State pushes performance-based funding in online schools
(Ohio) Following years of poor performance, Ohio lawmakers may move to fund online charter schools based on results rather than enrollment, which, according to virtual-school proponents, can work if certain measures of progress are accounted for.
State auditor Dave Yost called on legislators to tie school funding to student achievement and to do so by tracking learning outcomes already available on pupils’ computers. Currently, online schools in Ohio are paid based on the amount of time a student receives instruction.
It is possible that kids are making strides despite the fact that they are still behind grade level at the end of the term, said Paul Keefer, executive director of Pacific Charter Institute, which runs three K-12 independent study charter schools in California.
According to Keefer, students who enroll in online schooling tend to be at either end of the bell curve: Some are high achievers who want to move quickly and have more flexibility than traditional schools can often offer, while many are years behind and are attempting to recover credits to get back on track.
“Once a student comes through our doors, we want to be held accountable for improving them,” Keefer said in an interview. “But we also typically get many students who are way behind in credits, so our ability to first get them acclimated to learning then actually learning can be difficult—especially when we’re just one of many schools they’ve been to, and their academic skill sets are behind.”
Although virtual schooling has grown in popularity—in 2014, 30 states and the District of Columbia offered statewide, full-time online learning options—graduation rates at such schools are half that of traditional schools, according to research released this year from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.
In 2013-14, only 40.6 students enrolled in full-time virtual schools graduated, compared to the national average of 81 percent.
Ohio has one of the largest numbers of students enrolled in full-time virtual charter schools in the country, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and recent research from both Stanford University and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found full-time virtual charter schools in the state are significantly underperforming.
In his call for reform, Yost noted that students’ varied backgrounds should be taken into account when determining new funding methods, and that assessment of academic progress should be a constant, rather than depending on testing periods.
It is difficult to show improvement with a 10th grader who is three to four years behind in math through traditional assessments, Keefer said, because even if the student advances multiple grade levels during the year, he or she may still be considered behind.
However, tracking student performance instead of relying heavily on yearly assessments, as proposed by Yost, would show which online charter schools are actually improving student achievement, according to Keefer.
“On first blush you could pull a school up and see that it is underperforming, but when you start to peel away at the layers you’ll see students are moving 2.5 years in English language arts in seven months,” Keefer said. “We have the ability to show parents that their child has gone from, say, a fifth- to an eighth-grade reading level—even if they are still behind, they have grown.”
Yost’s recommendation has found support among legislators in Ohio, with Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, saying in a statement that he would begin working with colleagues on next steps.