In 2010-11, 56% of US public school teachers had a master’s or higher degree, while only 43% of US private school teachers had a master’s or higher degree (43 percent) (source).

In 2014, only 13% of Singapore school teachers had a master's or higher degree (4233 Master's + 104 PhD, out of 32,779 teachers) (source: p. 15 of this document).

Based on these 3 data points and my possibly-erroneous presumption that Singapore schools > US private schools > US public schools, it would seem that there is a negative correlation between teaching effectiveness and whether teachers have master's or PhD degrees.

My question is: What does the current research actually say? Is there a positive, negative, or no correlation between a teacher's academic qualifications and his/her teaching effectiveness?


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    $\begingroup$ U.S. public schools have a socio-economic bias in their student populations, which I'd wager swamps the issue of the teachers' qualifications. Similarly, the social context of Singapore's schools is wildly different than in the U.S., ... again surely overwhelming and masking any issue of the teachers' qualifications. $\endgroup$ Jun 14, 2015 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ It would be useful to know what subjects these masters and phds are in. Degrees in the subject matter being taught are different than degrees in education. $\endgroup$
    – Adam
    Jun 15, 2015 at 0:03
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    $\begingroup$ It's not necessarily true that private > public schools. For example, the NAEP test broke down their data by public vs private (and adjusted for student characteristics) and it turns out that public schools are doing pretty well: nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/studies/2006461.asp $\endgroup$ Jun 15, 2015 at 1:48
  • $\begingroup$ I am a fan of causation vs correlation. Say the US number were 100%, i.e. a master's was a requirement, period. Would you still make the connection, or would you look at the (very long) list of differences between the two countries? To find a real answer to your question requires that we be able to measure "effectiveness", which I'm no so sure is possible. $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2015 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeTaxpayer: I tried to make it very clear that my question is about correlation and not about causation. $\endgroup$
    – user378
    Jun 16, 2015 at 20:37

2 Answers 2


This heavily-cited paper examines data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 and concludes that "teachers who are certified in mathematics, and those with Bachelors or Masters degrees in math, are identified with higher test scores."

More specifically, the study finds that "the results reported... show that a teacher with a BA in math or an MA in math has a statistically significant positive impact on students' achievement, while a teacher with a non-math BA or an MA has a negative impact on students' math achievement."

I am also curious if the strengthening of certification and Masters degree requirements (subsequent to this study) has improved student achievement.

Full cite:

Goldhaber, Dan D., and Dominic J. Brewer. "Why Don't Schools and Teachers Seem to Matter? Assessing the Impact of Unobservables on Educational Productivity." (1996).

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    $\begingroup$ +1 - A great paper to help answer this question. It seems the requirement for a teaching degree is misguided, the education should be in math. $\endgroup$ Jun 17, 2015 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ @JoeTaxpayer I added another quote to address your point a bit more. Note that although the study does conclude that a degree in math is preferable to other degrees, it also concludes that certification in mathematics has a positive effect on achievement. Typically certification requires coursework (or a degree) in teaching/education. $\endgroup$
    – petehern
    Jun 17, 2015 at 19:39

edit: My original reply was too long and didn't communicate my point clearly enough. This topic frustrates me because many people (including colleagues of mine) think there's a tension between academic credentials and effective teaching, as if every teacher with a math degree is some snooty, uninteractive, unapproachable scholar type. One would think that familiarity with higher level math concepts implies that you'd be more comfortable with your mathematical explanations. It's HUGELY helpful for my ability to explain things clearly in, say, a calculus course, now that I've learned the nuances behind concepts like limits and series (concepts that are widely misunderstood even by students who have a functional knowledge of them). Even lower-level courses teach deeper concepts like asymptotes where having less formal mathematical education will affect the quality of your teaching.

"Good teaching" isn't just a dichotomy of "can they explain things clearly and do they know their stuff?", since the clarity of your explanations is non-trivially affected by the depth of your mathematical knowledge. Also, several other factors are considered when someone determines that a teacher of theirs is "good" or "bad", like whether the teacher is approachable or whether their tests are fair. I'd like to see a plausible reason why teachers with more academic qualifications would be worse (or fewer/better) instead of just correlations in the original post.

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    $\begingroup$ Notice that the OP's question contains the sentence: What does the current research actually say? I do not believe this response contains anything related to "current research"... $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2015 at 4:16
  • $\begingroup$ Neither do any of the other replies? I was just giving some plausible reasons why academic qualifications would help with teaching effectiveness, which would make any broad claims to the contrary really suspect. I also pointed out some flaws with the OP using the statistics he cited to make any inferences about credentials and teaching effectiveness being negatively related. $\endgroup$ Jun 17, 2015 at 3:33

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