for teachers with advanced degrees as pretty much a waste of money. They question whether such policies should be continued at a time when schools are working under tightened budgets and tasked with better aligning resources with student achievement.

One prominent critic is Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates. In an op-ed in The Washington Post last March, Gates confidently declared “such raises have almost no impact on achievement.”

While the NAEP’s Report Card and a host of other studies suggest otherwise, the available research is generally mixed and fairly limited in scope. Still, Gates and other opponents of pay differentials for teachers with masters degrees are cherry-picking data to support a claim that much of the available research doesn’t support and, by merely calling for the elimination of salary raises, are relying on yet another simplistic solution for a complex issue.

The National Education Association (NEA) believes that attaining advanced degrees professionalize teaching as a career and should be recognized as a form of professional development that improves a practitioner’s skill and knowledge to improve student learning.

“I was a high school math teacher for 23 years,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “I can guarantee you that earning my master’s degree in mathematics made a difference to me as a teacher. But master’s degrees are only one of many possibilities. We believe what’s important is that teachers are encouraged and motivated to continue to develop professionally on any number of fronts. Other occupations reward based on accomplishments and dedication and training. Why shouldn’t teaching?”

But what’s actually behind the effort to eliminate salary increases for teachers with advanced degrees? Is it really about grappling with shrinking budgets or interpreting research? Or is it just another stab at devaluing the teaching profession?

Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University, is an outspoken advocate for the recruitment and training of a strong teaching workforce, a goal that has been practically ignored in much of the national dialogue on improving student learning. She points out that while many in the United States seek to downgrade the teaching profession, high-achieving nations are doing exactly the opposite. Singapore and South Korea, for example, both require rigorous training for all their teachers and Finland demands that teachers earn a masters degree before they enter the classroom.

“[In Finland] most teachers now hold master’s degrees in both their content area and in education,” Darling-Hammond explains in her book, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, “ and they are well prepared to teach diverse learners—including special-needs students—for deep understanding. Teachers are well trained both in research methods and in pedagogical practice.”

Whether its in Singapore, Finland or the United States, teaching is a demanding and complex profession, which is one of the reasons many teachers in this country leave the classroom during the first five years. Even experienced teachers confront challenges each year, such as changes in subject content or advances in technology. Educators who do not engage in on-going professional learning do not improve their skills, and, as a result, student learning does not improve.

“Teaching is a constantly changing profession and requires new skills and knowledge. That’s just common sense,” said Van Roekel. “Professional learning should be expected, respected and valued.”

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