Editor’s note: This commentary is by Brian Cina, a member of the Burlington School Board who is a clinical social worker in private practice in downtown Burlington. He is also an Old North End community organizer for neighborhood revitalization through ISGOOD (Isham Street Gardening and Other Optimistic Doings).Spurred by current economic realities, the Burlington School District has prioritized spending on evidence-based strategies to improve student learning. As part of that effort, the school board is seeking a change in contract language in our fiscal year 2017 contract negotiations with the teachers’ union, Burlington Education Association. That provision currently requires the district to reimburse teachers for graduate courses. According to researchers, this reimbursement practice does not necessarily produce better teachers.
Currently, the Burlington teacher contract provides for nearly $1,900 of tuition reimbursement per teacher every year. In addition, as teachers reach various levels of accumulated credits, the contract requires the district to provide additional pay raises averaging $3,089 per teacher (this is on top of annual raises that can exceed $4,000). The cost to the district of funding this contract provision averages $300,000 a year.
There are serious problems with the current contract language. First, the contract provides no mechanism to ensure that the courses selected by teachers are aligned with the district’s educational priorities. Second, the request for reimbursement is made after the teacher has already enrolled in the course of their own choice. Third, rejection of applications can lead to grievances filed by the Burlington Education Association (BEA), which are costly to resolve. And fourth, there is no requirement that teachers remain in the district after they have received this benefit.
Although the board values higher education and the positive general impact that it can have on the development of the whole person, we have to be strategic about how we allocate our limited resources.
Most importantly, however, is the fact that there is little evidence that this type of investment actually improves student outcomes. An October 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal noted: “The nation spends an estimated $15 billion annually on salary bumps for teachers who earn master’s degrees, even though research shows the diplomas don’t necessarily lead to higher student achievement.”1 In 2014, the Brookings Institution wrote: “The fact that teachers with a master’s degree are no more effective in the classroom, on average, than their colleagues without advanced degrees is one of the most consistent findings in education research.”2
Given the research that there is generally no discernable relationship between graduate degree status and measurable student outcomes, the district cannot afford to spend resources on a program that doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of education we offer our students. Does this mean the district should eliminate all efforts to improve the skills of our teaching staff? Absolutely not! The district already spends over $1.5 million every year on other professional development initiatives to improve the quality of instruction, and should continue to support professional growth in a variety of ways.
Although the board values higher education and the positive general impact that it can have on the development of the whole person, we have to be strategic about how we allocate our limited resources. The board believes that professional development dollars are best spent on focused, proven efforts to bridge the gap between teacher skills and student needs.
Going forward, if a district administrator determines that teacher participation in a particular graduate course is likely to measurably improve their capacity to meet documented student needs, then the district could choose to subsidize participation in the course. Savings from this policy change would generally be used to support more cost-effective professional development activities based on identified student needs and could even be used to increase teacher wages. The board has therefore proposed that the tuition reimbursement requirement be removed from the teachers’ contract and that a joint teacher-administrator study committee explore alternative compensation models designed to reward teachers based on criteria other than the simple accumulation of graduate credits.
1 Banchero, Stephanie. “Pay Raises for Teachers With Master’s Under Fire.” Wall Street Journal. Oct. 7, 2013. Web. Sept. 9, 2016.
3 see also Chingos, M. and P. Peterson, 2011. “It’s easier to pick a good teacher than to train one: Familiar and new results on the correlates of teacher effectiveness.” Economics of Education Review 30(3): 449-465.