City school administrators began seeing teachers submitting 60 course credits — the equivalent of two master’s degrees — from Idaho State University this year to get an increase in pay. To the human resources department, this looked fishy.

How could a full-time teacher have enough time in one year to do the course work to earn 60 graduate credits? So they looked at Idaho State’s online professional development classes and realized that they cost just $55 a credit, or $165 a course, and didn’t take long to complete.

“These are self-paced videos that you click through,” said Emily Nielson, the city school system’s chief human capital officer. She said there’s no requirement to write papers or do assignments, just multiple-choice assessments.

Translating those credits into the city teachers’ current contract meant that teachers who amassed 60 course credits could up their pay by $15,000 to $20,000 a year, depending on where they are on the teaching ladder. The salary bumps were estimated to cost the school system about $1.9 million this year, but Nielson said she expects the amount to go up because teachers have until June 30 to submit their credits.

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A few weeks ago, school system leaders announced that they would no longer accept college credit from Idaho State University, a pronouncement the Baltimore Teachers Union is calling an unfair last-minute switch, coming just days after many teachers had signed up for new courses and spent hours online working on the classes.

“This whole thing is extremely frustrating, and at the core, I believe the district did this to themselves. They are having difficulty following through on the commitment,” said Zach Taylor, director of research and negotiations at the BTU.

The dispute between the teachers and the school district comes as the two sides negotiate a new contract that may not allow teachers to work their way up the career ladder as quickly. The city’s current contract allows teachers to earn extra money based on student achievement and evaluations, as well as by taking on additional assignments. College and professional development courses — required to maintain a teaching license — contribute to the climb, too.

Though they’re supposed to help teachers keep current on pedagogy, those courses can be time-consuming and expensive. Idaho State’s aren’t.

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Last week, city school leaders further infuriated the teachers by announcing that they were going to take away any pay increases they had given in the past year that were based on the Idaho credits. Nielson said they are going to count them toward professional development credit rather than toward college credit, a move that would drastically increase the number of Idaho State courses a teacher would need to take to get a salary bump.

Teachers now earn what are called Achievement Units if they take college graduate courses. In the current contract, one college credit translates to one Achievement Unit, and 12 Achievement Units will increase a teacher’s pay by one step.

But teachers need six professional development credits to earn one Achievement Unit.

Taylor said Idaho State’s classes, like those at other universities, varied in quality. Two courses in particular were popular among Baltimore teachers — one on statistics in education and another on teaching multi-lingual students who are trying to become proficient in English.

Taylor said the school system listed Idaho State on its website as an accredited university from which it would accept credits. Taking that back now is unfair to teachers, he said, and goes against the BTU contract with the school district. The union has filed a grievance, he said.

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Taylor said that several hundred teachers could lose pay and that the school system’s announcement was poorly timed. Some teachers spent as much as $1,600 and an entire weekend trying to jam in as many classes as possible online before a June 30 deadline for filing to get Achievement Unit credits. When the announcement came in early June, they realized they had wasted time and money.

“For well over a year, the district has accepted these credits,” he said. The city school system also continued to process all the credits from Idaho for the fall and spring semesters, leaving the impression that they were willing to accept the credits.

Nielson acknowledged that Idaho State was listed on the website and that it wasn’t made clear whether its courses counted as professional development or college credit, “which is unfortunate because I think that led to a lot of confusion.”

Gabriel Rodriguez, program coordinator of Idaho State’s professional development center, said 62,000 educators take their courses each year, more than 8,000 of them in Maryland. That’s 13% of teachers in the state. Neighboring Baltimore County schools accept credits from Idaho State, too.

Baltimore City schools have accepted the university’s courses “for years,” Rodriguez said. The school system even audited an Idaho State literacy course in 2022.

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“It showed them how our assessments work, it showed that these were self-paced online courses that teachers could do at their own pace,” he said.

Rodriguez said the school system approved the program’s entire self-paced course catalog in 2023. “And it wasn’t until June 4 [of this year] that our courses were not approved.”

The courses are non-degreed, Rodriguez explained, meaning they are graduate courses that cannot be applied to a degree program. Each course is between one and three credits, organized into six to eight modules with an assessment at the end of each.

“It’s important to note that for each credit, there is a requirement of 15 hours of work or learning,” the program coordinator said.

Local universities like Johns Hopkins and Towson offer graduate courses for working teachers that, by comparison, require far more time and expense. A certified elementary school teacher, for example, can enroll in Towson University’s elementary education graduate program to earn a master’s degree. Students who are also teaching full time take between three and three and a half years to finish. Tuition is $531 per credit for in-state graduate students, and it takes 33 credits to graduate.

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“Most of our teachers have been doing a lot more work” for college credits, Nielson said. “It is not fair that a small number of BTU members had been leveraging what we perceive to be a loophole.”

A similar fight over Idaho State courses happened in Fairfax County Public Schools. Teachers in the Northern Virginia school district were using credits from Idaho State’s Covid-19 Professional Development Courses back in 2022 to increase their salaries, according to The Washington Post. However, some teachers were told by the district that those credits didn’t qualify for a raise. After an investigation, the school system reversed its decision and granted the raises.

The National Council on Teacher Quality said that while they “can’t speak to Idaho State University’s professional development course options,” some institutions offer them separately from the universities’ teacher prep programs.

“In many instances, these professional development courses don’t have a professor. They are typically self-paced, online, and more akin to an online module than a graduate-level university course,” the council said in a statement.

Nielson said the district has a responsibility to make “prudent use of resources.”

The rush by teachers to take courses for credit comes at a time of uncertainty about the future of their contract. In 2010, the BTU and the school district signed contract that no other school system in the state had. Pay was based on not just on tenure or the number of degrees acquired, but also on an evaluation system linked to student achievement — Achievement Units. Some highly effective teachers could climb that ladder quickly, earning six-figure salaries.

The city was the only district in the state to use such a system, but under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, legislation passed three years ago, the city had to scrap its contract.

The union and the city reluctantly moved to adopt a new contract that will be consistent with Maryland law and the Blueprint, but the contract is not completed yet. The uncertainty about a new contract led teachers to grab any additional Achievement Units before they were no longer available, Taylor said.

The story has been updated to correct the cost of a credit at Idaho State University. The cost is $55 per credit, or $165 per course.

About the Education Hub

This reporting is part of The Banner’s Education Hub, community-funded journalism that provides parents with resources they need to make decisions about how their children learn. Read more.