Virtual Schools

Ohio Students in Virtual Charter Schools Perform Worse than Those in Traditional Public Schools


Students who attended virtual charter schools, or e-schools, in Ohio performed worse on state tests than students who attended traditional, brick-and-mortar district schools, according to a study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an Ohio-based education research and advocacy group.

In contrast, students in grades 4 through 8 who attended brick-and-mortar charter schools performed slightly better than their district school counterparts in both reading and math, the study found.

The study was conducted by professor and learning technology researcher June Ahn of New York University, using student-level data from the 2009-10 school year through 2012-13. The information was obtained from the Ohio Department of Education.

Here are some other key findings in the study, which was released this week:

  • E-school students were mostly similar in race and ethnicity to students in physical district schools. But e-school students were lower achieving and more likely to have repeated the prior grade, more likely to have participated in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, and less likely to have participated in gifted education.
  • Students taking online math courses were more likely to enroll in basic classes relative to students taking face-to-face courses. Almost no students took advanced math courses, like AP statistics, calculus or algebra II, online, especially compared to students who take face-to-face classes.
  • Findings also suggest that e-schools dragged down the performance of the entire charter sector.

Ohio has one of the highest virtual charter school populations in the country, with 35,000 students enrolled full-time. Enrollment for e-schools has increased 60 percent during the past four years, making e-schools the fastest growing public education sector in the Buckeye State. A total of 1.7 million students are enrolled in Ohio’s K–12 public education system, according to the Fordham Institute and the Ohio education department.

Ohio’s online charter schools have been in the news recently. Last month, Ohio’s largest charter school and largest online K–12 school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), lost an attempt in court to block a state audit of its attendance and state funding. About 15,000 students attend ECOT, which received between $107 million and $108 in state funding for the 2015-16 school year.

Not surprisingly, the Fordham study concluded that “Ohio’s e-school students are not achieving at the same level as their peers in brick-and-mortar district schools.” In its conclusion, the study made four policy recommendations:

  1. E-schools serve challenging student populations. Many of these students may not be well suited or well supported to succeed in online learning environments that require independent learning and self-direction. E-schools must figure out how to do better by this population.
  2. If e-schools can’t effectively educate the students who choose to enroll, consider using them more strategically — specifically, by targeting students who are well suited to benefit most from online delivery.
  3. Rethink the “all-or-nothing” nature of enrolling in e-schools. Instead, allow students to combine high-quality fully online and face-to-face classes (without making them jump through hoops to earn credit or pay tuition).
  4. Harness the potential of e-schools to better understand how students learn online.

The full report, “Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio’s Virtual Charter Schools,” can be accessed on the Fordham Institute’s website.

About the Author

Richard Chang is associate editor of THE Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].