Profiting from Master’s Degrees, or Not

In Who Profits From the Master’s Degree Pay Bump For Teachers?, Matthew Chingos never actually answers the title question, except he’s pretty clear that most teachers don’t.

Chingos is shocked that teachers are actually losing money, taking on something like $50K in debt just to pay bump tat comes with an MA. Naturally, if the teachers stay in the profession a long time, they make back the money, but Chingos has lately been very worried about the teachers who leave the profession, and wants them to know that a master’s degree won’t pay off.

Okay, so this entire research line is nonsense. Half of all teachers are not taking on massive debt at their local universities to get a relatively small bump in salary with a master’s degree in education.

But I thought it’d be interesting to discuss, for two reasons. First, because if you know anything about this issue, it’s pretty instantly clear that the logic and assumptions are absurd, and not to be engaged with seriously. Chingos has no real desire to alert teachers to a risky debt. He’s in favor of merit pay and other strategies that would lead to most teachers taking a pay cut. This whole argument line is just a branch in the reformer effort to end the compressed, one-size-fits-all pay scale that teachers have in favor of differential (or merit) pay. Merit pay consistently fails to win takers, so presumably the new front involves finding short-term teachers who argue that they had to leave the profession because they couldn’t afford the cost of a master’s to get a salary increase. None of these sidebars are the real issue.

Besides, demonstrating the massive holes in Chingos’s thinking requires an explanation of teacher entry points that some might find useful, even though the information is not complete. In fact, I gave up on this piece several times until I decided it still had some value in its open-ended state.

I don’t really dispute Chingos’s underlying point—that additional education doesn’t improve teacher quality. Chingos only cares about test scores, I’d go farther: I doubt additional education improves teacher quality on any spectrum.

That said, the first of many things Chingos seems utterly unaware of is that some states require a master’s degree for a permanent credential. New York requires teachers to acquire a master’s in the first three years of their professional experience; I keep that Massachussetts has the same requirement, but don’t see it stated on the website. Ohio recently discontinued the requirement.

In fact, Chingos seems to ignore entry path to teaching entirely, as well as the state mandates, at every point. He must know that many teachers began their career with master’s degrees—or at least additional education beyond the bachelor’s—but he seems not to consider it relevant.

Typical entry points—there may be a few more, but the details would probably push them into one of these categories.

  1. Education Majors: 4 year degree in education includes a teaching credential.
  2. Teaching credential without masters: 4 year degree in something else, stayed a fifth year or later entered a credential program.
  3. Teaching credential with masters: 4 year (and possibly graduate) degree in something else, entered a graduate program that provides a masters along with the credential. (I took this route).
  4. Alternate I—the TFA kind, aka an internship program that allows them to take a job before they’ve finished the credential.
  5. Alternate II—The Call Me Mister kind, focusing on low ability candidates who can’t easily pass the credential tests. (I wrote about the struggles of black and Hispanic candidates and the 1998 HEA.)

As I’ve been saying forever, not all teachers have education degrees, and not all education BAs become teachers. I am reasonably certain, even though I can’t confirm this, that most teachers who have BAs in education–that is, took option 1—are elementary school teachers.

But a substantial number of teachers get credentialed in a graduate program that does not result in a master’s.

How many? I couldn’t find out.

I couldn’t determine how many elementary teachers took the option 2 route after degreeing in some other subject. My best guess says that not all elementary teachers are ed majors, that some non-trivial percent, maybe hovering around a quarter, maybe less, majored in something else and then signed up for a fifth year of ed school.

A far larger number of secondary teachers take option 2, and get credentialed without the master’s, is my guess. How many? Not sure.

I wish I knew if this data existed somewhere. Title II reports only break down by traditional vs. alternate. Some numbers are a bit hard to believe, like this National Education Information Survey: In 2011, about two out of three (65 percent) teachers surveyed had entered the profession through a traditional college-campus-based undergraduate teacher education program and an additional 18 percent had prepared to teach through a traditional graduate teacher education program.

