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Today research says advanced degrees don't improve student learning. But what about tomorrow?


Randy Fair teaches at Centennial High School in Roswell. He holds a doctorate in the philosophy of teaching and learning. (You can read more about him at this Emory site .)

By Randy Fair

Gov. Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Panel’s recent proposal to no longer pay teachers based on experience and advanced degrees reminds me of my first years teaching in Fulton County. The panel is basing their proposal on “research” that shows that advanced degrees do not necessarily improve results for students.

Twenty-eight years ago when I started teaching at Palmetto High School, we were told all the “research” showed larger school settings were more beneficial for students. Palmetto High was a small, but tremendous school. Most teachers lived in the community, and the faculty, parents and students all knew and cared about each other.

Three years after I started teaching there, despite how well the school was doing, the school had to be closed and consolidated with another school because of all the advanced “research.”  Many tears were shed when Palmetto High closed its doors.

Twenty years later when I was teaching at Milton High School, the population of the school had soared to around 2,500 students. We started a process of dividing the school into separate “academies” because all the “research” showed students benefited from being in smaller, community-based settings. These academies were an attempt to simulate what Palmetto High had naturally achieved. Apparently, no one could see the irony in this situation.

If one is only measuring student achievement based on standardized test scores, perhaps the current research regarding advanced degrees is accurate. However, there are intangibles that can’t be measured by standardized tests.

One of these intangibles is the confidence students often gain when they have a teacher with experience and advanced degrees. This past summer, I was in the role of student in two workshops, one an English Language Advanced Placement conference and the other a Holocaust Education seminar at the Breman Museum. As soon as the instructors began, the first thing I wanted to know is how much experience they had and the degrees they held. The credentials of the instructors at both workshops were so impressive that it would have been impossible for anyone to doubt the relevance of the material being delivered.

A more important intangible that can’t be measured with a test score is the example a teacher with an advanced degree brings to the classroom. Students can be confident teachers with advanced degrees have a commitment to and a love of learning. The education and experience my teachers brought to the classroom inspired me to want to someday know as much as they did.

Most likely, these policies will not go into effect until after I am retired, but I fear what these policies will mean for new Georgia teachers. Uncoupling the pay of teachers from education and experience will mean new teachers will be at the mercy of the whims of their supervisors. Administrators may give teachers they personally like better evaluations, and, in turn, these teachers will receive higher compensation.

Now, teachers who teach at schools in affluent areas tend to have higher student scores. These teachers will receive higher pay simply because of the advantages their students already possess.

More importantly, if the past is any guide, it might well be 20 years from now the “research” will show the complete opposite from what it purportedly shows now.

When I was in my doctoral program, people were fond of repeating the adage, “Torture numbers long enough and they will confess to anything.” It might be that the common sense of the people working in the actual school setting is more accurate than the theoreticians and their statistics.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.