Do more degrees make better teachers?

A smoldering debate in academia’s ivory towers, state legislatures and local school systems may break fresh ground for major changes to our crumbling education system. The debate focuses on the validity of higher education teaching degrees.  A proposal  fanning those flames suggests school systems should compensate teachers based on students’ performance and not solely on teachers’ advanced degrees and time in service.

According to a recent New York Times editorial,  “The director of teacher education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Katherine Merseth, told a conference in March that of the nation’s 1,300 graduate teacher training programs, only about 100 were doing a competent job.  ‘The others could be shut down tomorrow,'” she said.   The editorial added, “President Obama’s administration supports a shift away from using advanced degrees for pay raises, and a shift toward compensating teachers based, in part, on students’ performance.”

According to the NYT editorial, “several top educators support giving teachers raises and tenure based on advanced courses they take. Margaret S. Crocco, professor and coordinator of the Program in Social Studies and chair of the Department of Arts and Humanities at Teachers College at Columbia University believes that, ‘all teachers should have masters degrees that both deepen their content knowledge and help them learn how to shape content into subject matter for effective engagement in K-12 classrooms — not an easy matter by any means.’ “

You can read heartfelt expert opinions on both sides of this issue in the editorial. I’m not sure which view has garnered more support. But the chasm between the views seems to be widening. The chasm becomes more public as Obama pushes his Teach for America initiative and chastises states for passing laws prohibiting teachers from getting pay raises based on student performance.

Student performance should be a major factor in the teacher compensation equation. As a former secondary school teacher and post-graduate student in education, I believe I can lend some credibility to this debate. After graduating with my bachelor’s degree I returned to school to earn teacher certification and to stumble through three tortuous graduate school courses. Most teacher certification courses, and particularly graduate school courses, do little if anything to prepare teachers to teach, in my view. Personal experience and a fact or two bolster my opposition to using courses as criteria for giving teachers raises and tenure.

One of the first courses I took to prepare me to teach was Philosophical Foundations of Education. On the first day of class the professor told us, “Everyone in the class gets an A for this course. Now lets learn something.” The prof spent the rest of the quarter sharing his liberal, rarely practical, education theories.

Another education professor, whose course I can not remember, told us the first day of his class that he realized we had papers to grade and full-time jobs in the classroom. He knew our days in the classroom stretched us emotionally and physically to the limits of reasonable tolerance. He was aware that we had to drive to this remote campus twice a week at night to take his course. “But,” he told us with a smirk, “that’s the choice you made.” Through that smirk he gave us his requirements for the class: in addition to his sleep-inducing lectures he made us read and report on five books and write three 10-page papers in 12 weeks. Of course he threw in a monster midterm and final based on our class discussions and his lectures.

This tenured professor, author of a few books and articles no one read, never spent a single day as a teacher in a classroom. He was also a student teacher adviser. That meant he made occasional visits to student teachers’ classrooms to evaluate how well they performed a job he himself had never done.

I had other professors with masters’ and doctors’ degrees teaching me how to teach who had never taught in a classroom. I can think of only one or two professors who actually taught practical things I could use to teach. All those other class hours and papers and gruesomely boring books I read were a waste of time and money. Little, if any of it, in my view, taught me any practical applications or improved my ability to teach.

My opinion runs counter, obviously, to those college professors whose jobs depend on their continued propagation of mindless minutia they refer to as education theory and training. You really can’t blame them. This very expensive minutia pays their bills, earns them gratuitous pats on the back for writing books and papers no one reads. It earns them accolades from their colleagues. And, if they perpetuate their vast stores of research and book knowledge long enough their minutia might earn them tenure (basically, cushy job security).

When I went to college institutions of higher learning benefited from the minutia as well. I attended a State run institution and a majority of its funding depended on the school’s credit hour production. In other words, the more students the school could attract to its campus and its courses, the more money the school received from the state. I suppose that’s similar to the way schools and universities still work today.

What doesn’t work today is our education system. Our school systems continue to falter. They are broken. Most everyone accepts that–some more begrudgingly than others. No matter how much money we throw at education, Johnny still can’t read and write or add and subtract.

Rewarding teachers based on how many degrees they have isn’t making better teachers. It widens the chasm between what they know and what students learn. It is, however, allowing lots of education professors (with masters and PhD’s who have never worked in a classroom) to keep their jobs. I guess that’s good for the economy, even if it isn’t the best deal for Johnny.

I would like to see Johnny’s performance count for something.  If they tied teachers’ pay to Johnny’s performance maybe more teachers would work harder at teaching than they do at earning more degrees.

Caveat: Before you hurl stones at me, I will admit that I often hear of isolated cases when some program (usually crafted by a great teacher) works miracles among a special group of academically or culturally disadvantaged students. We hear occasional success stories about teachers who actually do real teaching and produce highly successful results and smarter students.

These success stories, however, are the exception. For every success story we can point to many more failures that sadly serve as the norm.

I will also admit that many of our school systems can boast excellent teachers who love their jobs and their kids. These teachers are dedicated, loving people who care deeply about their students and their profession. Teaching for them is a joy that comes naturally and from the heart.

Academia doesn’t produce or improve those teachers, nor do advanced degrees.

One thought on “Do more degrees make better teachers?

  1. Thanks for this posting Steven. It is a debate indeed! I’ve noticed among ESL/EFL, however that the biggest critics are those people who don’t bother to even jump through the hoops and get a degree. They can teach without one, so why try, they say…not realizing that if they are already good teachers–training will make them even better teachers (one would hope).


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