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Graduate degrees and teacher pay: What we know and questions still to answer

Six years ago the General Assembly eliminated salary increases for teachers earning a graduate degree. Now, graduate degree pay is back in the news. Governor Cooper’s state budget proposal includes a full reinstatement of graduate degree pay, and legislation with bi-partisan support seeks to reinstate salary increases for those earning a graduate degree in their area of teaching.

As pay bumps for graduate degrees gain traction again, it is important to establish the goals of these salary supplements and to ask what we know and what we do not know about graduate degree pay.

North Carolina lawmakers need to do a better job of clarifying the goal(s) of graduate degree pay. Is the state rewarding teachers for being more effective than their peers who hold an undergraduate degree only?  Is the state rewarding teachers for becoming more effective than they were before earning a graduate degree? Or is North Carolina incentivizing teachers, regardless of effectiveness differences, for pursuing continued learning?

Answers to these questions matter, because they help frame our expectations as to whether graduate degree pay is worth the investment.

Most graduate degree research examines the impact of teachers on student achievement. On average, these studies show that teachers with a graduate degree are no more effective than peers with an undergraduate degree only or than themselves before earning the degree. With a few exceptions, teachers with a graduate degree do not make larger contributions to student achievement. However, this finding deserves more nuanced attention, particularly around the content of the graduate degree. For example, do we really expect a graduate degree in school administration to impact teacher effectiveness in elementary grades mathematics?

Recent research from the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC) shows that middle and high school mathematics teachers with a graduate degree in mathematics (i.e. an in-area graduate degree) are more effective than peers with an undergraduate degree only. Likewise, in several subject-areas, teachers with a graduate degree in their area of teaching are more effective than they were before earning that degree. These positive results are modest in size but fit with a broader body of research showing benefits to teachers who acquire knowledge and skills in their area of teaching.

Given a primary focus on student achievement, we know less about whether graduate degrees impact other important outcomes. Work in North Carolina — by Helen Ladd and Lucy Sorensen — indicates that middle school students are absent less often when taught by a teacher with a graduate degree. Our own work at EPIC shows that teachers with a graduate degree earn higher evaluation ratings than their peers with an undergraduate degree only. These evaluation results are particularly strong for teachers with an in-area graduate degree.

So what does this all mean for North Carolina? It means that policymakers need to clearly articulate their goals in reconsidering graduate degree pay. Success is relative to benchmarks that we establish. It also means that policymakers need to be informed by what we know about graduate degrees while acknowledging the unknown. We do not yet know whether graduate degrees are related to other student and school outcomes nor the broader contributions that graduate degree holders might make to the community and success of a school.

Reinstating graduate degree pay is a big decision for our state. We should approach it fully cognizant of our goals, research evidence, and unanswered questions.

Kevin Bastian

Kevin Bastian is a Senior Research Associate at UNC-Chapel Hill and the Director of Research at the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina.