MILWAUKEE (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ) — For decades it’s been a familiar pattern in Wisconsin’s public schools: Young teachers get a few years of experience, then start pursuing their master’s degrees.
The advanced degrees in education could help their practice, but they were also a surefire way to improve their pay under union contracts that awarded automatic salary increases for additional education and seniority. The so-called “master’s bump” helped increase lifelong earnings.
But in the new landscape shaped by legislation that rolled back collective bargaining in early 2011, Wisconsin school districts no longer have to pay teachers extra money for such degrees, a move that’s disrupting a pipeline of enrollment into graduate schools of education and causing those institutions to refine their offerings.
The dropping of the master’s bump in many districts is also raising new questions about what kind of outside training is relevant to help teachers improve outcomes with their students, and what those teachers - who are already taking home less pay by contributing more to their benefits - will consider to be worth the investment.
Wauwatosa East High School government teacher Ann Herrera Ward is one educator puzzled by the turning tide on advanced degrees.
Ward earned her bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before working in the U.S. House of Representatives for seven years, then got on the road to a teaching license through Marquette University, where she got a master’s in instructional leadership.
Entering her 20th year as a teacher, she’s finishing her dissertation for her doctorate degree: a study of how kids learn about elections and politics by discussing the matters in school and at home.
“It’s sort of a strange contradiction that advanced degrees in education are not valued,” she said. “I know the economists talk about how there’s no correlation between advanced degrees and effective teaching, but they’re economists, not teachers.”
Ward said she only stood to make an additional $1,400 once she finished her doctorate under the old union structure; it’s unclear what the district will do to reward highly credentialed teachers in the new landscape.
“Nobody knows anything yet,” Ward said.
Whether other teachers will have the same view as Ward and continue pursuing advanced degrees is one of the questions up for debate.
“It’s the great unknown,” said Bill Henk, dean of the School of Education at Marquette University, where traditional master’s level enrollments have dipped 14 percent from the fall of 2009, and 8 percent from 2010.
Statewide in teachers colleges connected to the University of Wisconsin System, master’s level enrollment has been declining for at least five years, but it dropped most rapidly from the fall of 2010 to the fall of 2011, according to data provided by the UW System.
That drop came after Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed into law the legislation that limited collective bargaining and required teachers to pay more for their benefits in early 2011.
Megan Sampson, a high school English teacher in Wauwatosa, was six credits into her master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at that time.
She earned accolades as an outstanding young educator in Milwaukee Public Schools, but got laid off in 2010 per union contract rules of seniority. The English teacher was picked up by Wauwatosa East High School at the minimum salary for new teachers, and kept chipping away at her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction despite the district’s pay freeze for two years.
Now Sampson is entering her fourth year as a teacher, yet getting paid the same as a beginning educator. And she’s $12,000 into a master’s degree.
“I know I’m an excellent teacher, and I know this will make me better,” Sampson said. “But I also know I’m getting the master’s degree mostly for myself at this point.”
Before the new legislation, public school teachers in Wisconsin generally received automatic pay increases by getting an advanced degree or graduate-level credits. This meant the population of teachers with a master’s continued to grow.
In the 2010-11 school year, just over 55 percent of Wisconsin teachers held a master’s degree, up from just under 42 percent in the 2002-03 school year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
A report published in 2012 by the left-leaning Center for American Progress argued against continuing master’s bumps, estimating the average bump to a Wisconsin teacher with a master’s degree in the 2007-08 school year at just under $6,000.
The organization estimated $231.8 million was spent statewide on such compensation. They’re not the only critic.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers has long been against automatically rewarding teachers for master’s degrees. He points to research that shows that the impact of a general education master’s degree “is zero on student learning.”
Some research has shown that subject-specific master’s degrees, such as a science teacher earning a graduate degree in chemistry, can have a positive impact on student performance.
