Carol Howley, a nursing instructor at Chicago’s Richard J. Daley College, pocketed $307,000 in extra salary over the years by enrolling in doctoral classes at Chicago’s Rush University and receiving her doctorate. There’s only one problem, though: Rush has no record of Howley’s attendence. Cook County prosecutors recently indicted her for theft of government property.
Howley’s story is symptomatic of a larger problem. As George Leef points out, institutions routinely hand out automatic pay boosts to their employees on the basis of the degrees the employees possess. College nursing instructors are relatively rare, but in America’s K-12 public-school system, where instruction costs total more than $308 billion annually, nearly half of teachers receive bonuses averaging about $3,000 a year just because they have an advanced degree. And these degrees are mostly worthless: only 10 percent of teachers’ master’s degrees are in substantive fields such as math, science, or English, where the teacher’s extra education might do the students some good. Ninety percent of teachers get their advanced degrees in education, a field notorious for its less than rigorous academic standards and its embrace of pedagogical fads. And academic and think-tank research, starting with a 1997 study by University of Washington research professor Dan Goldhaber has consistently revealed that students taught by teachers with advanced degrees make no more progress than students taught by teachers lacking such degrees.
A master’s degree in education is such a lucrative deal for teachers that the blog Teacher Portal advises its readers simply to “[g]et one!” Sure, the tuition isn’t cheap. In 2009, an online master’s degree from the nonprofit Western Governors University and the for-profit Walden University cost an identical $12,000. Teacher Portal calculated that the compound-interest payoff of a master’s degree in education adds up to $221,000 over a thirty-year career. Teacher Portal concluded: “You may be a [slightly] better teacher but you’ll be setting yourself up much better to live comfortably in retirement…or at least to splurge on a fantastic vacation each summer :).”
A 2009 New York Times forum over the value of advanced education degrees confirmed Teacher Portal’s cheerful cynicism. Several participants who were seasoned teachers deemed their education classes “utterly useless,” “laughable,” and of “zero benefit.” One teacher, who had an undergraduate degree from Wellesley and a graduate degree from Columbia, said the college where she obtained her teaching certificate launched a “sales pitch” for its master’s and doctoral programs in education that emphasized “how little work we would have to do to get an advanced degree.”
Proposals for reconsidering these bonuses remain anathema to the education establishment. Teachers’ unions have resisted any effort to peg teacher pay to any factors except seniority and advanced degrees, and school administrators, boards of education, and state legislators seem to regard across-the-board pay raises for teachers as a way of life. But there is another constituency that is likely to resist ferociously the elimination of master’s-degree salary bumps: the faculty and administrators of the advanced-degree programs in education that are cash cows for the colleges and universities that sponsor them. Kathleen Wilson, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska’s College of Education and Human Sciences, vigorously defended the programs. “I don’t see how they couldn’t make a difference,” she said. “These programs really allow teachers to gain a better perspective in their area of instruction.” Expect that kind of rhetoric on steroids from education professors should school districts try to get rid of the salary bump for advanced degrees.