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Reflective Practitioners Need Not Apply

How can a Secretary of Education simultaneously encourage students to be all they can be, yet discourage teachers from getting (and school districts from hiring and paying teachers with) master's degrees?
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In a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute signaling national educational belt-tightening, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan signaled a grim era of budget cutting for schools, while offering some insightful and not so insightful recommendations for schools to address nationwide budget shortfalls.

Sadly, once again, it feels like the recent ed reform love affair with new, young teachers and anti-academic disdain for teachers with master's degrees shines through his speech.

Doing more with less will likely require reshaping teacher compensation to do more to develop, support, and reward excellence and effectiveness, and less to pay people based on paper credentials.

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

Despite the fact that there is research which disputes these claims (as does logic), this "ed reform" pattern of bashing higher ed for teachers continues.

If you are a teacher, you know what you experience. I know that my teaching was immensely affected by my master's degree. My degree is not just a "paper credential" handed to me -- it represents six years of hard-earned knowledge that I applied to my classroom during the day while I attended classes at night. It has influenced my work ever since. And I know that when I see teachers in my school getting their degrees that I see a distinct change in their approach to teaching and schooling in general. The reason: it's about becoming a more reflective practitioner with a better understanding of one's craft.

The level of preparation a teacher has can even affect how well they work with new teachers in training. One study looked at how the qualifications of the student teacher's cooperating teacher affected the quality of their supervision. The study, "Characteristics of Highly Effective Cooperating Teachers" (Killian, Joyce E.; Wilkins, Elizabeth A. Action in Teacher Education, 2009) found that:

"the most powerful association for high effectiveness was the graduate-level preparation in supervision. Four of the five most effective teachers in this study had master's degrees in teacher leadership, and all had taken course work on systematic observation and feedback... This deep preparation was associated with an ability to articulate beliefs behind practices and use practices congruent with those beliefs.[italics mine]

Part of what a master's degree asks you to do is reflect on your practice, something that one has little time to do when earning a bachelor's degree (not to mention that you are new to the field and not a practitioner yet).

Oddly enough, I happened to be having a conversation recently with one of our teachers, AP American History teacher Cathy Cluck, who coincidentally just finished her master's degree last week. Cluck explained that she had felt a rich sense of having deepened her knowledge of her field. Becoming a student again, she said, gave her an opportunity to really listen and question content, rather than just be focused on delivering it to her students. And an important added benefit Cluck saw? Her students saw her, as an acting practitioner, going back to learn more about her field and her craft. She was modeling life-long learning.

We prattle on about life-long learning to our students all the time. But how often do we show them that we are life-long learners? How can a Secretary of Education simultaneously encourage students to be all they can be, yet discourage teachers from getting (and school districts from hiring and paying teachers with) master's degrees?

We speak out of two sides of our mouth when we hope to have highly qualified teachers in our schools, yet simultaneously communicate to educators that stopping their education at a bachelor's degree for 30-year careers is enough.

What the Secretary of Education is essentially saying to school leaders, teachers, and potential new recruits to the field is this -- 'We don't need teachers who want to keep learning at institutes of higher education. In fact, we in education don't even value those who attempt to do that, as it's of no value to their students (unless they teach math). For our nation's kids, teachers with a basic education are good enough -- no need for more. The "data" says it doesn't do any good, so we're just fine with adequate. Because after all, that little paper "credential" means nothing.'

Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? Would we say that to any high school student in our 21st century schools?

Sure, having a master's degree doesn't IN AND OF itself make someone a better teacher. But it certainly doesn't make a worse teacher. And conversely, it can powerfully help teachers hone their craft, think more deeply about their subject matter, learn what it means to be a student again, and model lifelong learning for their own students. All benefits which seem extremely important in improving teacher quality our schools.

And how do we accomplish the task of luring highly competent new teachers into our field if the counter message we send them is -- go ahead and enter this field, but we don't expect you to progress academically or gain an advanced degree, because, new teacher, we just aren't interested in that for you?

Who would enter a field with that sort of attitude?

Instead if we want to improve teaching, model for our students, and invite intellectually gifted teachers into our schools -- we need to encourage and invite them to deepen their own experiences with learning. We need to invite them into a field where advanced learning is valued, and where there's place for advancement (other than becoming an administrator). We need to show them that our teachers are EXPECTED to be lifelong learners.

In 1996, the brilliant and widely respected, but sadly still largely unimplemented, study on improving teacher quality "What Matters Most: A Competent Teacher for Every Child" (from the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future) had as one of its recommendations that colleges "institute extended, graduate-level teacher preparation programs that provide yearlong internships in a professional development school, "and went on to urge that "throughout their careers, teachers should have ongoing opportunities to update their skills."

Why? Because it matters that our educators are well-educated. It matters to our children.

If you care about this issue, let Secretary Duncan know. Check out the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future's website, the Center for Teaching Quality or the work of Linda Darling-Hammond to learn more. Or just ask a teacher with a master's degree. They'll tell you.

Carolyn Foote's blog can be found at Not So Distant Future.

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