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September 7, 2011

Credentials don’t yield better teaching

E.J. McMahon

What, no master's degree?

Miss Crabtree lacked a master's?

The start of another school year also marks another automatic step up the salary scale for most of New York’s 225,000 public school teachers, typically producing a raise of at least 1 to 2 percent in addition to any base pay increase called for by their union contracts. Teachers can also move laterally, to better-paid “lanes” on the salary scale, by earning a master’s degree and additional post-graduate credits.  But a new study by the Manhattan Institute’s Marcus Winters, confirming a wealth of other research, shows that the credentials valued under teacher contracts don’t equate to better teaching.

Winters writes:

In the U.S. public school system today, the method used to determine teacher effectiveness—and thus to drive salary, promotion, and tenure decisions—is based on a few external credentials: certification, advanced degrees, and years of experience in the classroom. Yet according to a new analysis of student performance in Florida that two colleagues and I conducted, little to no relationship exists between these credentials and the gains that a teacher’s students make on standardized math and reading exams. Our expansive study included all test-taking public elementary school students in the state of Florida over a period of four years.

Our study, to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Economics of Education Review, builds on two decades of research from a variety of school systems and confirms a consistent finding: external teacher credentials tell us next to nothing about how well a teacher will perform in the classroom. Such research has not, however, yet had a substantial effect on the practices of U.S. public schools. Today’s public school system continues to rely on external teacher credentials to decide who gets to teach and how much a teacher is paid. Though the debate over how most accurately to use statistical measures to identify teacher quality is far from completed, the general finding that there is a vast difference between the system’s best and worst teachers is no longer in serious dispute. The large body of research on teacher quality suggests that a new method of identifying the best teachers is needed—one that focuses on measuring the contributions that teachers actually make in the classroom.

Weighty statistical analysis aside, most of us would probably say we know a good teacher when we see one. For that matter, pretty much everyone in a typical public school community — starting with principals and parents — knows who the best teachers in the school are. And everyone knows teachers who are no longer trying, or perhaps were not very good teachers to start with.  But teacher tenure laws and rigid contractual pay structures ensure that all teachers with the same experience and credential levels are treated equally, regardless of performance. Indeed, under most contracts in New York today, a lazy, lousy teacher with “Masters plus 30″ credits (awarded, in many cases, by the teachers’ union itself) is paid more than a good teacher with a mere M.A.

Whether or not you believe test scores have been oversold as a measure of teacher effectiveness, can’t we all at least agree that it’s unfair, wasteful and counterproductive to (a) provide the vast majority of teachers with lifetime job tenure after just three years on the job, and (b) compensate our most important front-line educational professionals on the basis of seniority and credentials of dubious value, as if they were bolt-tighteners in some post-war auto factory?

Filed under: Education, Uncategorized


  1. I agree entirely with this article.

    Comment by Felix Procacci — September 7, 2011 @ 9:50 am

  2. As others have pointed out, Einstein would not have been eligible, due to certification requirements, to teach high school physics in the US public school system.

    Comment by Jonathan Trichter — September 7, 2011 @ 10:12 am

  3. The Whole Education System Is Totally CORRUPT !!! The Teacher’s Union Must GO !!! Little Johnie STILL can’t Read and can’t pass these Mandatory Tests without the Teacher Taking The Test For Little Johnie !!! The Teachers Union is in charge of the Greatest Wealth Transfer Scheme in the History of the Universe !!!

    Comment by eatingdogfood — September 7, 2011 @ 10:31 am

  4. E.J.
    You are totally correct. The teacher’s union has totally destroyed the public schools and the teaching profession in NY State. The public school which receives all of the local and state tax money with no competition other than unfunded private and parochial schools has destroyed the ability of new young teachers to get jobs. The escalating public school teacher salaries with seniority and coursework step increases has bankrupted local taxpayers to the point where local school districts are laying off teachers and dismantling programs. What would be wrong with a voucher system where parents got a pell grant or voucher to use to attend the school of their choice. Schools would compete for students. Schools could be specialized to accept special needs students or special needs students would have premium vouchers worth more. Sure, teacher salaries would be lower, but our young people would be able to find work at one of the many independent and private schools, which now now survive with the funding from the voucher system. The voucher system will happen sooner or later. For our children and young teachers sake, I pray that the vouchers happen sooner.

    Comment by Ralph Mitchell — September 8, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

  5. After 30 years as an aerospace engineer, I spent a year at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to obtain a teaching certificate for HS physics and mathematics. None of my previous work experience was thought to be relevant to the determination of my starting salary, but 32 hours of graduate courses in physics and optimal control, taken 25 years before, were held to be. So I was able to start out at “masters +30″. On the other hand, they were no less relevant than my Harvard coursework, or the (mostly) laughable “professional development” (PD) workshops we were tortured with 4-5 times/year. When the mania for “highly qualified” was upon us, I pointed out that for much less than the school’s annual PD budget, we all could get life experience doctorates having exactly the same academic and professional significance as a typical EdD. Unfortunately, no takers. Darn, I always wanted to be Dr. Oh well, in the next life…I do have to say that in the 14 years of this second career, I did work with some magnificently capable folks, who entered the field despite what they had to go through to get in and stay in.

    Comment by Clark Neily — September 8, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

  6. I agree completely. For a great many years teachers have been paid on only two things: pieces of paper (academic degrees) and time. Full stop. The unions claim it’s impossible to evaluate quality of teaching. Yet experiments have been run in a great many schools that have found the same thing. When required to make forced-choice ranking of their colleagues, time and time again the teachers identify the identical best five and worst five. Moreover, in the experiments I’m familiar with there was absolutely no definition given for “best” and “worst”. Notwithstanding, the results held. It’s why I support unrestricted educational vouchers. I really do not think it’s possible to change the government education colossus

    Comment by WardR — September 10, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

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