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Thursday, September 14, 2017

New Report Cards Tell Similar Story

The new report cards are out, and while there are a few surprises (high performing districts like Upper Arlington receiving Fs for student growth among special education students, for instance), the overall tale the report cards tell is the same: Ohio's public school districts outperform Ohio's charter schools. This is all with the major caveat that in many cases, the report cards simply perpetuate the problem with standardized tests being so closely tied to poverty rather than academic performance. But I digress.

I know many in the charter cheering section hate when I compare district performance with charters. But just remember that all but a handful of school districts lost funding and students to charters last school year. In addition, only about 1/2 of all charter school students come from the Big 8 urban districts (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown) anymore.

If you're taking kids and money from kids in all districts, your overall performance comparison should be with all those districts, not just the lowest performing districts, or the worst performing schools in those districts.

I contend the reason they don't like the comparison is because 2 out of 3 Ohio school district grades are A, B, or C. Meanwhile, 7 out of 10 charter grades are D or F.

While overall Big 8 performance is worse than charters overall (nearly 3 out of 4 big 8 grades are Fs), don't forget that significant portions of students in charter schools, including many high performers, do not come from the Big 8.

It's also interesting to note how high performing buildings in Big 8 urban districts compare with high performing charters. Using the state's standard for high performing charters located here, I found that while about 4.5 percent of all charter school students go to high performing charter schools, 7 percent of Big 8 students attend high performing buildings.

And in  terms of performance, Big 8 high performers receive significantly higher percentages of A grades than their high performing charter school counterparts.

Even though a slightly higher percentage of high performing charter school grades are A, B, or C, what you'll see is that the high performing Big 8 buildings, which have nearly 100 percent of their students from the Big 8, more than hold their own against the highest of the high flying charter schools, many of whose students do not come from the Big 8.

I will dig into other and different aspects of the report card data in the coming days.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

ECOT's Dropout School Application Looks Like My Son's T-ball Registration Form

Look, I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but would you look at the "application" the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow filled out to become a dropout recovery school so it could escape scrutiny and continue collecting hundreds of millions of our hard-earned tax dollars while continuing to be the nation's top producer of dropouts?

It looks like my son's T-ball registration form.

And look at the school's population estimates: 15,000 total students and 8,000 dropout program participants. Really? Perfectly round numbers? Don't the people of ECOT have actual enrollment figures, complete with the students' ages? It sure seems to me that they're kind of spitballing this.

Want more proof?

They actually scratched out their sponsor's identification number, wrote out the number above the scratched out number ... AND TURNED IT IN! 

What, there wasn't any Wite-Out available? Man, $100 million doesn't pay for what it used to, I guess.

Would you let your kids turn in this work to their teacher?

ECOT not only turned this in to ODE, but the school could receive hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars as a result.


I don't know. I kind of expected more from ODE's application process. If you can apply to become a dropout recovery school and essentially escape all accountability and scrutiny, shouldn't it be a little more rigorous than something that looks like it was written on the back of a napkin? Or at least didn't have grammar school errors on it?

Am I just sensitive?

Or is this just par for the course for a school that owes Ohio taxpayers $60 million because it couldn't prove it educated 60 percent of the kids it claimed to educate in the 2015-2016 school year?

2013 Ohio State Study Shows ECOT Bad at Preventing or Recovering Dropouts. Now ECOT wants to Specialize in It.

Four years prior to the school's application to be considered a dropout recovery school this summer, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- the state's oldest and largest online school -- was found to be Ohio's leading producer of high school dropouts while only recovering 1.5 percent of those dropouts.

In a 2013 report completed by Ohio State University's Education Research Center, the authors concluded that between 2006-2010, ECOT produced 13,000 dropouts, or 21.5 percent of all dropouts in Ohio's charter schools. In 2010 alone, ECOT had 2,908 dropouts -- nearly double the number of the Cleveland Municipal School District's 1,600. At the time, Cleveland had nearly double the students enrolled as ECOT had, according to the report.

In the interest of fairness, the ECOT enrollment data included in the report differs greatly from reported enrollment data at the Ohio Department of Education. It is not clear from the report how the researchers reached their enrollment figures when they calculated the dropout rate, but it appears they only included students who were 16 years or older.

