Where’s MY Bonus? More Twisted Language From Ed “Reformers”

The language alchemists of education “reform” – the flingers of sanguine sardines – are at it again.

Just before Thanksgiving, roughly half of America’s public school teachers – the half who hold master’s degrees – might have thought they had something new to be thankful for. Specifically, the Associated Press printed that teachers with master’s degrees get a bonus of about $10,000. “Every year,” the author writes, “American schools pay more than $8.6 billion in bonuses to teachers with master’s degrees.”

If you’re a teacher with a master’s degree; you’re probably asking “Where’s MY bonus?”

But alas, there is no bonus – for you or any other such teacher. The AP article, titled “Economists Call for End to Teachers’ Degree Bonuses”, is yet another example of language manipulation on the part of self-proclaimed education “reformers”, cantingly crafted to rend public opinion of teachers.

The term “bonus” implies something extra. Dictionary definitions include “something given or paid over and above what is due”, and “a sum of money granted or given to an employee in addition to regular pay.” The choice to use the word “bonus” is no accident. In the business world, the term “bonus” means just that – pay above and beyond salary.

The master’s degree money earned by teachers is not a “bonus”, but is part of teachers’ contract salaries. Nonetheless, the author calls it “bonus” pay repeatedly throughout the article. This is an obvious attempt to paint a part of teachers’ salaries as a decadent luxury. The author actually likens this pay to a fattening frivolity; in that cutting it is “more unpopular than cutting chocolate milk from the school cafeteria menu.”

How extravagant are these master’s degree salaries? In Lawrence, Kansas, a beginning teacher with a bachelor’s degree earns $34,380. With a master’s degree, a first-year teacher could earn $37,080. To place these salaries in perspective, consider that kids in a family of four will qualify for federal free/reduced lunches if total household income is below $40,793. (It is unclear whether or not this federal assistance covers chocolate milk).

With a bachelor’s degree, a new teacher would have to advance on Lawrence’s salary matrix for 12 years before his kids were off of reduced-price lunches. With a master’s degree, a teacher’s kids could be off the dole in a mere 7 years. Some “bonus.”

Having mislabeled a sizable chunk of teacher pay as an extravagant bonus, the author sets forth to demonize half the nation’s teachers by arguing that this money is “wasted.” The article cites Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a speech to the privatization/charter-friendly American Enterprise Institute, as saying “master’s degree bonuses are an example of spending money on something that doesn’t work.”

Duncan, who infamously called Hurricane Katrina the best thing to happen to New Orleans public schools, now says “the economy has given the nation an opportunity to make dramatic improvements in the productivity of its education system.” Translation: let’s use the recession as an excuse to pay teachers less and pocket the difference.

Bill Gates is also quoted, speaking to the Council of Chief State School Officers about his home state of Washington. “More than half our teachers get it,” Gates said of master’s degree salaries. “That’s more than $300 million every year that doesn’t help kids.”

Doesn’t help kids? How many teachers would – or could – continue teaching if their pay were cut several thousand dollars?

Perhaps if their pay were cut, teachers would seek more lucrative careers like computer programming. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Department of Labor indicate the average starting salary for a computer programmer with bachelor’s degree is $61,407 – more than most teachers will ever be paid. With a master’s degree in computer programming, the initial salary jumps to $80,250 and may grow to well over $135,000 – almost triple the national average teachers’ salary.

Ignoring this clear dissonance in the recognized value of master’s degrees, Gates proceeds to blame teachers’ unions for the enormous, wasteful expense of teachers’ exorbitant salaries. Gates chided “of course, re-structuring pay systems is like kicking a bee hive.”

Gates’ choice of analogy – teachers as mindless, disposable workers; interchangeable and impotent – is worth an entire treatise by itself. And though Gates is likely unaware how the gender demographic of teachers compares to Hymenopteran social order, his words still inject a sexist sting (and perhaps drone of suppressed misogyny).

His overt message, though, is that teachers and their unions are forcing school districts to “waste” tax dollars on master’s degree “bonuses.”

According to the AP writer, this money is “wasted” because ninety percent of teachers’ master’s degrees are in education rather than in content-area fields. In what other profession is an advanced degree in the professional field considered a liability rather than an asset? Good question.

