This blog post was co-authored by Padmini Jambulapati and Erin Dillon.
Part III of a new blog series exploring data from 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?
Yesterday we looked at Ohio’s seven ‘statewide’ e-schools, which draw students from nearly all of Ohio’s 611 districts. These ‘statewide’ schools are probably what many people think of when they think of e-school operators: they’re big, with the largest—ECOT—enrolling over 9,000 students; four of the seven are managed by national, for-profit companies (the other three are self-governed non-profit organizations); and they’re truly virtual, drawing students from all over Ohio without regard to district boundaries. In terms of performance, statewide e-schools range from the best rated e-school in the state, Ohio Connections Academy, to two schools rated as ‘Academic Watch’, the second lowest rating in the state.
But the statewide e-schools only account for seven of Ohio’s 27 e-schools – the other 20 look pretty different from the statewide schools in enrollment and management. The map below shows the distribution of enrollment in nine of the 20 remaining e-schools, a group we’re calling ‘regional’ e-schools. Unlike the statewide schools, these schools draw students from only a limited number of Ohio districts (ranging from 11 districts for Newark Digital Academy to 72 for Quaker Digital Academy). In contrast, Ohio’s statewide schools each drew from well over 300 districts.
Like yesterday’s map of the statewide schools, this map shows where each e-school is getting its students. Each dot is a district that sends students to a particular e-school and the size of the dot represents the percent of the e-school’s enrollment coming from that district. There may be overlapping dots where a district sends students to multiple e-schools. The dots are color-coded according to each school’s performance, so there are two schools that are rated ‘Academic Emergency’ – these are both colored dark red. On the other hand, there’s only one school rated ‘Effective’ and this school is colored light green. You can hover over a dot to see detailed information and also select individual schools to see their enrollment patterns more clearly.
(Use the interactive features of the map to see which districts e-schools are drawing from—select a school by checking the box next to school’s name on the bottom left corner of the dashboard. To see only the schools that have a particular academic designation (i.e. only “effective”), select the color and click on the highlight button in the bottom right hand corner of the dashboard.)
While virtual school proponents often argue that online education can finally eliminate the link between a student’s zip code and the quality of his or her education options, Ohio’s regional e-schools tell a slightly different story. As the map shows, these schools tend to draw from a handful of surrounding school districts as a result of geographic restrictions put in place by the school. West Central Learning Academy, for example, the only one of this group to receive an ‘effective’ rating from the state, limits enrollment to a 50-mile radius around its main office in Lima, Ohio. Other regional e-schools, like Quaker Digital Academy, recently lifted the geographic restriction on enrollment and are now eligible to enroll students statewide.
While Ohio’s statewide e-schools are sponsored (the Ohio term for approving and monitoring a charter school) by a mix of local districts and statewide sponsors like the Ohio Council of Community Schools, the regional schools are all sponsored by a local district or regional ‘educational service center’. This has important implications for the accountability at some of these e-schools. As we described yesterday, the statewide TRECA Digital Academy is designated as a drop-out prevention and recovery school, which allows it to receive a waiver that protects it from state-mandated closure due to low-performance. Six of the regional e-schools, including the four e-schools receiving the state’s lowest performance ratings—Akron Digital Academy, GOAL Digital Academy, London Digital Academy, and the Greater Ohio Virtual School–qualify for the same waiver.
In addition to the e-school waiver, local school districts that authorize a drop-out prevention and recovery e-school can apply to the state to exclude that school’s performance data from the district’s report card. Most districts must include performance data from the charter schools they sponsor in the district report card, thereby holding districts responsible for the performance of charter schools they approve and oversee. But this doesn’t apply to schools that qualify as drop-out prevention and recovery schools.
The combination of these two exceptions—the e-school waiver from automatic closure and the district’s exemption—means that for the three regional e-schools that are authorized by their local district and considered drop-out recovery schools (London Academy, Quaker Digital Academy and the Greater Ohio Virtual School), there is little accountability for performance, both from the state and their local district authorizer. This waiver system also creates some odd incentives for districts–they can shuffle lower performing students to the local e-school and get them off the district’s report card. This would improve the district’s performance while placing little performance pressure on the e-school.
Some of these ‘regional’ e-schools appear to have ambitions to become statewide by lifting geographic restrictions on enrollment. Because of Ohio’s moratorium on new e-school operators, the expansion of existing regional e-schools is where Ohio students are most likely to find new e-school options. Quaker Digital Academy has already formally switched to being a statewide school and the websites of many of the other regional e-schools indicate that students from across the state can enroll. But is this a good expansion of school choice for Ohio’s students?
The performance of regional e-schools, based on their 2009-10 state ratings, is underwhelming. And perhaps most concerning is that many of these schools aren’t facing rigorous accountability for their performance, thanks to the waivers described above. There’s little currently holding back a low-performing school from dramatically expanding enrollments without first showing that they can serve those students well.