Thursday, September 22, 2016

Online school attendance, funding issue presents unique opportunity for change

 A lawsuit filed by the Electronic Classroom
of Tomorrow raises bigger questions about
howOhio should fund schools - or students -
in the future.
There's a school attendance debate raging in Ohio and the outcome impacts more than just students and parties in a lawsuit.

The debate raises a bigger question of double standards when it comes to attendance and whether or not funding based upon attendance is the right way to allocate state monies.

It also presents Ohioans with an opportunity to truly think "outside the box" when it comes to providing kids with an education.

But in order to understand that bigger question and the opportunities, some background is necessary.

At issue in a lawsuit filed earlier this year is whether or not ECOT, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, has to provide student log-in data to the Ohio Department of Education and whether or not such log-in data can be used to determine ECOT's funding.

Several things brought us to this point:

  • In 2014, Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) issued a report showing that Ohio's community schools - also known as charters - were not doing well.
  • House Bill 2 - an overhaul of the state's rules regarding charter schools - was passed
  • A preliminary audit of ECOT was conducted in March

The CREDO report highlighted several issues in the way Ohio's charters are structured and recommended more accountability and transparency, especially for charters that contract with outside management firms to be their operators.

The report also raised concerns about how online, or e-schools, are measured in terms of the performance of the students.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute followed up with 10 policy recommendations to address the problems revealed in the report,

The result was House Bill 2, passed in 2015 and effective Feb 1, 2016.

Included in that measure was a requirement for each e-school to keep an accurate record of each individual student's participation in learning opportunities each day.

But the bill was effective half-way through the year and when the state conducted a preliminary attendance audit of ECOT in March, it found students were only spending about an hour a day logged in to the computer, meaning they couldn't achieve the required 920 hours of online learning in the school year.

ECOT is paid based upon the number of students enrolled. Without proof of the required 920 hours, the state could require ECOT to return the funds it received for each student.

According to numerous media reports, the amount could be as high as $80 million out of the $106 million total ECOT received.

ECOT sued to prevent the state from using the on-line attendance data as the criteria for funding.

There's no innocent party in this mess, except the student.

HB 2 took effect mid-year and most of the on-line schools had their software up and running back in September for the start of the school year.

Changing the software to monitor log-in times isn't just a matter of coding; students and parents would have to be trained on the proper way to do the log-in and mid-year implementation presents a logistical issue for e-schools because their students are spread across the state.

The state says their manual for conducting reviews of attendance has always given them the ability to examine log-in data, regardless of HB 2, but ECOT says that if that's the case, then the requirement is an agency rule and should have gone through the official rule-making process, including a public comment period, before being implemented. It did not.

Compounding all this is the fact that ECOT has a contract with the state that they say governs the information they must provide - except the contract has no expiration date and has been in effect since 2003.

Clearly everyone agrees that students should be logged-in and participating in learning more than one hour a day, otherwise, the discussion would be about the minimum requirement of 920 hours - and it's not.

But if the state is going to base funding for an e-school on how many hours students are actually participating on line throughout an entire year, shouldn't that same criteria apply to other, traditional schools as well?

Currently, traditional district schools in Ohio take attendance in what is known as "October Count Week." It's one week, usually with a lot of hype and incentives, where attendance is taken and reported to the state. That attendance number determines how much state funding will go to the district.

Ohio law addresses issues of truancy, non-attendance and switching schools, so there is follow-up for when a student stops attending.

But the state doesn't come back in June and deduct funding when a school's students haven't attended the full amount of required hours.

So why should it do so for e-schools?

In 2012, it was discovered that several districts across the state were scrubbing attendance/test data in order to remove poorly-performing students from the test scores reported to the state. As a result of the scandal, the state auditor conducted reviews of various districts and made a series of recommendations.

In the final report, the auditor recommended "basing state funding upon year-long attendance numbers, i.e., that money follow the student in approximate real time. Doing so would create an environment in which school districts that currently use attendance incentives for October Count Week—often with great success—would themselves have incentives to encourage attendance throughout a student’s entire year. Importantly, schools that break enrollment under such a system would suffer a loss of funding as a result." 

In a recent appearance at the Columbus Metropolitan Club, Auditor Dave Yost said the "nature of online learning makes it impossible to base funding on attendance."

He has a point. A student could log in, go outside or watch TV or even sleep, and come back five hours later and log-off. There is no way the e-school can really know what a student is doing when they log in.

Yost said the state should transition e-school funding to "a system based on information learned." He made a similar suggestion at the Ohio Charter School Summit.

