Why Do Teachers With Master’s Degrees Earn More Money?

As budget crunches force school districts to spend their money more wisely, the practice of paying higher salaries to teachers with master’s degrees in coming under increasing scrutiny. And with good reason. A 2012 Center For American Progress study found that paying higher salaries to teachers with master’s degrees is not an efficient use of education funds. Similarly, a 2006 analysis by Eric Hanushek and Steven Rivkin looked at 32 high quality studies and found that none of them demonstrated a positive relationship between teachers possessing a master’s degree and student achievement.

Of course that’s just academic research. There’s always the possibility that teachers with master’s degrees are more effective, but that standard research designs don’t capture everything they bring to the table. If that’s the case, a good place learn about these unmeasurable abilities would be in the original justification for tying salary to educational attainment. That’s why I found the following passage from Richard Kahlenberg’s biography of Albert Shanker particularly noteworthy. The passage describes Shanker’s early efforts to merge two of the numerous teacher organizations in New York City — the Teacher’s Guild and the High School Teachers Association — into what would become the original incarnation of the UFT.

Altomare and Shanker sought to address the key issues of salary, which divided the city’s teachers. For many years, high-school teachers received a higher salary than elementary-school teachers. But in New York City after World War II, with the beginning of the baby boom, there was a shortage of elementary-school teachers, so the city raised the elementary-school salary to the high-school level, eliminating the differential. This move infuriated the high-school teachers.


The negotiators came up with a compromise: both high-school teachers and elementary-school teachers would receive the same base salary, but teachers with master’s degrees (most of whom taught at the high school level) would get more money. This way, the differential was based on education credits earned, not level taught, so some elementary-school teachers would get extra pay and some high-school teachers would not, but in the aggregate, high school teachers would get more. (p. 45)

Like the compromise that gave Delaware the same number of Senators as New York, the decision to reward master’s degrees with more salary was not based on the merits of the policy, but on the need to broker a political deal. Perhaps other cities or states had more evidence behind similar decisions, but some cursory Google research turned up nothing, and given New York City’s role as a pioneer of teacher professionalization I wouldn’t be surprised if others merely followed Shanker’s lead.

If the practice of paying more money to teachers with master’s degrees does in fact have no legitimate justification, it would merely be one of many anachronisms that remain in our education system despite the extinction of the constraints that led to their creation. While some are apparent, such as the proliferation of  middle schools, most are more subtle, such as the convention of placing a single teacher in front of 25 students in equivalent classroom environments, or the nearly universal fusion of undergraduate teaching and research into a single job. The benefits of modernizing these practices or systems may not always outweigh the costs, but we should take the time to at least think about all aspects of learning environments in the context of how the world is in the year 2013.

2 Responses to Why Do Teachers With Master’s Degrees Earn More Money?

  1. Pingback: Last In, First Out: When A Policy's Shortcoming Is Its Strength - Peer-reviewed by my neurons | Peer-reviewed by my neurons

  2. Pingback: Education Policy Needs Two Offenses | Peer-reviewed by my neurons

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