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State analysis doubts value of grad school for teachers

OLYMPIA – For decades, Washington has encouraged its teachers to get graduate degrees. The theory was that more education makes a better teacher.

A five-year teacher with a master’s degree, for example, earns 19 percent more than a five-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree. A doctoral degree bumps the salary up roughly 14 percent more.

More than 60 percent of Washington teachers have graduate degrees, well above the national average.

But do advanced degrees result in students getting higher test scores?

In most cases, the answer is no, the state Legislature’s research arm reported Tuesday, citing its analysis of more than a dozen studies.

“Teachers with a graduate degree do not improve student test scores more than teachers with a B.A.,” Steve Aos, assistant director of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, told an education task force in Olympia.

The exception, he said, seems to be math and science. Some studies suggest that advanced degrees in those subjects improve learning.

What really seems to make a big difference across the board, he said, is experience, particularly early in a teacher’s career. On average, there’s a spike in student achievement in a teacher’s first six years on the job. And the improvements in test scores continue – although not as dramatically – for at least 20 years. The data comes from 15 studies analyzed by the institute.

Such findings could influence lawmakers as they try to overhaul basic education funding, one of the state’s thorniest budget topics. The state’s Basic Education Finance Joint Task Force has until December to accomplish two goals: One, find a way to steer more money into education, and two, make the state’s arcane school-funding system simpler and fairer.

“This is an opportunity we won’t get again in our lifetime,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson told the other task force members Tuesday.

For years, the political and legal battle for school funding has pitted districts against state budget writers. Schools clashed with the state recently over what they say is inadequate funding for transportation, special education and teaching tools to meet new testing requirements. Modern essentials such as school security and computers, districts say, aren’t considered in basic education funding by state budget writers.

For now, the task force is still collecting data and floating ideas. Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said Tuesday it might make more sense to do away with the graduate degree pay increase and instead channel that money into higher pay for experienced teachers.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the findings are food for thought, but today’s teachers shouldn’t worry. “I think almost everyone assumes you would grandfather in the current staff,” she said.

Bergeson also said research suggests the incentives make sense if a degree is linked to the subjects being taught, like a math teacher who gets a master’s in mathematics. But that’s often not the case, she said.

“The degrees can be important,” Bergeson said, “but they’re not the be-all and end-all.”

The Washington Education Association, the teachers union, had no immediate reaction to the institute’s analysis. But at Central Washington University, which offers master’s degrees for teachers, the interim dean at the school’s Center for Teaching and Learning said graduate degrees clearly help in the classroom.

“We have heard this before,” Connie Lambert said. “And you know, those of us in higher education take total exception to it.”

Teachers who return to school for master’s degrees after at least a year on the job, she said, “are so much more focused on strategies and what will work in the classroom than they ever were in undergrad.” The teachers come back for critical skills, she said, “not just pay.”

The institute’s report Tuesday also seemed to validate the state’s recent push to shrink class sizes in lower grades. Eight years ago, voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 728, which has steered hundreds of millions of dollars into teacher training and smaller classes, particularly in kindergarten through fourth grade.

And that’s where it matters, Aos said, citing 38 other studies. The younger the student, the studies suggest, the more a small class helps. After about fourth grade, however, the benefits of smaller classes all but disappear.

In fact, the institute last year sharpened its pencils and concluded the state gets a return on investment of 9 percent to 16 percent for every dollar it spends to reduce class sizes for young students. In other words, those students do better, eventually earn more money and pay more taxes as a result of that early intervention.

The task force must make its recommendation about school funding by December, in time for the next legislative session.

Bergeson said she hopes that showing voters results in schools will make them more likely to invest more money in improvements. She intends to unveil a detailed plan at the task force’s June meeting.

The problems “are solvable if we have the will to do it,” Bergeson said. “What we have now is a crisis growing.”

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