Who Needs Advanced Degrees?

This is one of those education discussions that sends shooting pains through my head. In what other profession would anybody think that advanced degrees are not effective? Should we encourage a shift towards undergraduate medical degree programs, undergraduate lawyers, engineers?

Intuitively, masters degrees have to add value. If that isn’t true, nothing in our world makes any sense. The question we should be asking is why research shows that advanced education doesn’t improve teaching outcomes.

There are three simple answers. The truth probably lies in the intersection of all three.

First, it’s all about incentives. We pay teachers to complete these courses. We don’t pay them to have better outcomes. Why should we be surprised when they take a lot of courses but their results don’t improve?

Second, we should examine the content of the courses. Our educational system is infested with archaic concepts of dubious merit. If we want to teach teachers to be more effective, we have to teach them effective techniques. I am of the mind that teaching is an art and therefore there isn’t one effective way to teach. We need to teach alternatives – but effective alternatives. See Teach Like a Champion and Rafe Esquith for examples of two very different ways to be effective in this century.

Third, we need to look at the educational environment. Look at the pay structure. Look at the benefits structure. Look at the incentives, or lack thereof. Look at opportunities for job satisfaction and personal efficacy. Most importantly, look at what it takes to be a successful teacher. Ask if the environment attracts the people who can do the best job? All too often, teaching is much too much like working at the DMV. Why should we be surprised that the intrinsic motivation of many teachers doesn’t match our aspirations.

Anyway, here’s the article. What do you think?

States’ Costs Skyrocket on Master’s Degree Pay for Teachers

By Stephen Sawchuk on July 17, 2012 2:18 PM
Despite little research supporting the practice, paying teachers for earning advanced degrees continues to cost states billions of dollars—in 2007-08, an estimated $14.8 billion, or 72 percent more than just four years before that, according to a report released today by the Washington-based Center for American Progress.

The report contends that the funding could be better spent on other compensation schemes, such as offering more to teachers in shortage fields, like math or special education; higher salaries to retain the best teachers; or incentives to teachers who take difficult teaching assignments.

Research indicates that, outside the areas of content degrees in math and science, there’s not a lot of evidence to support the idea that advanced degrees make for better teaching. (About 90 percent of the master’s degrees held by teachers are from education programs, the CAP report states.)

The report builds on CAP’s 2009 analysis, which estimated that the degrees cost some $8.6 billion in 2003-04. The study employs much the same methodology—using U.S. Department of Education and National Education Association collected data to compute the average salary increase for earning a master’s and applying that to the average salary figure and total number of teachers. The report’s authors, CAP’s Raegen T. Miller and the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Marguerite Roza, provide a state-by-state breakdown of the figures.

To read more, go here.

Teaching to the Test, Part Two

I think bucking the standards/testing paradigm is not viable. I do think 1st grade is a more important time to build a broad base of knowledge and to learn that learning is fun than to ace some standardized test. But I don’t want to be the one trying to argue that point to parents and administrators.

It seems to me that most people think there are only two choices: ignore testing or build the year around testing. I don’t like either of those options. My idea is to embrace essentialism as surgically as possible and teach exactly to the test as a subset of the daily activity. Hopefully, by defining this part of the annual learning obligation so narrowly and deliberately, time is freed up in the day to do much of the ‘yummy stuff’ that might get pushed aside in a more classic, full time essentialist curriculum.

I’ve been trying to teach the kids that testing is like football or performing on stage, it’s a fun challenge and it’s something where practice improves outcomes. It’s something that can be embraced.

I hope and intend that this strategy ends up with great test results and kids who think education is more than the black and white of No. 2 pencils and answer sheets. I hope that they’ll do great on the tests, have a broad education, and believe that education is as joyful as life.

I can’t take credit for the idea, although it is exactly my style. I first encountered it in the books of Rafe Esquith. He’s pretty much my role model.


Esquith, R. (2003). There are no shortcuts. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Esquith, R. (2007). Teach like your hair’s on fire: The methods and madness inside room 56. New York, NY: Viking.