In addition, the researchers found that of those 2,908 students, only 75 returned to ECOT. Of the 13,000 lost during the previous 5 years, ECOT only recovered 194 -- a dreadful 1.5 percent recovery rate.

The researchers concluded that
"it is clear that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow strongly influences the dropout numbers of this region (Ohio's urban districts). Reducing dropouts at this one school could improve the problem significantly."
What is critical to remember is that this study compared ECOT's impact on dropout prevention and recovery with urban districts in the state -- traditionally the top producers of high school dropouts among Ohio school districts. And among even those, ECOT was particularly awful.

If ECOT's 53 percent dropout rate reported by the Ohio State researchers held consistent for all its eligible students since the school opened in the 2000-2001 school year, ECOT could be said to have produced about 40,000 dropouts during its existence.

That's about how many people live in Lima.

Yet now ECOT, which the state has known for at least four years is the largest single contributor to Ohio's dropout problem while recovering barely any of those dropouts, wants to be called a dropout prevention and recovery school -- a special designation that brings with it plenty of protections from accountability and perpetual existence.

As the Plain Dealer reported today, ECOT's claims to have an impossibly difficult population of students to educate are clearly out of line with its actual population. If ECOT received the dropout designation, it would have among the least challenged populations in any dropout recovery school. Yet it would be paid far more than any other.

The Ohio Department of Education, which is reviewing ECOT's application, should heed the warnings it received four years ago and not allow ECOT to hide from scrutiny, insisting instead that ECOT improve its performance dramatically for its kids.

Perhaps the department should at least insist that ECOT stop producing the most dropouts of any school in the nation before it says ECOT should specialize in preventing and recovering dropouts.

That, I believe, would be a great place to begin.

Friday, August 25, 2017

How to Turn an Ineffective Charter Sponsor into a High Performing One: Make ECOT a Dropout School

In a little-noticed detail of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow's (ECOT) attempt to become a Dropout Recovery School, potentially the greatest beneficiary of the shift would be ECOT's sponsor -- the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West.

Here's how.

Under current law and the school's current configuration, the ESC of Lake Erie West is hammered on its sponsor evaluation grades because such a large percentage of the students it oversees come from ECOT. According to the Plain Dealer, "Poor grades, largely from the 15,000-student ECOT, dragged that ESC's rating down to 'ineffective.'"

ECOT and its allies tried to change the House Bill 2 provision that weighted enrollment during the evaluation because they wanted the 15,000 student school's grade to be counted just as heavily as a school with 60 or 100 students.

The legislature did not grant that request, so ECOT's poor grades have a tremendously negative impact on the ESC of Lake Erie West's ability to sponsor schools and collect their 3 percent sponsorship fee.

This put the ESC in a bind because as an "ineffective" rated sponsor, it had to improve its rating in three years or get shut down, yet if they cut ECOT loose, they would lose about $3 million in fees they currently collect -- a gravy train for the ESC.

Switching the school to a dropout recovery school solves the problem. Why? Because performance is so dreadful at dropout recovery schools, and state regulation so lax, that even ECOT's poor performance would grant them exceedingly high grades under the much more lenient dropout recovery accountability system.

So the weighted system that hurt the ESC when ECOT was getting Ds and Fs under the regular report card will not help the ESC because those Ds and Fs will turn into As under the more lenient system.

And all they need to do is change the school's designation.

For example, ECOT's graduation rate of 39.6 percent rates as a very low F on the regular state report card. However, under the dropout recovery report card, that 39.6 percent four-year graduation rate "exceeds standards", which means it will be graded on the sponsor report card the same as an A on the regular report card. The ESC will then have that "A" weighted by the 15,000 students in ECOT, making the A a kind of Mega-A.

So, not only does this let ECOT suddenly promote itself as receiving the highest grades possible by the state (even though there's no real improvement), but it allows the ESC to continue collecting millions all while having its sponsorship grade improve dramatically, potentially allowing it to collect millions more in sponsorship fees from additional schools.

But nothing has changed at ECOT.

Just because dropout recovery schools are worse performing than ECOT doesn't mean ECOT is high performing. It means that once again, ECOT is gaming a system its politically connected founder, William Lager, helped create with legislative blessing.

