CREDO’s national study of online charter schools has prompted even ardent supporters to call for “tough changes” in how they are regulated. Released in tandem with Mathematica’s survey of operational practices of e-schools and an analysis of state online charter policy by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), the findings showed that Ohio online charter students learned seventy-nine fewer days in reading and 144 fewer days in math. (Read our analysis of the study here.)
Where does Ohio stand in its current regulation of online schools (which serve nearly one-third of the state’s entire charter school population)? And what can policy makers—and the e-schools themselves—do to ensure that students are better served? Let’s examine each question in turn.
Ohio’s recent steps to regulate e-schools
After an eight-year moratorium, Ohio lifted its ban on e-schools and allowed three new ones to open in 2013. The state regulates their expansion more tightly than charter schools broadly. In deciding who may open, the Ohio Department of Education examines both the track record of the operator and sponsor of each proposed e-school. Statute allows five e-schools to open each year, but the department may elect to approve fewer (or none) depending on application quality.
Growth of Ohio’s existing online charter schools has also been modestly capped. Starting last school year, legislation (HB 59) capped enrollment growth for e-schools—to 15 percent for schools with three thousand students or greater and to 25 percent for schools with fewer. Brand new e-schools are limited to an enrollment of one thousand students in their first year. To our knowledge, none of Ohio’s twelve statewide e-schools have reached the enrollment caps.
Lawmakers and Governor Kasich deserve credit for jumpstarting more changes in the recently passed HB 2, Ohio’s charter law overhaul. Under the legislation, e-schools must offer a student orientation course, provide opportunities for parent-teacher conferences, and communicate with parents about student performance and progress on a “periodic basis” throughout the school year. Sponsors will be required to monitor and ensure a school’s compliance with the online learning standards to which they are subject. Finally, e-schools must keep an accurate record of each student’s participation in learning opportunities throughout the day.
These new regulations place the Buckeye State ahead of the game compared to many states. But given the number of e-students who appear to be struggling and the magnitude of their underperformance, the newly enacted policies may not be enough.
What else can be done?
Ohio should consider four ideas that would alter how e-schools operate and ultimately promote better student outcomes.
First, as recommended by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) and CRPE, the state should think creatively about how it funds e-schools. Ohio can learn from the nascent efforts of four states (Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Utah) experimenting with performance-based or “completion-based” funding. Each defines completion differently—it can mean passing an exam, demonstrating mastery, earning course credit, etc.—and two of the states even allow e-schools to receive partial payment for partial completion. Of course, this would open up new cans of worms with respect to how we define “mastery.” But this shouldn’t be a deterrent, as a working definition of mastery would have other valuable policy uses. (Florida uses performance-based funding for all charter schools, including brick-and-mortar ones, and is moving that way for all of its public schools.) Ohio should explore a funding model that rewards e-schools for retaining students and moving them successfully along their academic paths. This would motivate e-schools to recruit students for whom virtual schooling is a good fit. It would also help the state’s better e-schools distinguish themselves, adding competitive pressure on low-performers.
Second (also suggested by NAPCS and CRPE), Ohio should explore the elimination of open enrollment requirements and instead allow e-schools to restrict their program—in a legally permissible way—to students likely to be successful in a virtual environment. As CRPE argues in its report, “Online schools are not for all students, yet state policies tend to limit online charter schools’ ability to restrict enrollment or impose admission requirements.” A flexible learning environment enables some students to thrive. But others need the structure and face-to-face time not afforded by a virtual school, which often provides “less live teacher contact time in a week” than what traditional schools provide in a single day. These students should not be allowed to waste a valuable year of learning in a school that’s a bad fit.
Some evidence in Ohio suggests that the longer students are enrolled in their e-schools, the better students perform. CREDO also highlights the fact that students who enroll in an online charter school tend to become more mobile later in their school careers, changing schools 2–3 times more than their peers. All of this underscores the importance of enabling e-schools to restrict their enrollment to students likely to be successful and stay put.
Third, e-schools serving students in grades K–12 might consider creating separate dropout prevention and recovery programs for their most at-risk high schoolers. It’s often argued by e-schools that many virtual students face unique barriers and are thus fundamentally different from their traditional (and even brick-and-mortar charter) peers. Plain Dealer reporter Patrick O’Donnell explored the question last month, noting that “the little data that’s available shows hardly any difference demographically between online kids and students at schools across the state.” But at least one statewide e-school (the Electronic School of Tomorrow) offered self-reported data about its student population for that article. Among ECOT’s high schoolers, one-fifth have children of their own, one-third work in order to support families, and nearly all are considered to be at risk of dropping out. Though anecdotal, these statistics raise valid questions about the extent to which some e-students resemble those enrolled in a dropout recovery program.
Any Local Education Agency (LEA) is allowed to apply to the Ohio Department of Education to seek a dropout prevention and recovery program (DPRP) waiver. Dropout recovery programs allow at-risk students between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one to complete a competency-based instructional program in lieu of the Ohio core curriculum. Schools applying for dropout recovery status must certify that their enrolled students are at least one grade level behind (their cohort age groups) and/or “experience crises that significantly interfere with their academic progress such that they are prevented from continuing their traditional programs.”
Four of Ohio’s twelve statewide e-schools are already dropout recoveries. While the current accountability framework for DPRPs leaves much to be desired[i], they do provide a vital last resort option for students. Ohio e-schools liken their student populations to those served by DPRPs, claiming that it’s unjust to compare their students to any other kind of student. The pathway to alternative accountability is already paved for them.
Finally, while CREDO’s online charter study followed objectively rigorous methodology in how it matched comparison students, critics still cry foul. If e-schools take issue with the current metrics painting them in a poor light (not just CREDO data, but the state’s value-added scores), they should work with legislators to create the conditions for a gold standard study rather than pursuing flawed and inferior measures like the California Similar Students Measure, a simple regression model that uses school-level data instead of more robust and accurate student-level data. Ohio could create a lottery system for admission to e-schools such that three-quarters of applicants would be admitted. This would create the conditions for a randomized control study that could track and compare e-students with those who applied but didn’t attend and would go a long way toward showing e-schools’ impact on students—for better or for worse. It’s likely that e-schools would oppose this, of course, both for obvious financial reasons and a bit of righteous indignation at the thought of turning away students who might legitimately need another option. But until and unless e-schools can help the state develop good data to track their students’ success, we must rely on value-added scores and studies like the one produced by CREDO. To say there’s no fair way to evaluate their students at all is a cop-out.
To be clear, e-schools have a rightful place in the charter school landscape. But they should serve students as well or better than the schools their students would otherwise attend. To improve e-school quality, Ohio should experiment with how it funds and rewards them, as well as enabling them to craft enrollment policies that draw in students with a decent chance at success. The e-schools themselves have a role to play in accumulating better student data. For those claiming they educate students at the very margins and therefore deserve a reprieve from heightened scrutiny, they should be reminded that there’s a waiver and an alternative accountability system set up for that very purpose. For students who are already disadvantaged, the loss of a year’s learning might sound a death knell for their educational careers. If anything, this should raise our expectations of e-schools, not lower them.
[i] A DPRP can receive a rating of “meets standards” and avoid closure if for two consecutive years, it improves its graduation rates and percentage of students passing assessments by 10 percent. For programs with graduation and passage rates in the single digits, that’s just too low of a bar.