Many Wisconsin school districts now operating under handbooks instead of union contracts are in a holding pattern when it comes to developing new compensation systems for teachers, choosing to freeze everyone in the old “step-and-lane” salary structure preferred by unions. A new statewide educator evaluation system is on the horizon for full implementation two years from now, and many districts want to wait until they can better tie a teacher’s compensation to that teacher’s performance, revealed by student achievement, personal initiative, evidence of training or a combination of all of that.
Some districts are honoring a master’s boost for educators who had just finished or were in the middle of a program when the new legislation passed. Others have continued to offer some compensation for the degree, but only after teachers make a case for why they should pursue the degree and how it will have an effect on their students’ performance.
Cindi Beilke was a kindergarten teacher entering her sixth year in the Greenfield School District when she finished her master’s degree at Cardinal Stritch University in August 2011.
Had the district adhered to the old union salary structure, Beilke said she would have increased her base bay to more than $51,000 annually with a master’s, compared to about $42,000 without it.
Instead, her advanced degree cost her about $22,000, and she said she didn’t get any back-end compensation from Greenfield, though Superintendent Conrad Farner said the district awarded teachers who had earned their master’s degree a $2,000 pay bump.
Ultimately, Beilke resigned from the district. She’s set to teach in a public charter school this fall.
The new legislation spurred some of the state’s teacher training institutions to make changes, while others are ramping up the marketing of programs they already deem traditionally strong and influential.
Henk, the Marquette dean, said the university’s education program is known for being rigorous, whereas other area programs may be easier for teachers and not as expensive.
Marquette hosts a Teach for America program in which college graduates who were fast-tracked into an alternate teacher’s license work on their master’s degrees. The program has helped offset the drop in traditional graduate school enrollment.
“Teachers may say, ‘Gee, if I learn this, I’m going to be more effective and that will help me remain employable and maybe realize the kind of results where I’ll qualify for merit pay,’ “ Henk said. “But it’s not going to be lock-step compensation awards like it used to be.”
Other institutions have become more aggressive at partnering with area school districts to provide the kind of training that will help fill each district’s specific needs or challenge area.
“We go in and we work directly with them,” said Katy Heyning, dean of UW-Whitewater’s College of Education and Professional Studies. “What we’re trying to do is market ourselves as partners with the schools.”
Carroll University in Waukesha has seen similar interest in possible relationships with school districts, according to James Wiseman, vice president for enrollment. Enrollment in graduate education programs has fallen in the last two years, but partnering with districts could bring it back up, he said.
Wilma Robinson, chair of Carroll University’s education department, said the school is working to offer flexibility and choice by giving teachers more of a menu to choose from.
“It is more of a personal selection of expertise,” Robinson said.
Many leaders in teacher training programs said their colleges and universities are shifting to help teachers and districts in specific areas such as reading and technology.
It can be challenging to equip teachers with skills in quickly changing areas such as technology.
“Think of how many different things that has meant, just within the last few years,” said Debra Dosemagen, chair of Mount Mary College’s Education Department. “Originally, that meant preparing teachers to do word processing.”
Wisconsin Lutheran College is wrestling with the changing view of advanced teaching degrees as a new player in the local scene of graduate programs.
It started its first class in June 2011, just months after the Walker legislation passed.
Jim Brandt, the college’s vice president of adult and graduate studies, said classes have been smaller than they anticipated as a result. This fall they are expecting to bring in about 15 new graduate-level students, when they had hoped to bring in between 20 and 30.
“It’s a bit of a case study developing programming in this new environment we live in,” Brandt said.
He said that the school didn’t change its four main graduate-level tracks, but the current landscape influenced other decisions, such as bringing someone to the admissions team who would spend a lot of time getting into districts and networking, and also developing an “iPads in education” course, and positioning the school as a service provider of individual courses or workshops.
“It has forced us all to think very carefully about what we’re putting in these courses and programs and how that influences what happens in the classroom, and ultimately, how we’re serving students,” Brandt said.