Nonetheless, to make this assertion look official it is attributed to Marguerite Roza, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. CRPE is a pro-charter, pro-privatization entity that includes in its mission the premise that public schools are failing. CRPE counts the Gates Foundation among its major financers, and Roza has since taken leave from CRPE to serve as senior data and economic advisor at the Gates Foundation.

The AP writer also cites CRPE research to assert that students of teachers with master’s degrees show no better achievement than those taught by teachers without master’s degrees. Since the organization is built on the premise that public schools are failing – not to mention who finances their “research” – it’s a safe bet that these studies fall into the same category of pseudo-science and slick statistics that permeate the business-model school reform movement.

Sanguine sardine or crimson kipper, by any name this “teacher bonuses are destroying public schools” nonsense is just the latest catch phrase on a stringer full of red herring. Teachers’ extravagant pay is not the problem.

Well, it IS the problem if your goal is to privatize public education and skim profits from public funds. And it IS the problem if your goal is to sell the nation massive software database systems to homogenize curricula and track the standardized test scores of a hundred million kids. And it IS the problem if you’d rather phase out flesh-and-blood teachers altogether in favor of online instruction.

But if you’re really concerned about kids who struggle in school, you must refuse to accept this relentless language manipulation from “$chool Deformer$” and instead tackle the real problems these kids face; the greatest of which is poverty.

Diane Ravitch recently called Gates out on his disingenuous concern for public education. Responding to Gates’ rhetorical taunting of her in Newsweek, Ravitch said “I wonder why a man of his vast wealth spends so much time trying to figure out how to cut teachers’ pay….most of whom earn less than he pays his secretaries at Microsoft.”

With a personal wealth of $64 billion and counting, Gates could pay the salaries of about 1.3 million teachers – with master’s degrees. He might save his home state of Washington from “wasting” money on teachers’ salaries, but that isn’t the real issue.

Ravitch spells the real issue out loud and clear: “The single biggest correlate with low academic achievement is poverty. The United States today has a child poverty rate of over 20%, and it is rising. This is a national scandal.”

Then, she delivers the coup de grace: “Mr. Gates, why don’t you address the root cause of low academic achievement, which is not ‘bad teachers’, but poverty. If anyone can afford to do it, surely you can.”

Then again, fighting poverty doesn’t sell much software.

Comments (7)

  1. Hi Dave,

    Unfortunately your article misses the point on pay for advanced degrees.

    I can’t think of anyone credible in this discussion arguing for paying teachers less – they are arguing for paying teachers differently. There is a glut of research showing that the MA has no association with good teaching, yet we incentivize and pay billions annually for teachers to get these degrees.

    Want proof teachers respond to financial incentives – go down to any university on the day they hand out graduate degrees and count how many education degrees are granted compared to EVERYTHING else.

    In sum, this is a waste of the finite (and shrinking) money that we put into education.

    The labor economists are telling us to plow the dollars paid for MA pay back into teacher salaries in a way aligned with something schools actually want to accomplish (great teaching and learning) or to address a teacher labor market reality (raising the base pay for new-to-the-field teachers, getting teachers in hard to staff subjects, high poverty schools, or special education).

    The argument isn’t to pay teachers less. It’s to use the money we’ve been putting in to things that don’t matter in terms of good teaching (like MA pay) and reallocate it back into base pay, performance pay, or market-based pay.

    This whole discussion of teacher pay could use less rhetoric and more clear thinking.

    Thanks much for your piece on this topic and creating a forum where an open debate can occur.

    Jason Glass
    Columbus, OH

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  3. Unfortunately, Jason, you missed my point. That being that the self-proclaimed education reformers deliberately use misleading language in order to taint public opinion of public school teachers. The repeated use of the term “bonus” being the case-in-point. Masters degree pay is not a “bonus” as understood in business-world terms, and you know that.

    I should thank you for illustrating my point about language manipulation, for in your use of the phrase “hand out graduate degrees” you are clearly trying to paint such degrees as worthless and unearned.

    Here is the reality about why so many teachers earn masters degrees: teaching licenses must be renewed (typically every five years) and this requires ongoing college coursework. Hence, after several license renewal cycles most teachers will have earned masters degrees – paid for out-of-pocket.

