By Joshua Benton
For decades, it has been a deal that teachers have been willing to make.
They invest time and money to earn a master’s degree. In exchange, they get prestige, better teaching skills and higher pay.
But in Texas, fewer teachers are agreeing to the bargain as the incentives to obtain a master’s degree have diminished or, in some cases, disappeared.
*The percentage of teachers with advanced college degrees has declined steadily since at least 1991.
*Teachers outside the state are almost twice as likely to have a master’s degree as those in Texas.
*Many of the state’s graduate education programs have seen enrollment plummet.
Some educators say students are the ones who suffer.
“We know districts are hurting for money, but extra education for teachers is a way for children to improve,” said Sarah Burkhalter, assistant dean of teacher education at the University of Texas at Arlington.
In the 1991-92 school year, 30.4 percent of Texas teachers had advanced degrees – already well below the national average. Since then, the figure has dropped. By 1999-2000, 24.8 percent of teachers in the state had at least a master’s.
In 1993, the most recent year for which federal figures are available, 47.3 percent of U.S. teachers had advanced degrees. Other estimates show that the national number has continued to rise.
Educators blame a variety of factors for the decline. As Texas’ population has soared, the state has been forced to hire more young, inexperienced teachers, many of whom have not had a chance to get further education.
But many teachers put the blame squarely on pay. Substantial raises they used to get for their extra academic credentials have largely disappeared, they say.
“In most districts, there’s absolutely no reward for getting a master’s degree,” said Jim Kracht, associate dean of teacher education at Texas A&M University.
Until the mid-1980s, the Texas Education Agency’s state salary schedule set a higher minimum pay rate for teachers with advanced degrees. For example, in 1981-82, a starting teacher with a bachelor’s degree was guaranteed a salary of at least $10,230 annually. If that same teacher had a master’s degree, the guarantee went up to $10,950 – a 7 percent increase.
In addition, districts could choose to pay salaries above that state minimum, and many teachers got raises of 10 percent or more for getting a master’s.
New pay scale
In 1985, the State Board of Education stopped guaranteeing extra pay for extra education while switching to a new pay scale. The switch came with a new incentive pay plan called the Career Ladder, which some districts used to continue giving more money for advanced degrees.
Leaving incentive pay up to districts left it open to cuts in times of tight budgets.
Other payroll concerns have fed the trend in the last decade.
For example, the growing teacher shortage has pressured districts to raise salaries at the bottom of the pay scale. The higher salaries for teachers with advanced degrees didn’t keep up.
The result: many Texas districts – particularly in rural areas – now give no raises at all for more education. Those that do, including most of those in the Dallas area, usually offer raises of 2 percent or 3 percent.
“Beginning salaries have gone up, but there’s little incentive to improve once you’re in the field,” Dr. Burkhalter said. “It’s cheaper to hire new teachers out of college than to develop the ones you have.”
Dallas schools give a starting teacher with a master’s degree $1,000 more annually, although a salary structure under consideration by district officials would cut that to $877. In Lewisville, the pay boost for starting teachers with advanced degrees is $600 a year.
For many teachers, that isn’t enough incentive to make the investment in a master’s. Getting the degree usually takes least three summers of a teacher’s time and can cost $4,000 to $8,000 at a public university, more at a private school.
“It takes time and it takes money, and if there’s not much reward, where’s the incentive?” said Dr. Burkhalter, who previously oversaw teacher education for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
The drop in advanced degrees is important because most research has shown a positive connection between better-educated teachers and better student performance, said John Stansell, associate dean for teacher education at UNT.
Teachers who have taken master’s courses are quick to point out the new educational theories and strategies they have learned, and how they have been able to use them in the classroom.
“I’m much more sensitive now to the fact that different people learn differently,” said Theresa Biggs, who teaches English at Plano East High School. “Now I try to touch on all the different learning styles in my lessons.”
Starting teachers in Plano earn $2,000 more if they have a master’s degree.
Dr. Stansell said that, as districts come under increasing pressure to improve students’ test scores, the improved instruction that comes from a master’s program could make the investment worthwhile.
“It makes me a better role model for my students if I’m still learning,” said Brandy Kerbow, a fourth-grade teacher at Plano’s Haun Elementary. University officials say there are fewer teachers such as Ms. Kerbow. They note lagging enrollment in some master’s programs for teachers.
“Some of the old-timers here talk about having a master’s class of 45 students,” UNT’s Dr. Stansell said. “I haven’t seen anything that size lately. Now, it ranges from six or seven to maybe 20.”
At Texas A&M, the Department of Curriculum and Instruction might have had 250 or more master’s students in the late 1980s, Dr. Kracht said. Now there are 35 to 40. “We have seen a steady and consistent decline over the years,” he said.
Districts have tried to offset some of the decline with increased professional development programs, including in-service days and other training days. But few districts across the state have made the commitment to getting their teachers graduate education, Dr. Kracht said.
Plano is one of the few. Six years ago, the district began working with UNT to offer a master’s program especially for Plano teachers. The district has backed off its initial rule that all teachers must pursue a master’s. Still, the district pays all tuition for its teachers.
Since the program began, 247 Plano teachers have gotten master’s degrees with the district’s financial help. District officials see it as an important marketing tool for attracting teachers.
“We believe there’s a value in what a teacher with a master’s degree brings to the classroom,” said Danny Modisette, Plano’s deputy superintendent. “We think we’re getting something for our money, both in content knowledge and teaching strategies.”
Other districts have followed Plano’s lead and started their own master’s programs in cooperation with area universities. UNT has started a similar program in McKinney and is in discussions to start one in the Northwest school district.
“The bottom line is that the more education that we can provide for our teachers, the more impact we can have on students,” said Donna Criswell, Northwest’s executive director for curriculum and instruction.
UTA’s graduate enrollment has actually increased substantially in the last year, largely because of a commitment to creative scheduling, online courses, and other ways to bring in as many teachers as possible. “Teachers don’t reach the peak of their abilities until they have experience and education like a master’s,” Dr. Burkhalter said.