"At the end of the day, we’re trying to buy a process that produces a numerate, literate citizen,” Yost said. “Why not pay for learning instead of hours in a seat or hours in front of a screen?"

Good question.

If we're going to pay for learning for e-schools, why not pay for learning for all schools, traditional district schools and charters?

What is the purpose of two different measures when it comes to funding?

And if we're going to change the criteria for funding, why not entertain a complete revamping and let the funding the follow the child?

Let's think outside the box:

Ohio could allocate the state's funding to the parent and child and let all schools compete to provide the education. Based upon the family's choice, the school gets the child's allocation. Parents would then be able to choose the school that best fits the individual needs of each child and the school's performance (test scores, state report card, etc...) will be a criteria parents can use to make the decision.

Such a process would result in schools getting funding based upon performance, as Yost suggests, except it will be the parents making the decision rather than the state or the district.

And states already utilize a similar method with SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, where funds are allocated to individuals who choose certain authorized items at any of a number of locations. The approach for education funding could work in a similar way.

The problem is that too many districts and unions would object to such a complete overhaul of funding.

But times are changing. We have Millennials, the parents of the future, who are used to online activities. They prefer a sharing economy (think Airbnb) and take for granted instant access to information on everything from the healthiest foods to reviews about attractions.

They're also used to relying on user ratings to help them make decisions about where to eat, what events to attend, where to stay or which Uber driver to use. As they have children, they will employ the same processes for evaluating schools and they'll wonder why, unlike everything else in their lives, they are limited in choice by their zip code.

With all the things going on in Ohio, now would be a good time to completely rethink how we provide a quality education that meets the needs of each individual student.

The biggest question is this:  do we have the will to do what it takes?

Friday, September 09, 2016

It's time for Ohio charter, traditional public schools to follow same standards

In 2015 following a series of scandals and reports, Ohio passed a law that revised how charter schools and their sponsors would be evaluated.

Toledo Public School's Pickett Academy
has been in academic emergency, or failing,
for more than a decade. Don't its 
students deserve something better?
The intent was to provide more accountability of the schools and the organizations (sometimes private for-profit companies) that sponsor them, especially in light of several reports that showed certain charter schools were performing worse than their traditional public school counterparts.

The effect of the legislation is that sponsors are being pushed to close non-achieving charter schools. Ohio charter schools - which are all public schools - educated just under 124,000 student in the 2014-15 school year.

According to information from the Ohio Department of Education, as reported by the Columbus Dispatch, as many as 19 charter schools closed this school year:

"Eleven were dropped by their sponsors for poor performance; the eight others closed voluntarily.
"Last year, 14 charter schools shut their doors. Three closed because of failing grades and six for financial reasons, according to state records. The reasons for the five other closings were unclear."
The new law was having the desired effect of shutting down poorly-performing schools.

According to a summary from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, public charter schools are automatically closed under the following conditions:

  • Schools serving no higher than grade three: For the 2013-14 school year, will be automatically closed if for two of the past three years has been in Academic Emergency OR has received an “F” in the Kindergarten through 3rd grade literacy measure.
  •  Schools serving any grade four through eight, but no grade above nine: For the 2013-14 school year, will be automatically closed if for two of the past three years was rated Academic Emergency AND showed less than one year of growth in either reading or math OR has received an “F” for the performance index score AND an “F” for the value added score.
  •  Schools offering any grade ten through twelve: For the 2013-14 school year, will be automatically closed if for two of the past three years has been in Academic Emergency OR has received an “F” for the performance index score and has not met the annual measurable objectives.
 No one really has any objection to these standards.

In fact, a stakeholder group, which includes representatives from the Ohio Association of Charter School Authorizers, the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Thomas B Fordham Foundation, welcomed that state's desire to implement a Sponsor Evaluation System and increase the accountability of charter school sponsors.

They recently released a list of specific recommendation they believe will help ODE "provide accurate and credible compliance ratings for sponsors in Ohio" by the law's October deadline.

So the state is well on its way to ensuring that all charter schools are held to high standards and are actually improving the performance of the students who attend them - and to increasing the accountability and transparency of the organizations that sponsor and authorize the schools.

But charters aren't the only low-performing schools in the state. Traditional public schools also have issues.

The questions now before Ohioans are these:

If we're going to close poorly-performing public charter schools based on their performance, are we going to close poorly-performing traditional public schools based on the same criteria?

If we're going to force sponsors to be accountable for the schools they authorize, are we going to hold public boards of education to the same standard of accountability for the schools they run?

