Q: Does it matter that Oklahoma has relatively few teachers with master’s degrees?

A: Oklahoma has one of the nation’s lowest shares of public-school teachers with master’s degrees.

But does that have any effect on student achievement?

In 2007-2008, the latest national statistics available, 29 percent of public-school teachers in Oklahoma had master’s degrees, compared with 45 percent nationally. The state ranked 47th among states and the District of Columbia.

More recently, according to surveys from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or “Nation’s Report Card,” 25 percent of Oklahoma fourth-grade students, and 29 percent of eighth grade students, had reading teachers whose highest level of education was a master’s degree in 2011. Nationally, those figures were 47 percent and 50 percent, respectively. Oklahoma’s numbers were lower for math teachers.

Only Louisiana and Texas had a lower percentage in reading among fourth and eighth graders.

Oklahoma also lagged the nation significantly in shares of fourth and eighth grade students whose teachers had other advanced degrees, mainly education specialist. Relatively few teachers have doctorates.

At first glance, federal statistics suggest that students pay a price when a teacher doesn’t have an advanced degree. Students whose teachers have a master’s scored better on average on “Nation’s Report Card” exams than students with teachers with only a bachelor’s degree.

But a growing body of research suggests this figure is misleading.

A number of studies, including five conducted between 1999 and 2006, found that having a teacher with a master’s degree makes no difference in student performance. The problem with Nation’s Report Card numbers is that they are raw survey data, as opposed to a study controlling for factors such as teachers’ experience and quality of schools, experts said.

“The evidence is conclusive that master’s degrees do not make teachers more effective,” researchers wrote in a 2005 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. “Some studies have even shown that master’s degrees have a slightly negative impact on student achievement.

“Very few studies diverge from this consensus,” the report said. “The findings of those that have are inconclusive.”

One study did find that students of high-school math teachers with a master’s degree in math performed slightly better than students of teachers without an advanced degree or with a degree in a subject other math, the council report said.

A large majority of teachers with master’s degrees have obtained them in education, not a specific subject.

Despite the findings, most states pay teachers a “master’s bump” in salary if they have advanced degrees. Oklahoma, however, pays less than most other states – a minimum of $1,200 a year – which some educators say is the reason the state has a relatively small share of teachers with higher degrees.

Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said teachers probably don’t think getting a master’s is worth the time or money unless they want the degree for personal reasons.

“It’s a matter of personal growth and reflection,” she said. “A lot of them get into teaching and decide to be a counselor or a special-education teacher, and that requires a different (advanced) degree.”

A two-year graduate degree from the University of Oklahoma’s Norman campus costs about $14,000 on average in tuition and fees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. It takes about 12 years of work at the minimum salary boost to pay off those costs.

Debate has intensified in recent years over whether it’s worth paying teachers a master’s bump.

A study released last year by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, said because research shows master’s degrees make little or no difference in student performance, the millions of dollars spent on the bump in many states would be better directed elsewhere in education. What could make that a hard sell for Oklahoma teachers is that their salaries already are relatively low, so removing the master’s bump would take away one pay incentive.

Oklahoma’s starting teacher salary for those with a bachelor’s degree is $31,600, which puts the state 42nd among all states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

If teachers want additional education, other options exist. All teachers go through staff development programs, such as core curriculum training. Some undergo the rigorous National Board Certification process, which Hampton said is tougher and can be more valuable to teachers than a master’s.

Oklahoma ranks ninth in number of National Board-certified teachers, with 3,056, according to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which grants certification. However, that represents only 7 percent of Oklahoma teachers.

Teachers who got that certification by June 30, 2010, receive an annual salary boost of $5,000, about four times more than those with a master’s degree. Teachers pay $2,565 to apply for certification. However, teachers certified after that date receive no extra money from the state because the Legislature eliminated the funding, said Tricia Pemberton, Oklahoma Department of Education spokeswoman. School districts can pay the bonus if they have the money.

Whatever paths teachers take, Hampton said it is important for them to continue learning because it ultimately benefits their students.

“I don’t know that I think (a master’s degree) gives them a better edge on teaching, but I don’t want to say it is not necessary either,” Hampton said. “Whether it’s a master’s or a national certification or one of the workshops in the summer, the goal is the game: that’s to improve education for our children.”

Support our publication

Every day we strive to produce journalism that matters — stories that strengthen accountability and transparency, provide value and resonate with readers like you.

This work is essential to a better-informed community and a healthy democracy. But it isn’t possible without your support.