March 5, 2015

Ohio newspaper explores high rates of student mobility in online schools

Several recent Keeping Pace blog posts and reports have touched on the issue of student mobility. One explored in general terms how high rates of student mobility challenge state accountability systems. Another reviewed the proposal from the Arizona Department of Education to take student mobility and other issues into account when determining ratings for Arizona Online Instruction schools.

A recent article from the Columbus Dispatch adds to this body of knowledge, finding that “Turnover [is] common at e-schools.” Reporters from the Dispatch report that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), Ohio’s largest online charter school, “averaged 14,600 students last school year, but almost 23,000 students were enrolled over the course of the year.” Further, “the large-scale turnover isn’t unique to ECOT.”

The article is well balanced and captures some of the nuance of this issue that our recent policy brief explored. It quotes a researcher from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who notes, correctly, how “student mobility is generally considered a negative thing.” Student mobility in online schools, however, is not so easily explained or characterized as positive or negative because “the cause of online mobility isn’t so simple. It’s probably a mix of dissatisfaction with their current school, the convenience of online schools, the sheer number of school options that students have today, online advertising, and the fact that ‘the cost to make that transfer from a kid’s perspective or a family’s perspective is essentially zero, so why not give it a shot?’” (The quote in the newspaper article is from the same Fordham researcher.)

Kudos to the Ohio Department of Education, which “is trying to better understand why so many students are mobile in all schools, including e-schools. State report cards for this school year will track mobility more closely than they have in other years. The state hopes to learn ‘the degree to which it’s a choice and the degree to which it’s a compelled situation,’ said Eben Dowell, who works in policy at the department.”

The newspaper found that the number of students starting in ECOT after the start of the school year was a significant problem. “Despite that ECOT is a program for kindergarten through 12th-grade, the median start date of all the students who attended last year was in mid-September 2013. That means that half of the students started after the school year had already begun.”

The reporters also spoke with students, including some who found that the online school was harder than they expected. We have found the same in our work with students, families, and online school and course providers. It is not unusual for students, and in some cases educators who are not involved in online learning, to expect that online courses will be easier than the face-to-face version. They of course should not be, but students who expect an easier course can easily fall behind.

The article is fairly short and well worth reading to get a balanced sense of some of the issues surrounding student mobility in online schools.

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