Esquith, R. (2009). Lighting their fires: Raising extraordinary children in a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world. New York, NY: Viking Adult.

Teaching to the Highest Ideal

It seems to me that a teacher’s goal should be to teach to what an ‘ideal’ child of that grade level should achieve. This will rapidly expose where each child is relative to that goal. What I wrestle with is where to find the bandwidth (student time plus teacher time) to remediate children below target levels. The class days I observe are full to the brim with academics, the arts & PE, recess, and lunch.If I assume, as I think is true, that each of these activities is essential, I run out of hours in the school day. My role model, Rafe Esquith, runs before school and Saturday study sessions. I am prepared to do the same, though I don’t know if these sessions should be mandatory (or if that’s even allowed) and what to do with children who won’t or can’t participate.

The next option is to run remediation during the non-academic school day. I really hesitate to do this. The school day is already rigorous to the reasonable limit or beyond. Additionally, there is more to be learned at school than academics. Taking the slower achievers out of the social pool might well create a negative cascade for them. On the other hand, it might be possible to do it in a way that being in this ‘study group’ might become a sort of badge of pride (pride of achievement).

Finally, it is possible to remediate during the day’s academic time. This could be done by tiering students, having each group doing work appropriate to their level. I could work with the students most in need of help while other groups could work with other adults or independently. Clearly, this is a necessary part of the solution. But unless the faster children aren’t working on academics, I don’t see how substantial catching up happens.

To conclude, it seems to me that the best way to go is to expect each child to achieve ‘ideal’ learning and to remediate with a combination of out of school time, free time and academic time to ensure each child gets the time and attention to achieve expectations.


Esquith, R. (2003). There are no shortcuts. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Esquith, R. (2007). Teach like your hair’s on fire: The methods and madness inside room 56. New York, NY: Viking.

Esquith, R. (2009). Lighting their fires: Raising extraordinary children in a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world. New York, NY: Viking Adult.


What Grade Level?

Consider what you know about the organization of elementary, middle/junior high, and high schools. What type of school is best suited to your academic and personal characteristics? Why do you think so?

I think I prefer elementary school.

My current thinking is that I would be happiest and most effective as a 5th grade teacher. I am drawn to elementary school because of the relative autonomy in teaching, the relative enthusiasm of the students, and the added bonus that I could bring as a rare male role model. While I am also drawn to the higher level of complexity available as the student’s minds develop, I have little desire to navigate the emotional confusion of adolescence or the pseudo-sophistication of high school. Fifth grade in particular appeals to me because it is the point of maximum mental capacity before impending adulthood begins to interpose itself.

I take as my guide as to the particular suitability to me of 5th grade the writings of Rafe Esquith, a model 5th grade teacher. I also plan to use my classroom observation opportunities to see various grade levels and subjects in action. I look forward to further exploring my hypothesis as I move forward in this program.


Esquith, R. (2007). Teach like your hair is on fire. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Esquith, R. (2003). There are no shortcuts. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

More on Standards

I really don’t know the answer. In the past, I have acted the maverick, doing what I thought best. I acted in harmony with what I understood the spirit of the standards to be but frequently not in harmony with the letter. Obviously, I didn’t do that in areas of regulatory or legal constraint. But in areas where I wasn’t actually bound to follow a particular path, I generally made my own way to the goal. One of my teaching heroes is Rafe Esquith of Hobart Shakespeareans fame. He too is a maverick, to the point where I frequently wince on his behalf reading of his interactions with other teachers, administrators and the curriculum. As I recall, he teaches the curriculum as quickly as he can and spends the balance of his time on what he wants to do. Of course, he starts school an hour early and keeps class open until late in the afternoon so he creates more time in which to do more.

I’m pretty clear that I don’t want to carry the weight of being such a maverick as I go forward. On the other hand, i didn’t sign up for this career to be a factory worker on the educational assembly line. I think for me, the challenge is finding something other than zero or ten on the spectrum. I think it is possible to respect the curriculum and even expect that it contains wisdom that is invisible me, but at the same time innovate and create around it’s core (and around its weaker points).