A Masters Doesn’t Make You a Better Teacher

I am in a masters program for education right now. I am doing it because it’s the only way that I can get my teaching license. It costs quite a bit and I can only afford it on a first-year teacher’s salary because of the Americorps grant that (that’s somehow still taxable) I’m given as a Teach For America Corpsmembers. To be very honest it is sometimes difficult for me to see how my master’s classes affect my actual teaching.

As a first year teacher it is very difficult just to find enough time to get through the normal school day, the added stress of graduate school makes it difficult for me to find the energy to really integrate anything new into my teaching. But, even aside from that, I work in such a structured charter school that even if I wanted to integrate anything into my classes I really wouldn’t have the ability to do so since my curriculum is already so rigid. To make things more unclear, I have genuinely liked my professors and the classes have sometimes been therapeutic in how they can restructure my mindset about my students.

I’m left at this sort of personal standstill. I don’t have any control over being in a master’s program now. I know that if I finish my master’s program and stay in education it would selfishly pay off in terms of salary gains, however I can’t honestly say that it has made me a better teacher. On a systems level it seems like it could end up being a serious drain on the system since teachers both get government support to finish masters programs and then also make more money off the state when they finish their masters. At least anecdotally, none of my teachers in high school who had doctorates of education were any better, but I’m genuinely curious what the economics research shows. So here are a few leading studies on the topic.

Study 1: How to Improve the Supply of High-Quality Teachers (2004)

This is sort of a weird study conducted by the Brookings Institute. They find the following conclusion:

“a master’s degree has no systematic relationship to teacher quality as measured by student outcomes. This immediately raises a number of issues for policy, because advanced degrees invariably lead to higher teacher salaries and because advanced degrees are required for full certification in a number of states. More than half of current teachers in the United States have a master’s degree or more.”

Despite finding no relationship between teacher quality and having a master’s degree, they don’t outright advocate against requiring a master’s degree to teach in a state. They even argue that “ the trick for those advocating tightened certification requirements is coming up with standards that are meaningfully correlated with teaching quality, even in the absence of strong evidence.”

If you do want to increase the supply of quality teachers I suppose that you could use increased credentialing as a possible method, but again it seems like an expensive waste of time compared to possibly more effective solutions to filtering out bad teachers like more cognitively difficult entrance exams and a more competitive teaching labor market mediated by higher salaries (I’m not going to go into those two ideas right now but I’m drafting some reviews of the research on these for later).

Study 2: How and Why do Teacher Credentials Matter for Student Achievement? (2007)

This study is more of a straightforward paper rather than a policy prescription like the previous one. But the conclusion is about the same.

Charles ClotfelterHelen Ladd, and Jacob Vigdor study the effect of teacher credentialing on student achievement using data on 75 percent of all children in North Carolina in grades 3, 4, and 5 from 1994 to 2003. Their results show that having a graduate degree has little effect on student achievement. Teachers who entered teaching with a master’s degree, or who earned it within five years of beginning to teach, were as effective as teachers without a master’s degree. Teachers who earned a master’s degree more than five years after they started teaching were less effective than those without master’s degrees.


Now to be fair these two studies are both about 15 years old and they are analyzing data that is almost 25 years old. The education system has changed considerably since then and 36 states + DC still require a masters to teach. If this research is so old and well cited you’d expect that either policy would have responded to it by now or that new data would have shown that these two studies were wrong. Instead, neither of those things have happened. The majority of studies starting in 2000 all the way up to 2015 found that “the composite scores of both middle and high school students whose teachers held a master’s degree were not significantly different from the scores of students whose teachers did not hold a master’s degree.” The few studies that challenge this conclusion found only marginal gains that aren’t corroborated well by other studies.

The majority of research on this topic shows that a master’s degree does not improve teacher quality. Despite that, a massive amount of states require and subsidize graduate school education. This seems like a very big and costly mistake that puts expensive barriers to entry on becoming a teacher. However, the mistake is very understandable. The education system does not seem to be doing as well as we want it to, one sort of intuitive way to try to fix that is by getting better teachers. So we increase the restrictions on becoming a teacher in hopes that more educated teachers will be better teachers. What it instead does is create a costlier barrier to entry that does not improve teacher quality while also leading to a bigger teacher shortage problem. We’ve known this story for 15 years now but we haven’t changed a thing. I don’t know exactly why that is, but we still have time to choose sensible policy.

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