We’ve written about the stagnant academic achievement in reading and math of Ohio’s urban schools, both district and charter.  Proficiency rates in the state’s major cities haven’t improved in the past five years, despite heaps of money and effort aimed at improvements. It seems the same is true among Ohio’s e-schools (the state has 27 virtual schools that serve about 29,000 students).

Figures 1 and 2 show the proficiency rates in math and reading for Ohio’s e-schools over the last three years, compared to the statewide proficiency rate for all Ohio students. 

Figure 1: Average math proficiency among large & small e-schools, compared to state (2007-09)

Source: Ohio's interactive Local Report Card

Figure 2: Average reading proficiency among large & small e-schools, compared to state (2007-09)

Source: Ohio's interactive Local Report Card

Among large e-schools – those that serve more than 500 students and are operated, with a couple exceptions, by big-name, online learning companies – proficiency rates have moved up just a percentage point or two over the past three years. Among small e-schools – which serve as few as 26 students each and are, for the most part, operated by local school districts – proficiency rates shot up between 2008-09 to 2009-10. But it appears that the leap in performance simply makes up for a significant drop in achievement the previous year.

The e-school data raise two policy issues for the state. 

First, if e-school performance isn’t improving over time and if just a handful of e-schools receive outstanding ratings from the state (among rated e-schools, three were rated A or B, 12 C, and eight D or F), why do we continue to prohibit new and potentially better performing virtual school providers from opening new schools here? Why lock in mediocrity?

It’s clear that there is a demand for e-schools in the Buckeye State – nearly a third of all Ohio charter school students now attend one, and if e-school students represented a single school district it would be the 4th largest in the state. Yet the moratorium on new e-schools limits these students and families to choosing among a fairly mediocre set of schools – of the three e-schools rated A or B by the state, just one (Ohio Connections Academy, rated A) is open to students statewide.

Second, with the rapid and promising developments taking place in the areas of online learning and instructional technology, why should we be content to easily sort all 3,600+ Ohio public schools into two groups: traditional, brick-and-mortar schools (district and charter) or full-time virtual schools. Why are there no hybrid or blended model schools?  And further, why do state laws and funding policies make the creation of such schools so difficult? 

Caprice Young, one of the foremost thinkers in online learning (and a Fordham board member), recently told the Los Angeles Daily News when that city opened its first e-school:

Online learning isn’t just about isolating a student with a computer. It’s about integrating a student’s learning experience with the vast community of online learners and doing it in the context of a public school environment…the main thing is our public schools have to be preparing students for the work they are going to do when they graduate. Fully online is great, but the push needs to be in creating a more blended learning model.

It seems increasingly clear that she’s right, and that this virtual school performance plateau is justification at least for trying new things and opening the doors to more reforms in the Buckeye State. 

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