Governor DeWine recently signed House Bill 164, legislation that addresses several education policies that have been affected by the pandemic. For instance, the bill provides temporary flexibility around teacher and principal evaluations, waives early literacy requirements for the coming year, and allows students whose end-of-course exams were cancelled last spring to substitute their course grades for graduation purposes.
The bill also includes a provision that asks school districts and public charter schools to submit remote learning plans to the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). These plans aim to ensure that all schools are ready to educate students remotely in the event that buildings need to close or parents opt to keep their children at home. Among a few other items, the plans must contain a description of policies regarding attendance, grading, and equitable access to quality instruction. Although they are neither mandatory nor subject to state approval, districts receive an exemption from state minimum hour requirements for the 2020–21 school year if they submit one. Given the likelihood of having to offer remote learning—and the challenges of tracking hours when students are at home—schools should consider filing a plan to comply with state hour laws (not to mention the general wisdom of creating such a plan).
These provisions are a commendable first step at encouraging a “continuity of learning” when students learn from home—something that schools struggled with earlier this year. But plans, by themselves, cannot guarantee that students receive a quality education. While one hopes that districts will follow through on their plans, there won’t be any state oversight of implementation. Students could conceivably do nothing—fail to ever log in or turn in an assignment—but their schools could, without consequence, mark them as in attendance and assign them passing grades.
Instituting rigorous but fair oversight measures would’ve been nearly impossible for the coming year. But moving forward, Ohio needs to consider how oversight and accountability work in remote learning for the long-term. It’s always possible that pandemic will stay with us longer than expected, and remote learning may still be needed beyond 2020–21. What’s more probable is that, much like employees are shifting to remote work, more families and students will begin to prefer at-home instruction, even if their local schools are open. This option may become even more attractive as districts become more adept at providing remote instruction. Hilliard and Lakota school districts, for example, have made clear their intention to establish strong online options.
Fortunately, legislators need not start from scratch in devising policies that hold schools accountable for remote learning. As a starting point, they should consider the policies that govern virtual charter schools, the pioneers in remote learning.
In addition to state report cards, the key accountability lever for online schools is a policy known as an “FTE review.” Authorized under state law, ODE periodically conducts these reviews, which function much like an external audit. Not only do they check whether e-schools have provided necessary computer equipment to students, but they also review whether e-schools have properly documented and reported student enrollment. E-schools can verify participation in remote learning opportunities in a number of ways. Through learning management systems, they can track the amount of time students are doing coursework online, attending course lectures either synchronously or asynchronously, and meeting with teachers and support staff. E-schools may also document participation through teacher verification of student work. If schools fail to demonstrate participation in learning opportunities, the state may reduce funding for that student. For example, if an e-school could only document 700 hours of participation in a 920-hour school year, it would only receive partial funding for that student (this occurred in the ECOT case). The upshot: The threat of lost funding creates an incentive for e-schools to ensure that students are participating in remote learning.
This process could be extended to district and non-e-school charters that offer remote instruction, whether to all students (likely due to an extended building closure) or to a subset who elect to participate in this learning model. An FTE review would guard against potential abuses and ensure that students aren’t falling through the cracks while learning at home. By providing the state an avenue to seek refunds when schools are unable to document student participation, it also protects taxpayers.
Of course, this seat/screen time approach isn’t perfect. It’s somewhat bureaucratic, and it can’t assure us that students are actually mastering course material (though report cards help in that respect). Yet implementing an FTE review akin to what e-schools are subject to would be a good first step in accountability for remote learning. As this educational model evolves, policymakers should consider other policy frameworks that allow schools to verify participation through course completion or, better yet, competency. Much would need to be ironed out, however, regarding how those models work in practice.
Though most parents and students long to return to brick-and-mortar classrooms, Ohio should nevertheless plan for a future in which remote learning is more widespread. As we’ve seen, getting remote learning right is hard, whether it’s being done by e-schools or on the fly by traditional schools. At a basic level, families and students need the necessary computer hardware and internet access. Another piece of the puzzle is the capacity and know-how needed for schools to provide quality remote learning opportunities. The final piece is strong oversight and accountability. If policymakers can put the pieces together, a brighter future will emerge for students who need or want to learn at home.