Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

When Should We Reward Degrees for Teachers?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

When Should We Reward Degrees for Teachers?

Article excerpt

The authors provide evidence that teachers can have an impact on student outcomes, and they show that student achievement in math and science can be improved by requiring teacher training in those subject areas.

Most public school systems reward teachers who obtain advanced degrees with a considerable increase in their base pay. Salary schedules typically provide a pay premium averaging 11% for a master's degree, 14% for an education specialist's degree, and 17% for a doctorate over what a teacher would earn with a bachelor's degree only.[1] Some school systems even require their teachers to obtain an advanced degree after a specified number of years of teaching in the district. The emphasis on teachers' having or obtaining advanced degrees raises important questions. Do advanced degrees enhance a teacher's productivity and, if so, by how much?

These questions get at the more general issue of how educational resources are allocated in a school and whether educational dollars are being spent efficiently. Surprisingly little is known about this issue because no broad consensus has emerged as to which educational resources have a significant impact on student outcomes. Most economists' and sociologists' studies of the impact of schools and teachers on students conclude that individual traits and factors related to family background explain the vast majority of variation in student test scores.

Much of the early evidence on the effects of such educational inputs as perpupil spending, teacher experience, and teacher degree level has been mixed.(2) However, more recent studies, using detailed measures of teacher ability and qualifications, have found positive results. David Monk and Jennifer King report that teacher subject-matter preparation in mathematics and science has a positive impact on student achievement in those subjects, and measures of the selectivity of teachers colleges (which may be proxies for teacher ability) have also been shown to be positively related to student achievement.(3) In this article we will review our own recent empirical work, which helps shed some light on the relationship between teacher degrees and student outcomes.(4)

Data and New Empirical Evidence

The data in our analyses were drawn from the first two waves of the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS). The NELS database is nationally representative, contains a comprehensive set of educational variables, and, unlike most other data, links students to specific classes and teachers. This is an important characteristic of the survey because it eliminates problems that may arise from using data aggregated at the school or district level.(5) This linkage allows us to investigate in detail the effect of subjectspecific teacher degree levels on student achievement, since we know the characteristics of each teacher (his or her race/ethnicity, degree level, experience, certification, and so on) who taught students in the 10th grade. Our sample consisted of public school students only: 5,113 in math, 4,357 in science, 6,196 in English, and 2,943 in history.(6) The teacher and class data in NELS are organized by school subject, so that separate information is available about the teachers in each of the four subject areas sampled.

Virtually all teachers in public schools have at least an undergraduate degree. However, as illustrated in Figure 1, which shows the percentage of teachers in our sample who have various types of degrees, far fewer teachers have degrees specific to the subject they teach. This is consistent with recent findings reported by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. In our sample only 68% to 76% of teachers (depending on the subject) have at least a bachelor's degree in their subject area. A lower proportion of math and science teachers than of English and history teachers have bachelor's degrees in their subject areas. And although about half of all teachers have at least a master's degree, less than a quarter have advanced degrees in their subject area. …

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