Those who suffer most are the students and parents at ECOT who will undoubtedly be roped into thinking ECOT is a high-performing school for their kids, even though it is a national embarrassment.

Only in Ohio's feebly regulated dropout recovery school system would ECOT be considered anything other than a failure.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

ECOT's Latest Gambit May Already Be In Trouble.

I wondered when this was coming. But apparently, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow -- the most scandal-ridden charter school in the state that owes taxpayers $60 million in overpayments from just one year of instruction -- now wants to be classified as a dropout recovery school.

The problem is, they can't do it unless they once again manipulate student counts. They either have to suddenly drop about 1,200 students off their rolls, or find thousands more students. While that can certainly happen, my guess is they will have to perform all kinds of enrollment gymnastics to do it. Of course, they've been pretty good at that in the past.

Why would they have to do this contortion? Because as a charter school, they have to accept everyone who comes through their virtual door, just like a local public school. They can't just drop a bunch of kids so they can get a new state designation that can save their financial bacon.

Why would they want to do this? Changing to a dropout recovery school means that the state can never really close ECOT, and their grades won't hurt their sponsor -- the Education Service Center of Lake Erie West. Oh, and they can just keep expanding and expanding without fear of recourse.

Dropout recovery schools have been a major embarrassment to Ohio for years. And they are the recipients of one of the last bastions of legislative loopholes for politically connected charter school operators. In order to avoid being shut down, they can improve their graduation and test passage rates by 10 percent a year in two consecutive years. However, this benefits the worst performing schools because improving from a 1.7 percent graduation rate to a 2.1 percent graduation rate over two years is much easier (it can mean simply getting 1 or 2 more kids to graduate) than going from 40 percent to 48 percent.

So, ECOT can't graduate 4 out of 10 kids, which is a failing grade as a start-up charter school as they are currently classified. But their putrid graduation rate would "exceed expectations" as a dropout recovery school.

Kind of tells you just how bad our dropout recovery regulations are, doesn't it?

Of course ECOT wouldn't answer questions about the switch, like why it took them 20 years to suddenly realize they would better serve kids as a dropout recovery school. But here's the other thing: to be classified as a dropout recovery school, the ECOT contract with their sponsor now says that "50 percent of students must be 16 or older, and behind by at least one grade level, or have experienced a crisis that interferes with them attending a traditional school."

State regulations say that dropout recovery schools -- in order to have the designation -- need to have the following requirements:

Any community school in which the majority of students are enrolled in a dropout prevention and recovery program operated by the school that meets the following criteria:
a) The program serves only students not younger than sixteen years of age and not older than twenty-one years of age;
b) The program enrolls students who, at the time of their initial enrollment, either, or both, are at least one grade level behind their cohort age groups or experience crises that significantly interfere with their academic progress such that they are prevented from continuing their traditional programs;
c) The program requires students to attain at least the applicable score designated for each of the assessments prescribed under division (B)(1) of section 3301.0710 of the Revised Code or, to the extent prescribed by rule of the state board of education under division (D)(6) of section 3301.0712 of the Revised Code, division (B)(2) of that section;
d) The program develops an individual career plan for the student that specifies the student's matriculating to a two-year degree program, acquiring a business and industry credential, or entering an apprenticeship;
e) The program provides counseling and support for the student related to the plan developed under division (A)(4) of that section during the remainder of the student's high school experience; and
f) The program's instructional plan demonstrates how the academic content standards adopted by the state board of education under section 3301.079 of the Revised Code will be taught and assessed;

I don't think ECOT -- as currently constituted -- can meet this definition, unless they un-enroll a bunch of kids.

According to ECOT's student enrollment count from October 2016 -- the latest count data available -- ECOT had 13,895 kids enrolled. Of that, 8,167 kids were in grades K-10. That means nearly 6 in 10 kids were likely under 16 years of age, let alone behind by a grade level or going through a crisis.

Now, those other non-age requirements are pretty simple to achieve, but in order for ECOT -- as currently constituted -- to meet those definitions, they have to drop at least 1,200 students and argue that every single 11th and 12th grader in their school is behind by a grade level or in a crisis.

So they will probably need to un-enroll more kids.

