Which school do you want to support?
Students learn from teachers, so the most direct way to enhance learning is to improve teaching.
To be effective, teachers need relevant knowledge and skills. For example, to teach math, you need to understand the subject well. But you also need communication skills, organizational skills, and relationship skills.
The education system has been built with well-intentioned incentives that are meant to help teachers improve, especially through higher education. These incentives waste enormous amounts of money and distract teachers from better uses of their time. This lesson explains how the incentives work, and suggests some approaches that might be better.
Most school districts pay teachers on the basis of a simple formula with two inputs: how many years have you worked in the district, and how many college credits have you earned beyond your undergraduate degree? Many districts offer a salary incentive for earning a masters degree without regard to the subject. (This system and alternatives to it will be explored in more depth in Ed100 Lesson 3.8, but for now this is enough.)
Teachers respond to these incentives. Most invest time and money to earn advanced degrees, often taking on additional debt to do so. In addition to increasing their pay (and ultimately their pension, which is partly based on their final salary) college courses can help teachers qualify for additional credentials that make them eligible to teach particular classes. About half of California’s teachers eventually earn a master’s degree.
This kind of incentive is very common in the US. A national review of teacher contracts showed that some version of a pay-for-degrees bump is nearly universal:
"88 percent of large districts (including the 100 largest districts in the country and the largest in each state) offer additional pay to teachers who hold master's degrees."
In short, no. There is scant evidence that earning postgraduate credits or a master's degree makes teachers better at their job. The National Center for Teaching Quality summarized the research bluntly:
"The evidence is conclusive that master’s degrees do not make teachers more effective. In fact, the evidence strongly suggests that rewarding teachers for these degrees is an inefficient use of limited public resources."
Understandably, institutions of higher education really, really want to show that advanced degrees make a difference, so they keep studying the question… with the same findings If the billions spent on ongoing education for teachers make any difference at all to students, it’s not systemically obvious.
The exception: Educators who teach math and science probably improve with additional math and science education
There's an important exception. Several studies suggest that educators who teach math and science probably improve by taking math and science courses. That's about it.
Responding to the evidence, some districts and charter schools have reconsidered their pay incentives for advanced degrees. Ed100 Lesson 3.8 will explore teacher pay systems and alternatives, and explain why they are very hard to change.
But let's return to the central question of this lesson: how do teachers improve? If taking more college classes isn't an effective way to help teachers improve in the classroom, what other strategies can school systems try?
California developed the California Standards for the Teaching Profession to provide a common definition of what quality teaching looks like, in the hope of providing some guidance. The standards cover six areas of teaching quality:
Engaging and Supporting All Students in Learning
Creating and Maintaining Effective Environments for Student Learning
Understanding and Organizing Subject Matter for Student Learning
Planning Instruction and Designing Learning Experiences for All Students
Assessing Students for Learning
Developing as a Professional Educator
Some principals and teacher leaders use these standards as guidance.
To help teachers improve in their work together, many school districts invest in training for teachers. It's usually not called "training" — the jargon term professional development (or PD, pronounced pee-dee) is more popular, perhaps to incorporate the idea that improvement can be collaborative.Professional development programs for teachers can be mandatory or voluntary, free or paid. Mandatory training generally falls within the scope of the teacher contract.
At their best, professional development programs prepare teachers to address the challenges of their work. At their worst, they distract from that work.
Occasionally, professional development programs are funded and rolled out as a way to influence or accelerate change in the classroom. For example, in 2023 many districts in California invested in professional development programs to help teachers embrace phonics to ensure that all students learn to read.
Technology has changed the way that busy people learn. This includes teachers who want to upgrade their classroom skills and engage more successfully with students. An inconspicuously-perched camera has become a major tool for self-critique and peer review. Doug Lemov, author of the book Teach Like a Champion and others, has helped many teachers build their skills. His videos of uncommonly effective teachers have become critical training for many educators.
Teachers aren't rich, but they generally live more comfortably than their students. Especially in high-poverty schools, it can be hard for teachers to understand the home and family conditions that kids return to when school lets out. Misunderstandings can go both ways: it can be hard for parents to believe that teachers understand or care about their kids' life beyond the classroom.
The pandemic temporarily and accidentally made these differences a little easier to see. In the background of video conferences with the camera on, teachers and students glimpsed one another's homes and family members. Sometimes these glimpses became teachable moments, or the basis for conversations.
Even before the pandemic, some school districts invested in parent-teacher home visits, enabling teachers to visit students' homes and meet their families. The program, which has been around for decades, is well-defined, easy to try out, and rarely sparks opposition. Home visits are voluntary for both parents and teachers, and teachers are compensated for their time. The program is popular with teachers and families, and seems to produce lasting results. It is especially potent as a way to improve attendance. (For more, see the Ed100 blog post on this topic.)
This seems a reasonable moment to re-emphasize a recurring theme: there's no magic here. Public education is complicated, personal, human work, conducted at enormous scale. It is not easy.
If formal training generally falls short, how do most teachers learn their craft? The next lesson examines the subject of teacher collaboration.
Search all lesson and blog content here.
Login with Email
We will send your Login Link to your email
address. Click on the link and you will be
logged into Ed100. No more passwords to