Sixty five percent of teachers have ed majors? Really? I’m wondering if the survey is conflating non-master’s graduate programs with undergraduate programs (options 1 and 2). I’m prepared to believe that only 18% of teachers start off with masters’ in education, but two thirds of all teachers have education degrees? Deeply skeptical. But I could be wrong.

Does this matter to Chingos’s point? Well, he’s aghast that half of teachers have invested in master’s degrees, so you’d think it’d be relevant that a number of them started with MAs, or substantial post-graduation credits.

Then Chingos goes through a bit of a bait and switch. His data source makes no distinction between type of master’s degrees, and at the start of the piece, Chingos doesn’t either: The fact that teachers with master’s degrees are no more effective in the classroom, on average, than their colleagues without advanced degrees is one of the most consistent findings in education research. No mention of degree type.

Then, about halfway through, he makes it clear he’s thinking of MA Ed (all emphasis mine):

I address this question by merging salary schedule information from the NCTQ database with data on the tuition cost of an education MA degree at colleges and universities located near each school district
For teachers who plan to spend “only” 10 years in the classroom, earning an MA in education is likely a waste of money and effort.

And then, in the comments Chingos says:

If subject-specific MA degrees have benefits in the high school grades, it would not show up in this research. This suggests that we need more systematic research on teaching in the high school grades, and that a more sensible policy regarding MA degrees might be to reward subject-specific degrees (for teachers working in the relevant subjects) but not general education ones.

Clearly, Chingos assumes that all teachers are just going back to school to get a master’s degree in education for the pay bump. But in fact, not only do many teachers have to go back to get that master’s, but also Chingos has no idea how many teachers are getting MA Eds. One huge overlooked area: many teachers go back to school to pursue an administrator’s credential, where the payoff is considerably larger and has nothing to do with the master’s bump.

These may all seem like just quibbles. So who cares whether Chingos has any understanding of teaching entry points, or how teachers get paid for education? He’s trying to warn teachers off of getting a master’s that isn’t cost justified based on the pay bump.

But Chingos doesn’t seem to completely understand the pay bump, either. For teachers who started an MA their first year in the profession, Chingos assumes it takes 4 years and that the payoff is “the MA salary bump, which begins in the teacher’s fifth year and continues as long as he stays in the district.”

However, in many districts, teachers move across columns by acquiring credits, no matter where they lead, and then get a separate stipend for a master’s degree, PhD, or board certification.

Some examples: LA Unified (which flips steps and columns) pays on both education acquired and then adds a bonus for master’s and doctorates. A South Carolina district gives a boost for 30 BA credits, then it looks like a master’s is needed to get more pay. Then, once master’s is acquired, the teacher can keep acquiring more credits. Montgomery County in Virginia is made of sterner stuff, granting pay bumps only if program leads to a master’s—but it doesn’t have to be a teaching or career related one, so MoCo teachers, go get that MBA. DC schools provide an either/or option.

Generally, teachers are going to see pay benefits from the additional coursework long before they get the master’s. In many districts, a teacher could never bother with any education classes and just take interesting technology seminars that never lead to an advanced degree and still see the same salary boosts as someone working directly towards a master’s.

So once we weed out the states that require the teachers to get a master’s degree in order to keep their credential, and eliminate some non-trivial amount of teachers start with a master’s, and remember still others aren’t going to have to invest in the full cost of a master’s because they only need a few credits, who exactly are we talking about that might jump in for a full-fledged master’s degree purely to get a big salary hike? Elementary school teachers, that’s who.

Even in assessing just those teachers getting a master’s for the boost—and I absolutely grant the behavior exists—Chingos appears to be overestimating the expense. Not that we can tell for sure, because he doesn’t provide his data or the average cost per master’s per region. But Chingos assumes they are all going to their local college, and he seems to be saying that the average debt is $35K.

Naturally, Chingos is terribly worried that elementary school teachers are sinking tens of thousands of dollars into a master’s degree, and while the obvious solution is to dump the bump, in the meantime the states “should instead encourage the creation of low-cost MA programs.”

Yeah. Because without Chingos to point this out, no businesses ever would have looked at the teacher market and figured out that a doling out low-impact master’s degrees to people looking for a pay bump was a good market.

The most popular teaching universities are almost all online and often for-profit; the University of Phoenix costs 10K/year. National University comes in at around $16K, assuming the teacher applies professional development time towards the credits.

Ironic, given Chingos does research in online education, that he’d completely ignore the online diploma generators lowering the cost of getting a salary bump.

I don’t know what number Chingos came up with, nor do I know how much teachers are actually paying for a master’s. But unlike Chingos, I don’t think teachers are morons, and I do know they make cost benefit analyses when deciding how much teaching education to pay for. I used to wonder why so many teachers who didn’t major in education would take option 2, above (credential only) rather than get the master’s, as I did (option 3). After asking around I realized that the year-long master’s program at a fixed cost is largely restricted to the elite ed school programs. Most universities offer both the credential and a master’s, and the latter takes longer and costs more. The credential-only route is the cheapest way for most non-education majors to become teachers.

By the way, a great deal of these loans are forgiven. My master’s degree cost a bundle, but around $35K or so was wiped away, or will be (one more year for some of it).

One last thing Chingos ignores, although this is much more in the Paul Bruno bailiwick: having lots of education makes it harder to get jobs, particularly as a second career teacher. You’re old and expensive. Adding education also adds to the already considerable disincentive for teachers to leave districts: senior teachers always lose steps (most schools give 5 or 10 years at most) and unless schools are specifically looking for a veteran (usually because of outreach), they aren’t interested in paying an experienced teacher when they can get new ones for cheap. Every class a teacher takes increases district ties, making it less likely that the teacher will leave. As Paul Bruno is fond of pointing out, reformers and others who opine on education without understanding it are prone to confusing policy with job perks.

And so Chingos’s original research paper, the one he did with Peterson, is irrelevant, because districts aren’t under the illusion they are paying for quality. District officials almost certainly consider the education bump a means of keeping staff because, as I’ve written many times, keeping staff is a much bigger concern than firing staff.

Chingos’s ostensible concern is for the teachers going into debt to get more money that won’t pay off. He’s almost certainly wrong on that, as I’ve observed. His secondary concern is these silly districts that don’t understand they’re paying for quality they don’t get but that, too, is a misunderstanding of what districts are actually paying for.

In the main, I’m not bothered by the possibility–indeed, the likelihood—that the education bumps are nothing more than pay to play.

But only provided I don’t think about it for too long.

When I do think about it for too long, say the time it took me to write this, I am bothered by the possibility that many teachers go through the motions to get a master’s degree just to get a pay bump, for much the same reason that Jay Mathews Challenge Index offends me. States pay test fees to the College Board for tests that the kids will fail all so that the schools will have a higher ranking and, hopefully, improved property values. Teachers take out (small) loans to pay to a university for a no-brainer master’s so that the state will pay them more money. I’m all for free enterprise, but both the universities providing easy master’s degrees and the College Board are raking in dough that they really didn’t do much to earn through their business acumen or excellence. They’re just the purveyor of the credential that isn’t even a proxy.

So if there is, as I suspect, a good chunk of teachers forking out money to somewhat undeserving businesses to get largely meaningless credentials just for a raise, I think that’s a Bad Thing. I think it’s worth having a discussion about eliminating columns. However, like Chesterton’s Fence, eliminating an activity without knowing why it started often leads to difficulties. Paul Peterson says that rewarding teachers for education credits came about as a compromise to convince high school teachers to accept a compressed pay scale that put them on the same footing as elementary school teachers. If in fact most high school teachers start out two or three columns ahead of K-6 teachers, then eliminating columns leads to lower pay for high school teachers. Not a good plan.

Ah, say some, but that would lead us to another compromise. If we can’t have merit pay, surely we should at least pay teachers based on the relative demand of their skills. Pay high school teachers more than elementary teachers, and then within high school teachers, pay math and science teachers best because that way we can upgrade the profession, get more skilled people.

Okay, so focus hard: MATH AND SCIENCE TEACHERS ARE SMART ENOUGH. And the field pays well enough for people who want to be math and science teachers, particularly those who are happy to teach kids who will struggle to remember what a negative slope looks like.