Why are we establishing two sets of criteria for public schools based solely on their designation as either a charter or traditional school?

If we really want to ensure that all children have access to a quality education that fits their individual needs, shouldn't we hold all schools to the reasonable standards set for charters, especially considering the fact that many of the children most impacted by poorly-performing schools are stuck in them because of their zip code?

Look at Pickett Elementary School in the Toledo Public School District. If it were a charter school, it'd be closed by now.

Pickett's grades for the 2012-13 school year were a D in the Performance Index (overall results of students on state tests) and an F in Indicators Met (how many students measured proficient in reading and math for state tests).

For the 2013-14 school year, the school again scored a D on the Performance Index and an F on Indicators Met. Additionally, it scored Fs in two new categories:  Gap Closing - is every student succeeding regardless of income, race, ethnicity or disability; and K-3 Literacy - are more students learning to read in kindergarten through third grade.

The 2014-15 report card for the school was even worse:  An F on the Performance Index, an F on the Indicators Met, an F on Gap Closing, an F on K-3 Literacy and an F in the new category of Progress, which measures how much the student learns in a year (did they get a year's worth of growth).

Prior to 2012-13, schools had a different rating system.  Pickett has received the lowest designation of Academic Emergency since the 2003-04 school year.  In 2002-03, they were at Academic Watch. The most number of Indicators Met was two in 2005-06 and in no year did they attain the status of Adequate Yearly Progress.

Report cards prior to 2002-03 are not available on the state's website.

So why are 19 charter schools closing this year but Pickett, which has been failing for over a decade, is still "trying" to educate students?

Have any traditional schools in Ohio closed due to low-performance as is required of the charter schools?

Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director for the Fordham Institute, says answering that question is tricky.

"The criteria isn't the same," Churchill explained. "It's hard to track (closures) back to performance. You'll see districts closing schools due to loss of enrollment or part of an overall financial plan. While low-performance ranking might be a factor in those policy decisions, it's not the primary one."

Churchill called the situation "disappointing."

"You have schools in the district sector that fail year after year and that's a problem," he said. "But Fordham did a study that showed in both districts and charters, when low-performing schools close the kids usually end up at better-performing schools and they actually do better."

Churchill said no one really wants to see a school all boarded up. "But if we're going to make student-centered decisions, there is evidence that (closing schools) helps kids in the long run," he added.

That study looked at school closures between 2006 and 2012 in the top eight urban areas in the state.

The study reveals that children displaced by closure make significant academic gains on state math and reading exams after their school closes. 
Three years after closure, the research found that displaced students overall made the following cumulative gains:
  • Students who had attended a closed district school gained forty-nine additional days of learning in reading and thirty-four additional days in math and;
  • Students who had attended a closed charter school gained forty-six additional days in math.
Further, the study reveals that students who attended a higher-quality school after closure made even greater progress. Three years after closure, displaced students who transferred to a higher-quality school made the following cumulative gains:
  • Students who had attended a closed district school gained sixty-nine additional days of learning in reading and sixty-three additional days in math and;
  • Students who had attended a closed charter school gained fifty-eight additional days of learning in reading and eighty-eight additional days in math.
So if kids are better off after a low-performing school is closed, why isn't Ohio applying the same criteria to traditional public schools as it does to charters?

According to ODE, 50 Ohio schools received an F on their actual 2014 Performance Index and 499 received a D. In the Toledo Public School District, there were no As, five Bs, 17 Cs and 27 Ds, including Pickett.

Unfortunately, the data shows that too many of the traditional schools get failing grades and, as Churchill said, "you can't just close all low-performing district schools because a child needs to have some school to attend."

Following multiple news reports in 2015 on everything from mismanagement of public funds at charter schools to bribery convictions for three charter school officials, Steven Dyer wrote at

Let's do what we can to fix this now. Forget politics. This is about saving kids. And we've got tens of thousands who need to be rescued from this system that has -- in the vast majority of cases -- lost its way amid profits and power.
While some Ohio charter critics may rejoice at this awful spate of stories for the sector, I ache for the kids and parents who this is hurting. They deserve better. And so do the taxpayers who are seeing nearly $1 billion of their state money and hundreds of millions of their local tax money go to pay for and subsidize these operations.
It's a tragedy. An entire generation of kids has now gone through this utterly broken system.  
I shudder to think of the consequences.
Multiple generations of kids have gone through failing and low-performing traditional district schools. It's a tragedy and everyone should shudder to think of the consequences.

Don't the nearly 1.75 million kids in traditional public schools deserve better as well?

Friday, September 02, 2016

Ohio school choice programs good, but could be better

Ohio ranks well when it comes to providing students with educational choices, but there is still room for improvement, a new report says.

The American Federation for Children (AFC) and the American Federation for Children Growth Fund recently reviewed 50 private school choice programs and ranked them according to their ideal program in terms of student eligibility, scholarship amount and program size, and transparency and accountability.

Ohio's Income-Based Scholarship Program, also known as the EdChoice Expansion, ranked 7th overall. The EdChoice Scholarship ranked 16th and the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program came in at 22nd.

In the Voucher category, the Income-Based Scholarship was 3rd, the EdChoice Scholarship was 9th and the Cleveland program was 10th.

Ohio's three programs in the rankings are all voucher programs. The other categories in the rankings are those that allow students to select a private, including religious, schools through tax credits or Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

Vouchers were graded according to:

  • how many students were eligible to participate in the program,
  • the average scholarship amount as a percent of the state's public school per pupil spending, 
  • accountability in terms of testing, annual financial reporting, proof of financial viability.

Despite the good rankings, all Ohio programs lost points in the grading system because participating schools are not required to provide annual financial reports or proof of financial viability. They also lost points due to limits on participation.

The Cleveland Scholarship Program is only available to students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. The EdChoice Scholarship Program is only available to students who would otherwise attend a low-performing school. The Income-Based Scholarship Program is only available to students just above the income limit to qualify for free or reduced lunches.

While Ohio's scholarships are good, AFC has recommendations for policymakers wanting to improve the programs.

It recommends increasing the cap on scholarship amounts in the Cleveland program. The average scholarship amount is $4,437 - only 43% of the state's public per pupil spending average.

"These caps should be raised so students have additional quality choices and scholarships cover more of high school private school tuition costs," the report says. "Funding should be available for robust scholarships for all eligible students who want one."

Whitney Marcavage, the report's author, says that ideally, scholarship amounts should equal the total amount of the state and local share in the state's average public per pupil spending.

"But most states don't do that," she explained. "It's not just Ohio."

She also said that in some areas, the quality of private school choices is an issue.

"Additional funding would increase the options for parents," she said. "Additional funding also spurs the demand for new schools to open or for existing schools to expand to accommodate more scholarship students."

Marcavage also said that states should look at the total amount of tuition needed for grades 9-12 and provide scholarship amounts that match 100% of the tuition.

"Most scholarships do a good job of covering elementary school tuition, but fall short when it comes to high school," she said. "Children should be able to continue their private education and not have to leave a school of choice because the scholarship isn't enough to cover the costs."

AFC also recommends eliminating the low-performing school requirement from the EdChoice program.

"Failing school programs are hard to implement and they limit choice for students whose schools may be failing them but are not officially designated as failing by the state," the report notes.

Complicating this criteria is the fact that Ohio recently changed its school grading system making it more difficult to identify which schools qualify as "low-performing" over time.

As with the Cleveland scholarships, AFC recommends increasing the EdChoice scholarship amounts which average $4,139 or 41% of the state's public school per pupil spending.

The Income-Based Scholarship Program was enacted in 2013 and had 5,594 participants in the 2015-16 school year. AFC recommends increasing the income limits so more children are eligible, but advises that low-income families should be prioritized if the limits are raised.

It suggests that partial scholarships should be eliminated and that students be allowed to stay in the program once enrolled, regardless of changes in the family income.

Since this is a new program and only covers grades K-2, the average scholarship amount is $3,567 which is 35% of the state's public per pupil spending. The average should increase as new grade levels are added each year, but scholarships are capped at $4,650 which AFC says should be raised.

When it comes to accountability, AFC says private school choice programs should be transparent and accountable to both parents and taxpayers. But what form the financial accountability should take, considering the private nature of the schools, is not identified.

Marcavage said that very few states include financial reporting as a requirement.

For example, a report showing that for each scholarship received the student attended the full year, or that refunds were issued if the student left the school would be a good start, she explained.

She also said it was important for states to verify that a school is viable, especially if it's a new school.

"The last thing you want is for a school to start up and then close half-way through the school year because it couldn't make it," she added.

Marcavage said ideally financial reports would comply with standard accounting procedures, be audited to ensure the report is free of misstatements and accurately represents the costs to educate the student, and include proof that the school is able to repay any funds that might be due to the state.

She added that the reports would be limited only to the records relating to scholarship recipients.

Ohio has two other scholarship programs but because one is for special needs students and the other is for students with autism, they were not included in the report's rankings.

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