Part V 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?
For policymakers looking to rein in the growth of online learning, capping a school’s enrollment seems like a logical option. For example, in Massachusetts, lawmakers restricted online schools to no more than 500 students. Yet, in Ohio, the size of the e-school does not appear to determine the school’s actual performance. The chart below shows the enrollment size of each e-school in Ohio, along with the school’s state academic performance rating, ranging from “Excellent” (dark green) and “Effective” (light green) for the higher performing schools to “Academic Watch” (light red) and “Academic Emergency” (dark red) for the lower performing schools. (Roll your mouse over each of the bars on the chart for more information about each school.)
In Ohio, caps on e-school enrollment could backfire. For example, an enrollment cap of 2,000 students would restrict a higher-performing school, such as Ohio’s Connections Academy, forcing students to lower-performing schools.
But, while one year of Ohio performance index data show that a school’s enrollment does not determine performance, we wondered how a school’s growth over time might impact performance. For example, did the largest e-schools perform better several years ago when many were smaller? Does performance decline as a school grows? And, do high-performing schools grow faster than lower-performing schools?
To test these ideas, we pulled three years of performance and enrollment data for each of the seven statewide schools, the largest of Ohio’s e-schools. In the figure below, each school’s performance is represented by the orange dots, which correspond to the scale on the right axis. The blue bars represent each school’s enrollment and correspond to the scale on the left axis. For example, ECOT, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, listed on the right, has improved its performance index and also grown its enrollment over the past three years.
While these data tell us that neither growth nor absolute school size are determinant of school performance, they also raise many other interesting questions. The data don’t tell us about the composition of the growth/declines in student enrollment. For example, OHDELA, the only statewide school that is losing enrollment, is also falling in performance. In OHDELA’s case, is the school losing students because it is performing poorly or is it performing poorly because higher-performing students are leaving (or perhaps a death cycle of both)? Likewise, we don’t know what is causing ECOT’s higher performance.
These data also raise questions about the efficacy of the e-school “market” in Ohio. Particularly for the statewide schools, where families have free choice among all seven and geography is not a limiting factor, why do families make the choices that they do–especially since there are large gaps in performance across the schools. Perhaps families are expressing a preference for specific programs or many of the other desired outcomes of school that aren’t reflected in Ohio’s performance index. But, it’s also likely that the information available to families is limited and, as we’ve seen in many other educational contexts, choice on its own is not enough.