Making the grade

Indiana teachers continue their education, despite a recently nixed pay incentive.

Advanced degrees may not have teachers in the Hoosier State seeing dollar signs, after a pay incentive encouraging educators to go beyond the undergraduate level was crossed off the books by state lawmakers three years ago.

But that hasn’t deterred Colleen Barr, a fourth-grade teacher at Forest Park Elementary in Brazil, Ind., who is working on a master’s degree in elementary education at Indiana State University.

“I think I can speak for all teachers when I say we didn’t go into teaching for the money and the perks,” said Barr, who anticipates completing her degree next summer. “As a teacher, you always want to be up-to-date on new teaching strategies and how to better your students. (Earning a master’s degree) will give me new strategies to implement in my classroom, and I hope to continue learning new ways to reach each and every student that walks through my doors.”

Indiana’s teacher pay was tied primarily to longevity and education until legislation passed in 2011, permitting school districts to evaluate pay raises using a performance-based system incorporating factors, such as evaluations, leadership responsibilities and helping meet student needs.

A provision included in the legislation allows teachers on track to receive a master’s degree by 2014 to be awarded the pay incentive provided under the old system.

“Now an advanced degree can only count a maximum of one-third toward a salary increase,” said Terry McDaniel, associate professor in the department of educational leadership at the Bayh College of Education. “Basically, every school must have a compensation program that requires teachers to meet district-established qualifications in order to get a raise. The additional learning teachers get taking courses toward a master’s degree can also help them earn Professional Growth Plan points needed to renew a teaching license.

About 56 percent of K-12 public school teachers nationwide had advanced degrees in 2012, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Nearly 63 percent of Indiana’s K-12 public school teachers held master’s degrees during the same time.

Students listen at the Bayh College of Education. (Indiana State University Photography Services)

Students listen at the Bayh College of Education. (Indiana State University Photography Services)

Indiana State’s master of education in elementary program had 20 students in 2003 and 21 students in 2008. The program’s enrollment fell to six students in 2013.

Despite only school administrators being required to obtain advanced degrees, the additional knowledge is valuable for teachers too, said Denise Collins, associate dean in the BCOE.

“It’s widely known to be important for teachers to keep their skills sharp, and continued education helps teachers remain lifelong learners,” she said.

When the state announced that the financial incentive for teachers who attain advanced degrees would be dropped, 1981 Indiana State graduate and superintendent of Speedway Schools Ken Hull saw an influx of teachers looking to complete their master’s degrees by the 2014 deadline.

“I saw a slight decline (in teachers pursuing advanced degrees) after that the graduate degree was removed from licensing requirements,” he said. “Now I see more people pursuing degrees in school administration, rather than elementary or secondary education. I suspect this is because the administrative degree likely gives more professional options in the future.”

Speedway Schools chooses to recognize the accomplishment of effective teachers who complete advanced degrees with a $2,500 increase in their base salary.

“There are many reasons we remain steadfast in our belief in a graduate degree. First and foremost, to be a great teacher, one must be a continuous learner. When the university grants a graduate degree, it is confirming very specific standards,” Hull said. “The profession is rapidly changing and the university is a research-based model in which best teaching practices are tested, developed, confirmed and taught. University programs have the foundation of data and research — not hunches and hopes.”

When students see their teachers demonstrate “a personal love for, and commitment to, life-long learning,” Hull said the positive results are predictable.

“Our high school teachers post the names and mascots of their high schools, their undergraduate schools and their graduate schools at the entry to their classrooms,” he said. “They are hoping to inspire their students to set lofty educational goals — ‘If Mr. Smith can do it, then I can do it, too.’”

Danny Tanoos (Indiana State University Photography Services)

Danny Tanoos (Indiana State University Photography Services)

All professionals need continued education to improve their skills, and teachers are no exception, said Vigo County School Corp. Superintendent Danny Tanoos, who first earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Indiana State in 1979 and has since completed a master’s degree in education, curriculum and instruction, an educational specialist degree and an administrative certificate.

“I truly believe it is important for our teachers and administrators to be kept up-to-date on techniques and strategies in education, not only through workshops and professional development, but also through the challenge of going back to school and getting advanced degrees,” he said.

Tanoos said he sees fewer teachers pursue advanced degrees, often because of the financial burden. But, he added, Vigo County Schools does offer a pay incentive to teachers who earn a master’s degree or Ph.D.

While Tanoos returned for a master’s degree, because it was a state requirement that teachers have a master’s degrees in their first five years of teaching, he said returning to school kept him attuned to education trends.

“I’ve seen great work happening at Indiana State and College of Education since I received my first degrees there in 1979,” he said. “I know how difficult it is to work all day and you’re tired and just want to go home at the end of the day, but the challenges of my education at Indiana State kept me in-tune with the current trends in education, which helped me in my profession.”

Teachers continue turning to Indiana State’s advanced degree programs to enhance their licenses with certifications, including blind and low vision or special education, said Judy Sheese, assistant dean for teacher education and community outreach.

There have been numerous changes to Indiana’s teacher licensing rules in the last several decades, like in the ’70s and ’80s when teachers were required to get a master’s degree within their first five years of teaching — or within the first 10 years with one allowed extension.

“Teachers knew they had to have their master’s degree back then, so maybe they came back to college but weren’t always as interested in concentrating on their studies as they were about making sure they met the state’s requirement,” McDaniel said. “I think a lot of educators who come back for advanced degrees are more serious about it and do so because they genuinely want to be better teachers.”

Melanie Beaver talks to a student in one of her seventh-grade English classes at West Vigo Middle School. (Tony Campbell/Indiana State University)

Melanie Beaver talks to a student in one of her seventh-grade English classes at West Vigo Middle School. (Tony Campbell/Indiana State University)

Always striving to be a better teacher this year than the last, Melanie Beaver, a West Vigo Middle School seventh-grade English teacher and three-time Indiana State degree recipient, credits her continued education with helping achieve that goal.

“I’ve always believed that you should never stop learning, whether that means taking charge of your own professional development or earning an advanced degree, and I feel the additional education I’ve received makes me more knowledgeable in my profession,” she said.

Beaver graduated in 1993 with an elementary education degree and in 1998 with a master’s in education. She served as a teacher in residency at the BCOE while on sabbatical during the 2009-10 school year, before graduating with a doctorate in curriculum, instruction and media technology in 2012.

While she achieved both advanced degrees under the previous law that allows her to receive a pay incentive, Beaver said she’s more focused on the learning experiences her degrees have brought her as she educates Terre Haute youth.

“I don’t want to be a principal, and I don’t need a Ph.D. to teach middle school English, but I do want to know everything I can about the craft of teaching children to read deeply and write thoughtfully,” she said. “I never want to stop learning about the art of good teaching. Getting an advanced degree helped me define the journey I needed to take in search of the professional and personal renewal I was seeking, and I feel confident now when I share my practice with others. I am more passionate about teaching now, in my 21st year, than I was when I started. That’s a good feeling.”

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