Houston may stop tying teacher pay to degrees

Houston ChronicleMay 17, 2014 

For decades, public schools have rewarded teachers who earned advanced degrees with bigger paychecks. Yet research shows little positive effect on student test scores.

Flouting tradition, Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier proposed Thursday that the nation’s seventh-largest school system join a small but growing number of districts that have scrapped the coveted pay bump in recent years.

“I’m sure we’ll have teachers line up and speak against it,” Grier said. “Education’s a big bureaucracy. We’re designed to protect the status quo.”

Across the country, schools spend some $14 billion a year on the extra pay for advanced degrees, according to one study, though the practice is gaining greater scrutiny as policy-makers look to hold teachers more accountable for students’ learning.

The popular Houston charter schools YES and KIPP no longer tie pay to college degrees. The Dallas Independent School District also is considering changes to the typical model that bases salaries on a teacher’s years of experience and education level.

Still, officials with other large Houston-area districts say they are not considering eliminating the extra master’s pay, which typically amounts to $1,000 to $2,000 a year.

“Continuing to educate yourself in your chosen field and to grow professionally is very important,” said Curt Drouillard, Klein ISD’s associate superintendent for human resources.

Grier said his plan, which the school board must approve, would apply only to new hires. The roughly 4,100 HISD teachers who have master’s or doctoral degrees – about one third of the teaching staff – would continue to get the extra money, according to the district.

Grier, who holds a doctorate, floated the idea to end master’s pay in 2010, shortly after arriving in Houston, but this is his first formal pitch to the school board.

“It’s one of the stupider proposals I’ve seen,” said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers union. “We’re an educational institution and yet we don’t value education.”

“Why do you need one more barrier to recruitment?” asked Chuck Robinson, executive director of the Congress of Houston Teachers. “That’s kind of heartbreaking.”

Studies generally show that teachers with master’s degrees don’t see higher student achievement than those with bachelor’s degrees. One exception is teachers with advanced degrees in math, said Thomas J. Kane, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

“Teachers shouldn’t hear from this that the district is uninterested in their professional growth,” Kane said. “Rather, the district ought to be reinvesting these dollars into training for teachers that does pay off for kids.”

Texas’ salary requirements for teachers do not include extra pay for advanced degrees, though many districts offer the perk. Some states like Florida and Indiana have mandated that districts put more weight on teachers’ performance than on their degrees, while North Carolina lawmakers last year voted to phase out the master’s pay bump.

“It’s really only in the last couple of years that we’ve seen states beginning to make real policy shifts,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. “There has been so much focus on teacher effectiveness.”

Jennifer Hines, chief operating officer for YES Prep, recalled teachers reacting with excitement when the charter network changed its pay model three years ago, enabling an elite few to earn up to $80,000 based on their job performance.

“People talked about, ‘Oh my gosh, I can buy a house,’“ Hines said. “One person broke down and cried and said, ‘Now I can ask my girlfriend to marry me.’ We’ve seen a lot of benefits to this system.”

Most YES teachers earn $50,000 or less. According to data from Hines, 1 percent fall into the highest pay category, which ranges from $66,000 to $80,000. Another 16 percent are in the second-highest group, which pays $54,000 to $64,000.

In HISD, teachers don’t earn $54,000 until they have 16 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree or 15 years and a master’s degree. That could change slightly next year.

Grier’s budget plan would increase a first-year teacher’s salary to $48,400 next school year and give all teachers a raise of at least $900 annually. Teachers also would continue to be eligible for bonuses worth thousands of dollars based on test scores.

Although Grier has not touted master’s degrees for teachers, he and his staff have worked with the University of St. Thomas and the University of Houston to revamp their graduate programs for principals.

Robert McPherson, dean of Up’s College of Education, said he doesn’t expect a big impact if HISD eliminates the master’s pay bump. Many who enroll in the UH program are seeking to become principals, he said.

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