An online ed degree bubble?

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The headline screamed across USA Today: "Online education degrees skyrocket." The article taps into increased interest in the remarkable growth of online education, which is now taking the world of teacher education by storm. Digging a bit deeper into the article, though, we find that most of the education degrees awarded by online providers are for people who are already certified. So what's really fueling the demand for these degrees is the same factor that's long driven demand for on-campus education degrees: compensation. 

In 16 states, districts are required to compensate teachers for accumulating advanced degrees (yes, degrees with an "s"--teachers are often paid more for getting more degrees). And even in states where this isn't the case, district collective bargaining agreements often award more pay to teachers with master's degrees. Last year we found that LAUSD spent $519 million (a quarter of its teacher payroll budget) on salary bumps to teachers who have taken graduate coursework. It makes complete sense that teachers are turning to online programs to rack up their credits as quickly and conveniently as possible. 

What should really be troubling the public is not how teachers are earning these advanced degrees, but the fact that they are being encouraged to do so at all. Time and time again, research has shown that master's degrees in education, whether earned online or on campus, have absolutely no impact on how well teachers teach. Why not use the money spent incentivizing teachers to get these degrees to pay effective teachers more?

There are signs that policymakers are beginning to get the message. Florida, Idaho, and Indiana have passed legislation that makes districts count teacher performance more than advanced degrees when it comes to teacher pay (districts in these states can still set their own salary schedules as long as they meet this criterion). At the district-level, Harrison County in Colorado is paying teachers solely based on merit, and Baltimore's new salary schedule takes teacher performance into consideration and doesn't just pay teachers more for experience and advanced degrees.

If this trend takes hold, don't be surprised if the online ed degree rocket falls back to earth.