Discussion at hand: what to do with the “column” money if the education columns are eliminated? In answering the question, accept that the outcome will only reallocate the money saved to a teaching population that looks just like the current one.

That’s an interesting question, but one that I suspect opens large cans of squiggly worms and when we all look inside, we’ll say hell, just let University of Phoenix et al get some undeserved profits.

Besides, that’s not a discussion that Chingos and other reformers want to have, because despite being the ones to raise the point, they aren’t interested in fixing the problem, but in forcing a solution.

Okay, I’ve been working on this long enough. Punting and posting.


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11 responses to “Profiting from Master’s Degrees, or Not

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  • vijay

    ” I am reasonably certain, even though I can’t confirm this, that most teachers who have BAs in education–that is, took option 1—are elementary school teachers.”

    This can be confirmed by alternate means: 49% of teachers work in elementary schools, 26% in middle schools and 27% in high schools.

    50.8% of the teachers started with an education undergrad.

    The reason for the education undergrad dominance is the view in several county systems that elementary school students are special snowflakes that need to be handled with care by educators (like nurses). In Montgomery county, MD. some form of education degree is needed (b.s. or M.s) to b even considered for elementary school teachers, even though the app form is not explicit on this.

    I think this hand off from ed degree holders in elementary school to math/science/liberal arts major holders in college is the difficulty that students are having in high school. Other majors do not view students as special. See for instance


    What is the Ed realist opinion on this?

    In Montgomery county, MD, ” nearly 16,000 out of 30,000 students in seven math courses failed their final exams in January. Failure rates were as high as 86 percent for Bridge to Algebra 2, and 61 percent and 62 percent for Algebra 1 and Geometry, respectively.”

  • vijay

    Sorry for bringing alternate topics in the discussion, but I feel that the dominance of non-education majors in late middle school-high school teaching results in a difference in school outcomes. In addition, in MoCo 2014 salary schedule, high school teachers have a consistently higher salary.

  • momof4

    Credentialism has gone much too far. A teacher relative was paid as if she had a doctorate (X credits beyond her master’s) for at least 25 years and she was teaching ES (grades 3-5, at various times.). I’m sure she was a good teacher, and she had a solid grasp of math and science – not always the case in ES, but that pay level is ridiculous.

  • retired

    Why are colleges undeserving of the tuition they charge for teachers? Don’t CSU and UC offer these classes as well?

    • educationrealist

      All state universities offer credentials, but relatively few schools that offer credentials also the post credential master’s in teaching only. They offer it in other subjects.

      And I think I explained the degree to which they don’t “deserve” it. The teachers aren’t getting the degree for educational purposes, but purely to get more money.

      • Retired

        You make a valid argument about the educational value to the teachers and the schools of taking the classes.
        The schools are simply supplying a class that is in demand. I don’t think “deserve” is part of the equation. It’s a simple business transaction. The monetary value to the payor is in the eye of the consumer of the service.

      • educationrealist

        Actually, “deserve” is part of the equation when we are talking about taxpayer dollars, which is the case with both the master’s degree and the college board raking in testing fees. I’m not saying the businesses are bad, but I am saying that we should have no compunction about shutting down that line of profit entirely. And they won’t be able to react, because they aren’t really a business. Just a go-between.

  • christophe huestis

    Massachusetts requires a master’s in order to get upgraded from initial license to professional. It is a must within 5 years of employment, though you can apply for a waiver for an extra 5 years (not sure the reasoning). However all teachers hired before some point (I think 1995?) are grandfathered out of the requirement. Currently the state doesn’t care what the master’s are in but that will change (or has all ready) to require that the masters is in a discipline (not just education). I have had colleagues leave the profession because of how difficult state can be about getting certified. That being said the state has streamlined the process for noneducation backgrounds to get certified more easily.

  • Chuck

    “As I’ve been saying forever, not all teachers have education degrees, and not all education BAs become teachers. I am reasonably certain, even though I can’t confirm this, that most teachers who have BAs in education–that is, took option 1—are elementary school teachers.”

    see here:

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