University of Maine students wait at the UMaine field house before attending the graduation ceremony at Alfond Arena May 11, 2013. Credit: Brian Feulner

While there may be a personal and financial benefit to earning a master’s degree, there’s scant evidence that Maine high schools with better-educated teachers see more of their students go on to finish college.

A BDN Maine Focus analysis of two graduating high school classes confirmed previous research that found a weak link between the share of teachers with master’s degrees in a school and the share of students that ultimately complete two- or four-year college degrees.

While the relationship is weak across all high schools, it’s weaker or nonexistent at schools with higher levels of poverty, measured by the share of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

David Silvernail, director of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine, said he’s separately studied whether having a master’s degree matters and found reason to be “very cautious with this data.”

“Too much of the variance is explained by other factors,” Silvernail said.

However, he’s found different results in other states, where teacher education levels appear to be stronger predictors of students’ future academic performance.

Silvernail has two guesses why.

Earlier research has shown a stronger connection between student performance and teacher education levels at the high school level, where more teachers have advanced degrees in specific topics, than the elementary school level. And Maine teachers have tended to have less access to content-specific master’s programs, which Silvernail suspected could diminish the impact their advanced degrees have on future student achievement.

Second, he said, the relatively low level of variation in college-going rates and the rates of teachers with master’s degrees at Maine schools makes it more difficult to find relationships within the data.

There is a more reliable way to predict whether students at a certain school will go on to earn a college degree: Look at the poverty rate. That doesn’t mean poverty causes lower achievement. But, overall, school-level poverty remains the single strongest predictor of college degree attainment, a finding contained in a 2014 study of Maine schools.

To complicate matters, poverty and teacher education — like so many measures of Maine schools — are linked. Schools with higher numbers of students in poverty, for instance, tend to have fewer teachers with master’s degrees.

To some extent, those two variables — poverty and teacher education — reflect some of the same things. And that’s part of the difficulty of describing Maine education trends purely by the numbers.

“This is a human endeavor that is always going to be more messy than any formula that we can devise,” said Doris Santoro-Gomez, an associate education professor at Bowdoin College. “We need to really be careful about placing all of the responsibility on schools and teachers for issues we haven’t taken responsibility for as a community — things like addiction, abuse, poverty and racism.”

Schools and communities around the state are so different — and, more importantly, different in many ways. It makes them imperfect living laboratories, because there are so many possible variables at work at once.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News.

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Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.