While online learning is still new to the vast majority of K-12 students and schools, Ohio has operated “e-schools,” public charter schools that operate entirely online and which students “attend” on a full-time basis, for a decade. As policy debates around online learning grow, what do we know about these schools–who do they enroll and how well do they perform–and what can we learn from Ohio’s e-school experience?
More than one million K-12, public-education students now take online courses. And, with new or pending legislation set to expand online offerings in states from Utah to Ohio to Florida, the numbers will continue to grow. State policymakers, some fearing high-profile stories of scandal and others feeling the pressure from intense lobbying efforts on all sides, are racing to catch up. In some states, legislators are knocking down regulatory barriers, such as attendance and “seat-time” requirements, to speed expansion. Others, concerned about a radically different notion of schooling, have seized on a variety of tools for controlling growth, including caps on school enrollment or restrictions limiting enrollments to a single district or regional area.
But overly blunt–or carefree–approaches to regulation run the risk of making many of the same mistakes that policymakers made for almost two decades in their attempts to oversee charter schools. Our exploration of data from Ohio, one of the states with almost a decade of experience with online schooling, helps to illustrate that neither total de-regulation, nor restrictions based on broad assumptions about size, type of provider, or geography, are the right approach to ensuring high quality online learning experiences. In Ohio, data show that these factors are not determinative of the schools’ actual performance. And, despite a moratorium on new online schools, the performance of Ohio’s 27 “e-schools” is decidedly mixed.
1. Use Performance, Not Proxies, to Drive Regulation
What a school actually does–and how it performs its role to help children learn–rather than broad assumptions about the correct size, instructional program or governance model, should drive our efforts to ensure that these public schools are helping children succeed.
2. Tailor Authorizing and Oversight
Students will choose online schools for a multitude of reasons and ideally, programs will respond with a wide variety of options. We can expect that, at least in the short-term, mobility into and out of these programs will be high (sometimes by design, other times because it was a poor fit). States, districts, and charter authorizers need to develop new policy frameworks to ensure reporting and accountability measures are appropriate.
3. Eliminate Accountability-Free Zones
While oversight should be appropriate, light must shine on districts’ darkly lit corners. For decades, less was expected from students attending schools in poor communities. And, even prior to online options, alternative and “credit recovery” programs were rife with the potential to offer low-quality, watered-down expectations for learning.
It makes sense to offer students who aren’t succeeding in traditional classrooms the opportunity to try a different approach (or even better, the chance to prevent failure). Yet, Ohio goes too far. There, state law allows e-schools that are designated as drop-out prevention and recovery schools and are sponsored by a local school district to avoid some of Ohio’s accountability requirements, including mandatory closure for persistent low performance and accountability for the sponsoring district. We need to find the right balance.
4. Help Students and Families Make Good Choices
While online learning advocates feverishly push for states to allow students to choose among multiple online learning providers, there’s been almost no attention to how students and families actually make choices. Data from Ohio show little relationship between a school’s enrollment and its rating on the Ohio school performance index. And, despite statewide open enrollment options, many choose poor performing, locally-based programs.
Across the country, there’s a growing need for high-quality, independent, and highly-accessible Consumer Reports-type analyses for online schools and programs. While each state provides school information, it is generally limited to test scores and almost impossible to aggregate across state lines. Given the emerging national market–with providers like K12 and Connections Academy present in dozens of states–it would be feasible to focus not just ratings, but in-depth analysis on just a dozen or so providers that serve tens of thousands of students, rather than the thousands of schools that sites like GreatSchools need to populate ratings for.
While government regulation must set basic standards for quality and accountability, we need other tools, such as market- and reputation-based accountability, to complement government regulation and provide incentives for schools to go further. These additional tools, like independent guides, can help ensure that local families or districts making decisions in one state understand a provider’s track record across the country. Better information across districts and states will foster incentives to ensure high quality everywhere–and ideally, punish providers that neglect their duties in any one place.
5. Ensure Transparency
I’ll send a $25 Starbuck’s gift card to the first commenter who can tell me how, from looking at the school’s web site, they figured out who actually runs OHDELA, the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy.
Throughout our exploration of Ohio E-schools, we found numerous examples where it was almost impossible to figure out who actually governed and managed a school. When trying to determine whether another school was managed by a for-profit company, the school told us they were a state-run school, the Department of Education didn’t know and referred us to the school’s authorizer, who then referred us to an outside consultant who could finally give an answer. Many districts also appear to take a hands-off approach and can provide little information about the e-schools they sponsor. These relationships are new and lack clarity on both accountability, and utimately, who actually runs the school under the guise of these districts. For example, prior to enrollment, many parents would have no idea who was providing the curriculum for their district’s e-school prior unless they knew to visit TRECA’s web site.
In many public discussions about online learning, broad generalizations about radically different programs and teaching models are accepted at face value. As the data from Ohio illustrate, online students and programs are diverse–just as in traditional schools. The specific details, program models, curriculum, and of course, quality of teaching, matter. As online learning continues to grow and expand in ways that we may not even be able to envision, strong oversight to ensure both high quality learning experiences and accountability for public funds are essential.
– Bill Tucker