Pondering the “Master’s Bump”

Last month, I wrote a post titled “The Research Question that Wasn’t Asked,” in which I questioned whether many of us have overstated the connection between research on teachers with advanced degrees and compensation policies that link compensation to advanced degrees.

I pointed out in my post that:

Studies of the association between different levels of experience and the association between having a master’s degree or not and student achievement gains have never attempted to ask about the potential labor market consequences of stopping providing additional compensation for teachers choosing to further their education – even if only for personal interest – or stopping providing any guarantee that a teacher’s compensation will grow at a predictable rate over time throughout the teacher’s career.

Many, like Rotherham but even more so, NCTQ, present this as a “research given.”  That clearly, it’s just dumb to pay teachers more who possess attributes we know are not associated with student achievement differences (across teachers). Is it possible, however, that changing these conditions could have significant labor market consequences? Perhaps good… but equally likely… unintended negative consequences.

Yes, teachers with any old masters degree or teachers with more than 10 years behind them might not, on average, be “measurably more productive.” But does the option to pay and recruit more experienced teachers or teachers with masters’ degrees enhance the likelihood that a district can attract teachers who are actually better teachers? I’m not so sure that the answer to this question unasked is so obvious that we need not ask it. So let’s stop pretending that it is.

In another recent post – When Schools have Money – I pointed out how all of the cool kids on the reform block have also come to the undisputed conclusion that smaller class sizes are an inefficient waste of resources and that we should instead focus our resources on hiring better rather than more teachers (as if a simple tradeoff) – even increasing class size to free up the money to increase wages (ignoring that larger student load is a working condition that might offset much of the competitive advantage gained from the higher wage).

In that post, I pointed out how one of the defining features of both high spending traditional public school districts and of high spending elite private schools is SMALLER CLASS SIZE. It’s a selling point for those private schools – appealing to parents choosing to pay the high tuition – and also appealing to parents of school aged children choosing a neighborhood to live in. Apparently, small class size is also a preferred strategy of the very high spending Harlem Children’s Zone charter schools (more on this at a later point).  In this post, I concluded:

For some reason these private schools and affluent public school districts – more specifically those who support these schools – exhibit a strong preference for small class size even when given wide latitude to choose differently. Perhaps they are on to something?

That got me to thinking – thinking about the potential relationship between these posts, in part based on my research findings using state data systems and studying the distribution of teacher and principal academic backgrounds and credentials. AND, considering the simple logic that … if both highly successful and unsuccessful school districts do these things (pay based on degrees and experience) can these things really be the primary cause of failure in the unsuccessful districts?

As mentioned in my first post above, I suspect that most school districts which offer a significant “bump” for teachers holding a master’s degree are not doing so on some assumption of a direct, simple, causal link between holding a master’s degree or not, and teaching effectiveness (measured exclusively by student achievement gains).

Yes, it would be one thing if the argument for offering a salary bump for a master’s degree was predicated entirely on the assumption of specific average achievement gains resulting from a teacher having a master’s degree.  Then one day, we find out that having a master’s degree isn’t associated with the assumed achievement gains. Problem identified. Therefore, we must stop providing the salary increment. Solution found.  Money saved. All is well and good. But very little is that simple, especially in complex social systems like teacher labor markets.

I suspect that the “master’s bump” more likely exists in many districts as a competitive recruitment/retention tool. Districts offer this bump (or agree to it, through negotiations) because they prefer the option to recruit teachers who have obtained higher degrees, for any number of reasons. In addition, districts offer this bump so that current teachers are incentivized to further their education (or to recruit teachers interested in pursuing further education). Districts may offer this bump knowing full well that many teachers will use it to get the degree, stick around for a few years at the higher salary, and then use their degree to pursue other opportunities. Even then, the district may have benefited from providing a favorable work environment that encouraged teachers to pursue further education and advance their own careers.

It may also be that the master’s bump saves districts money, in that they would otherwise raise all teachers’ wages to the level currently paid for a teacher with a master’s degree. Having a share of teachers with only a bachelor’s degree paid at a lower wage therefore reduces the total. That is, perhaps it’s not a master’s bump at all? Perhaps it’s a bachelors’ deduction?

The “master’s bump” is likely to be used more by some districts than others. My previous analyses suggest that more affluent school districts in metropolitan areas tend to offer a larger master’s bump. This is certainly the case in the Chicago metro area. Yep, there they go again – those highly successful, high spending districts – throwing their money at things that we know have no effect on student learning?

Here’s a quick snapshot of a) the distribution of master’s degree (or higher) salary premiums (master’s bump) across New Jersey districts, by wealth/income group (district factor group) and b) the distribution of teachers holding master’s degrees (or higher) by district wealth/income group.

FIGURE 1: Salary premium associated with holding a master’s degree for teachers in wealthier (District Factor Groups I&J) and poorer (District Factor Groups A&B) New Jersey school districts

So, what we see here is that districts in the wealthiest two factor groups provide the largest master’s bump. Are they just being wasteful? As with the preference for seemingly frivolous smaller class sizes, affluent districts in New Jersey, like elsewhere, tend to offer larger premiums for teachers with advanced degrees. It may be that there is simply public demand in these communities for small classes taught by teachers with advanced degrees. Perhaps the public has not been clued in that these preferences are misguided? Or once again, perhaps these affluent and generally successful school districts and their patrons are on to something?

FIGURE 2: Percent of teachers holding master’s degrees in wealthier (District Factor Groups I&J) and poorer (District Factor Groups A&B) New Jersey school districts

Figure 2 merely validates that the districts offering larger premiums for teachers with a master’s degree also seem to have more of them. It would be a stretch to try to link the two as a causal relationship, given that many other factors are in play. Nonetheless, the apparent preference for teachers with a master’s degree in high wealth districts is realized in the percentages that actually hold a master’s degree.

FIGURE 3: Comparison of wealthy district and poor district wages for a teacher with a master’s degree across experience levels in 2009-10

Figure 3 shows that at the master’s degree level, poorer districts even in New Jersey – which provides substantial additional support to those districts – just can’t keep up with affluent district teacher wages. And one reason is the larger master’s bump provided in the wealthier suburban districts.

Notably, the poorer districts in these graphs have fewer teachers holding master’s degrees and provide a smaller master’s bump. That is, these districts are not “wasting” as much money on frivolous degrees as their wealthier peers. Is it really logical then to suggest that the presence of the “master’s bump” is in any way clearly associated with the difficulties of improving performance in high poverty districts? Low poverty successful districts are doing it even more! Can we make any assertion in this regard at all? Do we really know that we could simply recapture money “wasted” by these districts on masters’ degrees and use that money more wisely to improve outcomes? I’m skeptical. In fact, one could equally logically argue that we should provide sufficient funds to the poorer districts to offer higher salaries and a larger master’s bump, to put them in better position to recruit and retain the teachers currently flocking to high wealth districts.

Does offering a substantial premium for teachers with higher levels of educational attainment allow districts to attract and retain better teachers than they might if they didn’t offer this bump?  We don’t know if it does (as far as I can tell), AND we don’t know that it doesn’t! Further, if some districts stopped offering the masters bump, would it affect, positively or negatively, the quality of teachers they could attract?  We don’t know (as far as I can tell). These are very different questions than the ones that have been addressed in existing research, and these are questions that have not been sufficiently explored. Thus, we should not be so quick to assume that we know the simple and obvious solutions.