More Online Charter Schools Struggle To Keep Track Of Student Learning Hours

Aug 29, 2016

A look at several online charter school attendance reviews reveal that more e-schools might be either unable or unwilling to meet the standards the state has set to prove students are learning. 

For weeks, the state has been battling with its largest online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow or ECOT, over how it records the number of hours its more than 15,000 students spend learning. Those hours are critical to the funding of ECOT and all charter schools.

Now, three more online charters just received letters from the Ohio Department of Education detailing issues in the way they track student instruction.

The challenge for these e-schools is to document and record each individual student and how much time they spend “in school” participating in learning opportunities.

Chad Aldis is with the pro-school choice group the Fordham Institute which also operates some charter schools in Ohio. As Aldis explains, these learning opportunity reviews are vital because they’re tied to funding.

“It’s sort of an audit process that’s done each year to look at the student numbers how much in the way of classes and student learning opportunities had to try and determine if the numbers a school is paid for match up with the learning opportunities that were actually engaged in by students,” said Aldis.

But the education department said three schools fell short of being able to show a total number of participation hours.

The Buckeye Online School for Success or BOSS uses what’s known as a bell schedule. A student has to log-in for each class during the day and if that student misses a class they can log-in later to see what they’ve missed. But ODE says BOSS doesn’t have software to accumulate learning opportunity hours by day, month and year. The same goes for the Quaker Digital Academy.

The Virtual Community School or VCS offers 41 programs for students to use to learn but according to ODE only two of those programs track the hours and one relies on parental documentation.

Aldis says these reviews show that e-schools are still in the early stages of figuring out how to measure up to the state’s standards on attendance. If that’s the case, is it fair to dock a school’s funding while they make adjustments?

“That’s a really tough question…If they were going against the recommendations and advise of the department and the instruction if those instructions are clear and they just chose to not follow that then I think you’re in a different spot, then I think repayment and stuff would be a likely result.”

The issue of learning opportunities has been big in the war between ECOT and the state. ECOT has been using a process where teachers certify the amount of learning opportunities, but the state wanted to use student log-in information.

These evaluations are known as Full Time Equivalent or FTE reviews. Each student needs to reach 920 hours to be considered a full-time student. If the state finds fewer full time students than a school has claimed, it could claw back some or even most of the school’s funding.

ECOT Consultant Neil Clark says these latest reviews show that Ohio’s e-schools aren’t able to live up to the standards the state is laying out.

“None of the e-schools were prepared for this so yes it is comforting in a sense because it proves our point that nobody anticipated that supplemental would no longer be used to satisfy the 920 hours,” Clark said.

But there’s a difference between using parent or teacher certification as supplemental information and a total reliance on that system instead of through log-in documentation.

The Ohio Department of Education has not been commenting on this issue because of the pending lawsuit. However those who come to the defense of the ODE say the department has spelled out these requirements in a manual from last year, so e-schools should have known and followed the rules.

There’s no word yet on if the three schools in the latest FTE reviews will face consequences.