With a state requirement that teachers seeking the highest degree of licensure must have a master's degree, it is no surprise that New York state has the highest percentage of master's degree-holding educators in the nation.
The added degree brings an added pay for teachers - the so-called ''master's bump.'' Contractual obligations to subsidize the cost of teachers earning higher degrees also add to districts' budgets.
According to a report compiled recently by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, the added value placed upon teachers attaining master's degrees should be re-evaluated not only because of the cost to districts, but because the added education doesn't always result in a better education for students anyway.
David Eggert, staff director of New York State United Teachers' Southwestern Regional Office, said that using the study's findings to say master's degree-holding teachers in the state of New York are getting too big of a ''bump'' is an argument that comes in backward - because of state regulations, it is the teachers in New York who do not have master's degrees who are the exception.
''It's sort of a wrong approach to look at the master's degree salary as being somehow an extra burden on schools - that really is essentially where teachers' salaries are,'' Eggert said. ''Even if we called it a professional-certificate salary, which you could ... we'd still be ultimately looking at that set of salaries to say what teachers are paid in New York.''
In addition, Eggert said, the performance of New York students compared to students in other states around the nation shows that, at least in New York, teachers with more education provide students with a better education.
''The fact that New York has the highest percentage of teachers with master's degrees, combined with the fact that New York also ranks at the top or near the top in school performance, speaks well,'' Eggert said. ''It's a justification for paying people the salaries that we're paying them with those master's degrees.''
TOP OF THE HEAP
The report, citing figures released by the U.S. Department of Education, shows that 78 percent of teachers in New York state hold a master's degree - the highest percentage in the nation, and 30 percentage points higher than the national average.
On average, teachers in New York state with master's degrees make $7,109 more each year than comparable teachers with only a bachelor's degree. In total, statewide, more than 1.1 billion dollars is spent by school districts each year in ''master's bumps,'' the additional payment for a master's degree over a bachelor's. At $416 per student, it is the highest ratio in the nation, more than double the $174-per-student national average.
The 22 percent of teachers in New York who do not have master's degrees fall into two categories, Eggert said. Teachers who received their professional certificates before New York state changed its requirements may still teach with only a bachelor's degree. New teachers may also be hired with only a bachelor's degree, but they are required to attain a master's degree and receive their professional certificate within five years on the job.
''We do have a substantial number of people teaching who don't have master's degrees, so that's one reason why salary schedules that recognize both master's degrees and bachelor's degrees still make sense,'' Eggert said. ''That's not to say that's the only way teachers could be paid, but that has sort of been the traditional approach.''
It is unfair, Eggert says, to quantify the extra salary made by teachers with master's degrees and say it is a detriment to school budgets.
''The master's degree is really the salary level that we look at when we talk about what our teachers are paid in New York,'' he said. ''The notion that somehow we're paying extra for master's degrees is backward, because those master's degrees really are and should be the standard for high-quality teachers in New York, and every other state, as far as we're concerned.''
IS THE VALUE WORTH THE COST?
An extra $416 per student would be worth it, many would argue, if students received a substantially better education because of it.
The compilers of the CRPE report, however, say they do not.
While research has shown that teachers holding master's degrees in fields such as mathematics and science do correlate to higher student achievement, most teachers do not earn their master's in such content-specific fields. Citing figures from the National Center of Education Statistics, the report states that 90 percent of teachers' master's degrees are in education programs - which the report calls ''a notoriously unfocused and process-dominated course of study'' - leaving students with a teacher in the front of the classroom who may be no more knowledgeable in a subject than a teacher with just a bachelor's degree.
Eggert says the quality of New York's education is top-notch, meaning its field of master's degree-educated teachers is living up to its status as a field of highly learned educators.
''Our teachers in New York are highly qualified, and we do well by the standards established by No Child Left Behind requirements on high-quality teachers in the classroom,'' he said. ''We've done very well on that.''
Given the stringent guidelines for achieving the professional certificate in New York, Eggert says the state is producing quality teachers no matter their postgraduate fields of work - as the degree is just one of a series of requirements.
''The teacher also has to have three years of teaching experience, the teacher has to have gone through a mentor experience for at least one of those years, and there are tests required of teachers as part of the certification process,'' Eggert said. ''So the fact that there is still a variety of fields in which the master's degree could be earned is sort of kept under control by the fact that through experience and testing, the teachers' qualifications for actual classroom teaching are still being measured.''
The requirement for teachers to receive master's degrees in New York is not likely to go away, and Eggert says the debate about how to determine the value of a teacher will not be going away either.
''It's always being looked at and will continue to be fine-tuned,'' he said. ''I would expect that the master's degree is going to remain an essential component, and we'll be talking about whether there should be other measures that are more appropriate for measuring actual teacher quality.''