In an increasingly competitive global economy, high-quality education for American students has become critical for the nation’s future. Most agree that a key to achieving this aim is recruiting and retaining effective teachers, as detailed in an FOC policy brief on the quality of teaching. How to define capable teachers remains controversial. Some have proposed mandating master’s degrees; in contrast, others suggest completely eliminating incentives for continued graduate work. From the New York Times blog Room for Debate to The Future of Children’s Excellence in the Classroom issue, many question the value of teacher education in its current form and seek alternatives.
Education course work has long been part of initial teacher certification and ongoing professional development as a way to increase a teacher’s capacity and value. Although only 16 percent of teachers in their third year of teaching hold master’s degrees, 62 percent of teachers with over 20 years of experience have earned them. Schools encourage this process by providing higher pay incentives and allowing substitution of these courses for recertification requirements.
Lately, however, degree programs have been subject to scrutiny. In theory they ensure that teachers have sufficient subject area knowledge, experience with teaching, and abilities to promote learning through effective and innovations means. Often, however, these programs have been criticized for teaching irrelevant and non-transferable skills, lacking intellectual rigor, or failing to build new knowledge or abilities.
A recent The Future of Children volume examined whether these programs are valuable and have positive effects on student achievement. Research on master’s degrees and teacher quality has generally been inconclusive, according to The Future of Children article “The Effect of Certification and Preparation on Teacher Quality.” This ambiguity reflects the difficulty in 1) establishing whether programs cause improvement in teaching, 2) taking into account the inequity of teacher distribution (with better teachers migrating by choice to higher quality schools), and 3) isolating the effects of graduate degrees on students of different grade levels. As Heather Hill documents in her article “Learning in the Teacher Workforce,” however, some improvement in math scores has been shown for teachers with graduate degrees in math. So far this finding has not been replicated in other subject areas, but it offers potential for more research.
While graduate work has the potential to prepare teachers and increase their students’ performance, recent analysis suggests that it is not currently meeting these goals. Although more research is needed, studies so far suggest that schools should seek teachers with and encourage the pursuit of graduate degrees in the teacher’s primary area of instruction. Programs such as the master’s in education should submit themselves to more rigorous testing to find what skills and knowledge can help teachers positively influence their students’ learning. Higher quality graduate programs and a more thorough understanding of their effects on student learning will lead to better education for our children.