A whole lot more people are earning education degrees online. Education master’s degrees may be the fast-growing online education program. This is maybe something to fix, rather than something to celebrate.

According to an article by Greg Toppo and Christopher Schnaars in USA Today:

Newly released U.S. Department of Education data finds that four big universities, operating mostly online, have quickly become the largest education schools in the USA. Last year the four — three of which are for-profit — awarded one in 16 bachelor’s degrees and post-graduate awards and nearly one in 11 advanced education awards, including master’s degrees and doctorates.

A decade ago, in 2001, the for-profit University of Phoenix awarded 72 education degrees to teachers, administrators and other school personnel through its online program, according to federal data. Last year, it awarded nearly 6,000 degrees, more than any other university. By contrast, Arizona State University, one of the USA’s largest traditional education schools, awarded 2,075 degrees, most of them on campus. Columbia University’s Teachers College awarded 1,345 degrees.

Wow, these online colleges must being doing an awesome job training American teachers, right?

Not really. Most of these degrees are basically worthless.

This is not specifically a criticism of online, or even for-profit, education. Robert Pianta of the University of Virginia’s school of education expressed some concern with this aspect of the trend to USA Today: “The thing I would be interested in knowing is the degree to which they are simply pushing these things out in order to generate dollars or whether there’s some real innovation in there.” But the problem is actually more serious than that.

Even real education programs can’t really demonstrate that they actually effectively prepare people for the classroom or make teachers better. Online programs, which are famous for cutting corners and huge economies of scale, are likely to be even less effective.

The proliferation of online education degrees is a result of some very poorly implemented policies. Teachers become eligible for higher pay when they earn degrees in education. Policy stipulates that it doesn’t matter where that degree comes from, even if it’s from an open-admissions online school, and even if it results in no improvement.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer