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?

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