Democratic legislators, teacher unions, newspaper editorialists, and other members or defenders of North Carolina’s education establishment continue to be aghast at the Republican-led General Assembly’s decision to phase out salary supplements for public-school teachers who obtain graduate degrees.
This fact tells you very little about education policy.
Although North Carolina liberals appear not to have gotten the memo, most scholars of teaching effectiveness have long known that paying teachers to return to college for master’s degrees is not a wise investment of tax dollars. Students taught by such teachers don’t learn more than students taught by those who don’t get advanced degrees. Conservative-leaning academic scholars agree with this conclusion. But so do liberal-leaning scholars, including those skeptical of other means of attracting and retaining good teachers such as merit pay based on value-added assessments.
The only possible exception would be middle- or high-school teachers who obtain master’s degrees in math or science before teaching advanced courses. Even here the evidence is mixed. And the vast majority of teachers who pursue the salary bump do so by getting master’s degrees in education, not math or science.
What the political debate about North Carolina’s recent decision reveals is that the education establishment lives in a fantasy world, a world of wish-fulfillment rather than hard realities. Its denizens believe that raising taxes to spend more money on education is the state’s best strategy for economic development, despite copious empirical evidence to the contrary. They attribute all gains in student achievement to their pet programs, while blaming the low performance of many states on factors entirely outside of their control — or on the fact that the students are not exposed to their pet programs long enough.
You’ll notice, by the way, that their deeply cherished beliefs happen to align with their personal interests. Who are the strongest lobbyists for giving teachers salary supplements to get master’s degrees? Schools of education at North Carolina’s public and private colleges, of course. The policy has generated a reliable stream of income for them for decades. Now that legislative engineers have diverted the stream to a more productive destination, they are panicked and angry.
But panic and anger are poor guides for public policy. Decisions about the expenditure of taxpayer dollars should be based on calm, thoughtful consideration of the available evidence. Unfounded assumptions, prejudices, or insults voiced in a scream are no more valid than unfounded assumptions, prejudices, or insults voiced in a whisper.
That’s my idealistic take, anyway. Might Republican legislators be misled or pressured by the education establishment to rescind their decision on salary supplements for master’s degrees, anyway? Perhaps. Again, that would tell us little about education policy, because the salary supplements aren’t justifiable as an education policy. What it would tell us is that the politics of education reform are extremely challenging, that reformers should prepare themselves for a long, hard struggle. Those who operate and derive sustenance from the current education system will, despite its manifest flaws, continue to defend the system from any and all fundamental changes.
Their conservatism (in the stick-in-the-mud sense of the term) is understandable. But it cannot be allowed to prevail. Higher school productivity and student performance are essential if North Carolina is to meet the economic and social challenges of the 21st century. Achieving such a goal, through such policies as alternative teacher certification, merit pay, or parental choice, is worth angering the education establishment now and again.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.