Friday, August 5, 2011

A Master's Bidding: What Arne Duncan Doesn't Get

. . . ”Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have masters’ degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers — with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science.”

-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, November 2010

Roughly nine months ago, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated the above quote in a speech he gave concerning the state of public education in America. As a student who was at the time in a Master's program, I viewed the statement as misguided but I didn't feel the need to comment on it in a public forum. However, recent events have brought me back to this aforementioned quote and so this time, my pal Arne D. will have the opportunity to hear my two cents (and then some) about teachers and the value of their master's degrees.

First and foremost, Mr. Duncan clearly has no idea what it takes to become a credentialed teacher and, more importantly, to keep that credential. For me, I moved out to California after teaching in North Carolina for two years. Fortunately, California has a reciprocity agreement with North Carolina and therefore my credential transferred here successfully. I had to pass the CBEST (California Basic Educational Skills Test) as well, but this test was fairly simple and straight forward and measured basic skills in reading, writing, and math. After all this was done and I submitted payment, I received what's called my preliminary California teaching credential in the early months of 2010. This credential certified me to teach both social science and Spanish and would not have to be renewed until early 2014, giving me a four-year window to meet the requirements to get my clear credential.

Here is where Mr. Duncan obviously missed the memo. In the state of California, one must either earn a master's degree or have 150 hours of workshops over the four-year period to earn their clear credential. If either of these criteria are not met, then the teacher is no longer certified to teach and he or she can be removed from their current teaching position. In addition, the state of California requires an English language learner authorization. This is a certificate that shows that a teacher in the diverse state of California is equipped and has the knowledge to work with English language learners. This leaves teachers with a four-year window to figure out how they are going to get everything accomplished in addition to their daily duties of classroom instruction.

For me, I chose the master's program route. It made the most sense, and I could get it done in half the time, with my master's program taking two years out of the four I had available to clear my credential. I was also fortunate enough to be in a program of study that worked with English language learners and therefore, my master's degree also fulfilled my English language learner authorization. In order to update my credential this past week, all I had to do was print off a copy of my old credential, include a sealed copy of my graduate school transcript, and again give money to the state of California and its teacher credential office. I could have technically waited until 2014 when my credential actually expired, but I am well aware of the effectiveness of large state bureaucracies and I felt much more comfortable doing it now as opposed to cutting it close farther on down the line.

Most people I have come into contact with have gone this route. They, like myself, have not only taught during the day, but have then left their schools and took graduate courses at night. These courses include homework, research papers, and even theses or action research projects. Many of us had to give up work days at our schools (unpaid leave days) in order to fulfill graduate school responsibilities via classes or conferences. We opted to do this because there is no way to get 150 hours of workshops in over a four-year period. Teachers have a set number of personal days each year and to use these all for professional development is not a realistic option. Once upon a time, there were conferences and workshops during the summer that districts would pay to have their teachers attend. However, today with ever-increasing budget cutbacks, hardly anyone can afford or offer to host any kind of meaningful professional development during the summer. Therefore, the lesser of two evils for all teachers in California is that of getting a master's degree.

What Arne Duncan doesn't get is that for many of us, the master's degree is our only choice to continue to be employed. It's not a luxury that we decided on to enhance our resume or to get a few extra bucks a year. It is a necessity, plain and simple. It enables us to reach the next level of our profession and to have the ability to focus solely on our job as opposed to worrying about additional credential requirements. I also seriously doubt Duncan's claims that a master's degree doesn't affect student performance. Nearly all the students in my master's program were veteran teachers and they entered the program as a way to enhance their teaching. By learning techniques and being exposed to different pedagogy and critical thinking, we all were able to come away with many different things from the program that we simply would not have gotten via various workshops spread throughout the course of four years. By working with a core group of colleagues we were able to share ideas and problem solve together in an effort to understand various issues we were encountering in our classrooms, which in turn, enabled us to become more efficient classroom teachers.

Do I get paid more because I have a master's degree? Yes. Do I deserve to get paid more because I have a master's degree? Yes. This is apparently what Arne doesn't get. It's not simply about the money. If it were, I would go and get an MBA and be making 2-3 times what I am in education. Beyond a slight salary increase, what my master's degree allowed me to do was study an area of weakness in my teaching and to learn ways to better myself. I now feel that I have the ability to work with English language learners in my own school, something I know I didn't have two years ago when I first entered my master's program. I feel that this will help not only my teaching, but more importantly the education of a child who is most likely lost and feeling very overwhelmed in a public school setting. This is a population I feel has been overlooked and I hope to use my newfound knowledge to assist them in any way necessary to ensure academic and personal success. My master's degree has given me a sense of pride in doing my best to teach an underrepresented population.

Care to put a price tag on that, Arne?