    If practicing teachers didn’t earn more money for this effort and out-of-pocket expense, what is currently a 50% rookie attrition rate would certainly skyrocket.

    I find it interesting that in every attack on teacher compensation from self-proclaimed education reformers, the focus is 100% on the teachers (and their unions). Remember, there are two parties to every teaching contract: the teachers and the local, elected boards of education. If a community doesn’t like the way its teachers are attracted, hired, paid, and retained; perhaps they should elect a different school board.

    Likewise, it is reasonable to assume that the local teachers know what they need in exchange for their time and talent. If compensation for furthering their professional education and maintaining their license is what they need, so be it. The hubris of armchair education philanthropists is astounding in this regard. Frankly, unless Bill Gates gets himself elected to my local school board, the agreement reached between my employer and my union is none of his business.

    Speaking of Gates, I see that your organization – Battelle for Kids – lists the Gates Foundation among its collaborators. I assume “collaboration” means that the Gates Foundation funds your organization, but please correct me if I’m wrong. Given that relationship, it’s no surprise that you are here defending Gates’ attack on teacher compensation systems. It’s what you’re paid to do.

  4. Hi David,

    You are quite right about teachers chasing advanced degrees because in many states they are required to by law. Given the overwhelming amount of evidence that advanced degrees have no association with good teaching unless its in the content area being taught, I would concur that these laws are counter-productive and do much to reinforce the myth that credentials lead to better instruction. Clearly, this is not the case.

    I would also concur with you that education administrators, school boards, legislators, governors, and the public have all been complicit along with teachers and unions in getting to the place we are now in terms of the non-strategic way we compensate teachers. I encourage a full confrontation of this problem on all fronts. We are better if we can work together to reach a solution on this agreed upon problem.

    While I am pleased we have found some common ground, I must disagree with your assessment that the attrition rate of rookie teachers would skyrocket if the incentive pay for advanced degrees were removed. Rather, I would argue that we could decrease the attrition rate of new to the field teachers by redistributing the money way pay for advanced degrees into early years base pay for educators. The attrition rates for educators is directly correlated with the slope of the traditional salary scale. That is, young teachers leave the field because in many states new teacher pay is barely above the poverty line. Veteran teachers hang on and hang on because toward the end of their careers there is a tremendous incentive (compounded by the retirement system) to come back for another year.

    While I appreciate our exchange, I must admit I am disappointed in your attempt to undermine my points by an attack on my character and my organization. I won’t dignify your shot with a response – I stand behind the reputation of BFK as a collaborator and only ask that you engage the points I raise rather than trying to discredit me or my organization.

    Insult is the lowest form of criticism.

    Happy New Year to you and your family,

    Jason Glass
    Des Moines, IA

  5. Jason,

    There is no “evidence” that advanced degrees have no association with learning. Show me ONE peer-reviewed study published in a scientific journal….? Show me ONE study anywhere that placed the rookies/BS degree teachers in total isolation from the veteran/MS degree teachers – no collaboration to confound the data…?
    No, you do not “concur” with me, re – admins, BOE’s, etc., being “complicit” with teachers/unions in getting to a “non-strategic” compensation system…because I never said that. I said the current pay system is negotiated between employer & employee and is nobody else’s business; save for voting in school board elections. Again, thank you for the examples of language-twisting strategies that permeate corporate ed-reform efforts.
    I didn’t attack your character or your organization, I simply pointed out where your money comes from. If that qualifies as an insult, that says far more about you and your financiers than it does about me.


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  7. Wonderful article pinpointing the lack of focus in education reform on better educating our students, and the laziness of those who could do more to sit back and point fingers rather than trying to make a difference (in such prevalent problem areas as poverty, affecting every aspect of a student’s and family’s resources). Thank you, also, for being realistic about where teachers lie on the pay scale compared to many adversaries (and proponents alike). My school district pays $27,000 starting, which is less than my husband and I currently make part time, as non college graduates, who didn’t pay for degrees. Finally, I must appreciate your support for the education offered by the master’s programs. (“In what other profession is an advanced degree in the professional field considered a liability rather than an asset?”) I must wonder what level of expertise, experience, and education we would prefer the nation’s children to benefit from? And I do see that Jason has not responded to your request for a peer-reviewed study (what might have been an interesting source for so many similarly unfounded arguments).

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