Point of View

Why a master's degree matters for NC teachers

August 25, 2013 

Among its attacks on teachers this session, the N.C. General Assembly removed remuneration for earning a master’s degree. Supporters of this divisive budget item promise some other kind of rewards system, for perhaps only a few teachers. This abrupt and irresponsible change will have the largest effect on prospective teachers, teachers currently in graduate programs, early-career teachers and teachers who move into our state. There will be virtually no opportunities for advancement within the profession for these teachers if they stay in the classroom.

Like many teachers, I sought advanced coursework leading to a master’s degree to enhance my skills in the classroom. In 1975, I was faced with a new classification of students – those with disabilities – and needed to increase my skills in designing learning strategies and behavioral interventions to help those students succeed.

Like most teachers, I paid for each course out of pocket, one course at a time. The graduate program I selected was one that would challenge my thinking and allow me to develop a focused specialization. It offered close study with professors engaged in research and local school partnerships. I carved out nights and weekends for study and reveled in being an active teacher while pursuing my master’s. I made lifelong friendships with professors and fellow graduate students, a professional network that continues today. My master’s credential was recognized by the Department of Defense when I taught in Germany. It allowed me other opportunities when I decided to become a teacher of teachers, study for a doctoral degree and engage in classroom-level research for a university.

Those who claim that teachers’ credentials are unrelated to student learning generally cite limited studies by politically driven groups. It’s high time to stop churning out legislation predicated on ideology and anecdote. There is, in fact, convincing evidence that the quality of a teacher’s professional education and the extent of that education significantly affect both classroom effectiveness and longevity in the profession.

Teachers who attend four- or five-year teacher-preparation programs with an integration of content study and pedagogy and a series of supervised classroom internships consistently outperform teachers with lateral-entry certificates and those with provisional licenses and virtually no training (such as Teach for America candidates). Further, these skilled teachers are quantifiably more likely to remain in the classroom. There is emerging evidence that teachers with master’s degrees have greater effects on reading and mathematics achievement, as indicated, for example, by The National Assessment of Educational Progress data for 2005-2011.

Ironically, European universities are now standardizing advanced study by organizing formal master’s degrees as part of the EU’s Bologna Process. Countries such as Germany have long required two or three years of advanced study for teachers, including one or two years of supervised, paid internships with partner schools (similar to a residency for the medical profession).North Carolina should continue to recognize relevant master’s degrees for all teachers. A comprehensive, equitable teacher compensation system should be developed with teacher involvement. This system should include current designations for master’s degrees and National Board Certification, as well as a range of other valid measures of teacher effectiveness. A valid and legal process would identify teachers who are effective, those who need additional skills and those who should be dismissed.

Accreditation organizations and state agencies responsible for approving teacher-education programs, including those at the master’s level, should continue to ensure high-quality programs with strong entrance requirements, coherent and rigorous programs of study, and true partnerships with schools.

Residents should let policymakers and politicians know that nothing is more important for the future of our state than our public school systems. Our schools need master teachers who are curriculum leaders, mentors and specialists. We need teachers with master’s degrees to supervise prospective teachers, organize schoolwide initiatives and lead student problem-solving teams. We need teachers who are committed to advancing their teaching skills and keeping current. We need active partnerships between universities and local schools that support teachers and promote our students’ learning. Teachers with master’s degrees matter in our state.

Susan Perry Gurganus of Raleigh

is a professor emeritus

at the College of Charleston.

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