Learning from Data on Ohio E-Schools

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?

This article is part I of a new blog series on the Quick and the Ed exploring data from Ohio e-schools.

In 2001, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), Ohio’s first charter ‘e-school’, opened its doors. Soon there were 27 e-schools across the state. And, despite a moratorium that has prevented any new schools from opening since 2005, total e-school enrollment has skyrocketed to over 29,000 students.

Source: The Columbus Dispatch using Ohio Dept of Education data

E-schools are publicly funded—they receive the same base per-pupil amount from the state as brick-and-mortar charter schools ($5,718 in 2010)—but are run by a variety of different organizations, including traditional school districts, nonprofit consortia, and also national for-profit companies like K12, Inc. While e-school students take their courses via the computer, the curriculum might also include physical textbooks, live video lessons, and online discussions with teachers and classmates.

Critics fear that students fail to develop social skills and real world survival abilities, missing out on important aspects of a traditional education such as peer interaction and collaboration. But, e-schools have proven popular among students and parents in Ohio, which e-school advocates attribute to the increased flexibility they offer, both in scheduling and in the pace at which students move through the curriculum.

As in all Ohio public schools, e-school students take regular state-mandated tests and e-schools are rated under the state’s accountability system. According to Ohio’s rating system, only 3 of Ohio’s 27 e-schools were rated “effective” or “excellent” in the 2009-10 school year.

But, these composite data mask significant differences among schools. When taken as a whole, they paint a picture of a highly varied set of schools with large differences in students, enrollment patterns, and most importantly, performance (similar to the wide variations found in bricks and mortar schools). Two of the highest performing schools, Ohio Connections Academy and Fairborn Digital Academy, are markedly different in size (2,081 and 46 students respectively), enrollment patterns (statewide vs. district), and management (private vs district). And, there are poor performers of all stripes and types, too.

– Bill Tucker

NB: Part II of this series, which includes an interactive map highlighting the variation in statewide e-school performance and the variety of providers (for-profit, non-profit) that are operating statewide in Ohio is available here.

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