On Teachers and the Pursuit of an Advanced Education

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One of the most memorable scenes on television last year came from the pen of writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and the lips of actor Jeff Daniels. In the opening minutes of a pilot episode for The Newsroom, three characters are paneled on a university stage, leading to a pivotal question from a bright-eyed college student.

“What makes America the greatest country in the world?”

After a few seconds of obnoxious pandering, news anchor Will McAvoy (Daniels) unleashes a tirade of frustrations and reality checks about American literacy, incarceration rates, and diminished standards in math and science. Catching his breath, McAvoy drops down a few notches and revisits an idealistic but personal view of America as it once was. Remembering a nation that used to “care about its neighbors” and “reach for the stars,” he speaks about the growing animosity toward continuing education in America.

“We aspired to intelligence. We didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior.”

Inferiority may seem a bit harsh, but Sorkin wasn’t far off. In essence, he was writing portions of a script that reflected some of the recent negative interpretations of higher education as evidenced from political figures aspiring to the highest office.

We once yearned for a better education. We wanted our children to become more educated than we were. And those with a degree of higher education didn’t make us feel less American.

But the truth is, Americans no longer value higher education in the same way that they once did. In fact, according to a recent Gallup study, many who actually receive college degrees are now less likely to be engaged with their place of employment than those without a degree.

American professionals with only a high school diploma often move in the direction of specialized skills that they can use on a daily basis, building a sense of personal investment and professional self-worth. They become incredibly adept at whatever it is they do. On the other hand, Americans with a college degree often end up in jobs that have nothing to do with the subjects they studied, fostering endless questions about a seemingly worthless education. Why did I major in psychology?

Over the last number of years, a great mass of college graduates, unable to find work or financially rewarding positions, choose to pursue advanced degrees that will, in theory, allow them to specialize in a higher paying field of employment. At the very least, these education seekers hope for a better paying version of the same job. And like all Americans, they simply want to make a worthwhile investment into their futures; a better situation for both themselves and their families.

Unfortunately, for teachers across the nation, this investment is becoming anything but simple.

In North Carolina, teachers who double as graduate students are learning that their state officials are constantly and feverishly working to cut state-wide budgets in ways that may cause them to drop out of their respective graduate programs. In order to shave expenses at the state level, one legislative approach is to put pressure on individual school districts that offer supplementary pay for teachers with advanced degrees. Despite negotiated contract arrangements that may have inspired teachers to begin these programs in the first place, legislators believe they can save some money for the state by expanding the requirements to earn supplementary pay. More on that later.

A most peculiar discussion has arisen over the last several years in which conservatives now argue that teachers make too much money and liberals argue that they never quite make enough. The debate seems to hinge on national averages, rather than scaling realities. One side will use the highest salary figures to imagine that teachers have lucrative incomes and ungodly vacation time, while the other side will use the lowest salary figures to describe an illusion of poverty-stricken educators who can’t feed their families. Neither side accounts for the truly average teacher who isn’t measured by national percentages or numbers on a page.

Isn’t that what we reinforce about childhood education as well; a familiar belief that children are more than data?

Every school district establishes what they refer to as a salary schedule. For those who are not educators, the salary schedule establishes a scale of pay that ensures a beginning teacher won’t make nearly as much as a teacher nearing retirement who has worked in the same district for 30 years. First year teachers might make $38,250 while an experienced teacher with two decades under her belt earns $56,790.

Most of us would probably call that fair.

The financial incentive for new teachers isn’t much. Any increases, if they come, are usually in the ballpark of a $500-$600 per year bump which barely matches the rate of inflation or the quickly rising cost of living from year to year. New teachers plan to get paid very little and are almost always rewarded for low expectations. Theoretically, if they do their time and stick around in the profession, staying in their districts for at least 20 years, these teachers could probably earn a $15,000-$25,000 difference in pay by the end of that same period.

But more often than not, teachers will change their residency from one district to another or one state to another. Depending on the standards of an individual school district, the transferring teacher may have to start over, but typically, they will drop at least a few notches on the salary schedule with their new employer.

When it comes to the profession, teachers are not merely day care attendants who babysit for seven, eight, or nine hours each day. Rather these are men and women trained and highly qualified to build the minds and spirits of developing children. They never enter education for the money, but they do hope to keep up with other professionals who specialize in a particular field of expertise. But over the last decade, many districts have maintained a salary freeze, meaning that the miniscule but incremental raise on the teacher’s salary schedule is completely ignored.

Some find supplemental work at a part time job. Others will sponsor a school function or two.

And then there are the teachers who sincerely believe that an advanced degree will help them to become better educators, complimented by a slight boost in pay. In the past, school districts were almost always on board, frequently leading orientation sessions with lines like, “we encourage you to expand your education and pursue advanced degrees.” A body of highly educated teachers reflects positively on the district, much like any successful business that has employees in pursuit of professional development, licenses, or specialized certifications.

Investing into an advanced education is not cheap, so like every other American, teachers consider the possible returns on their investment. If I spend two years in a program while working full time, lose nights and weekends with my family, and take out a loan to cover the initial costs of graduate school, will my time and money be rewarded in the end?

Fair question.

As one of his first acts in office, Governor Rick Scott of Florida signed what he called The Student Success Bill, otherwise known as Senate Bill 736; an ongoing headache for district personnel who must inform aspiring graduate student employees or new employees with graduate degrees that it is no longer enough to simply pursue a master’s program or possess the documents of an advanced education in order to be compensated for that education. The purpose of Senate Bill 736 was to achieve higher standards for teachers, but as an applied law, it posed a discouraging problem for well-meaning teachers with advanced degrees. Such laws have popped up in other states as well.

Consider the following scenario.

Karen Watts, a teacher who manages a second grade classroom near Asheville, NC finds that her students respond incredibly well to newer methods of instructional technology. Fascinated by developments in technology and hoping to become an expert on the subject, she looks at a nearby university and learns that they offer a Masters in Instructional Technology.

Perfect, she says.

Taking into consideration the views of her school district, this relatively experienced teacher considers what they will do, as a supportive entity, to endorse her vision of an advanced education. According to the salary schedule supplied on her district website, she learns that a master’s degree would earn her a $4,000 pay increase. This would, she believes, help to cover the cost of her investment into the degree after about three or four years, eventually leading to an actual supplementary income.

Karen enters the university, completes her degree, and receives the supplement from her district as a way of congratulating her for the time and money she invested. Makes sense, right?

Not anymore.

What our ambitious teacher may not realize today is that her certification is in elementary education and if she pursued it fully, her advanced degree would be in the field of instructional technology. According to legislators searching for a way to cut the state budget, those are two very different things.

Since Karen does not teach instructional technology, nor does she hold a certification in instructional technology, her advanced degree may as well have come from a cheap, non-accredited college. A degree for the fun of it, they might say. It has no supplementary value.

She can certainly use the knowledge she gained to better her students, but she will never be recognized, financially or otherwise, for having achieved an advanced degree. Karen soon learns that others are going through similar challenges and word spreads that the pursuit of higher education simply isn’t worth the investment.

More often than we might care to admit, the goal of seeking an advanced education has always been one of the ways that Americans engage in the pursuit of happiness. Granted, such personal pursuits will always be riddled with challenges and roadblocks that we must overcome, but what a shame when the final achievement of that happiness is diminished by the political pursuits of an equally ambitious government.