Of course, they could also target their ads toward recruiting more 16+ dropout students. But in either case, they will have to once again manipulate their enrollment figures to figure out a way to continue plundering taxpayer money.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Don't Worry. Even With Additional 12% Cut, ECOT Still Gets Paid. A Lot.

In another drip in the leak that has become the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow scandal, the Ohio Department of Education last week announced that it would withhold an additional 12 percent of the school's payments for which it has billed the state.

The idea that another 12 percent pay cut will ECOT out of business is folly. How can I say that? Because I looked at the data.

According to the school's bill it sent to the state for payments last month, ECOT was set to be paid $8.1 million in July for the 14,207 kids it claimed to be educating. Annualized, that would be $97.4 million a year -- not much of a cut from the $103 million they were paid last year.

However, because the state found that in the 2015-2016 year ECOT could only account for about 40 percent of the kids it actually billed the state for educating, the Ohio Department of Education is collecting $60 million from the school -- $30 million for this school year and another $30 million next year.

This is being done in $2.5 million, monthly increments.

So instead of about $97 million, ECOT was set to be paid $67 million this school year. Another 12 percent reduction would make the payment now about $55 million.

That seems like quite a pay cut, doesn't it? And there's little doubt that it is. However, ECOT has cut its staff in half, which means that to pay all their teachers, it will cost them $11 million. That leaves $44 million for them to spend on administrators, their politically connected founder William Lager and computer-related expenses. Remember that ECOT is a virtual shcool. It doesn't pay for buses, lunch ladies, janitors, HVAC, or any of the other myriad, substantial costs brick and mortar schools contend with every year.

But here's the rub of it: the per pupil funding.

If ECOT actually has 14,207 kids, their per pupil state funding has been cut from $6,854 to $3,908 -- about the average net state funding for local school districts. However, if they continue to only be educating full time 40 percent of that figure (about 5,825), as they were found to have done in 2015-2016 (and, according to the letter from ODE, it appears there remains a concern about this inflation), then their per pupil state funding has gone from $16,717 to $9,531.

To give you an idea of how much that is, there are 8 school districts in the state that spend more than $16,717 per pupil, including all state, federal and local money put together, with the highest being the high-performing, wealthy Orange City school district in Cuyahoga County at $21,714. Only two districts -- Orange and Beachwood -- spent more than that per equivalent pupil.

There are about 130 districts that spend more than $9,531 per equivalent pupil and 435 that spend more than $9,531 per pupil. So while, yes, this is a per pupil cut however you look at it, ECOT would still be able to spend per pupil what Newton Falls spends in Trumbull County.

But this all comes down to the actual number of kids ECOT has. If the number of kids remaining is closer to the 5,825, then the school will still clean up from the taxpayers. If they're closer to the 14,207, then they will be (finally) more in line with their actual costs. 

The point though is this: Even with all these fines, ECOT will be able to survive -- maybe not quite as high on the hog as its founder is used to, but it will survive.

And now that the Ohio Republican Party, who has collected millions from Lager over the years, was shamed into returning $76,000 in donations, here's hoping the state's politics are turning away from this failed virtual school experiment at ECOT, where not even 40 percent of students receive a diploma and corruption rules the roost.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Even with layoffs and fines, ECOT will make a killing.

Recently it was reported that Ohio virtual school giant the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) was laying off 350 staff members so the school could pay back the $60 million it owes taxpayers for kids it couldn't demonstrate it actually educated.

ECOT shills have said the state's decision to have the school pay back the fine over two years (at $30 million a year) by removing about $2.5 million a month from its payment schedule has threatened the school's financial viability.

Only if you think at least a 30 percent profit is untenable. I guess compared with the 40-45 percent profit they're used to receiving,30 percent a pittance. But what business wouldn't kill for 30 percent margins?

Oh, and it's probably more -- a lot more -- than that.

Here's how I calculated it. According to the latest data available, ECOT had 607 teachers in the 2014-2015 school year who were paid, on average, $36,038. Assuming that 300 of the 350 layoffs were teachers, that means there are now 307 teachers for the school's 14,207 students -- a roughly 47:1 student-teacher ratio.

However, that means ECOT -- a school without buses, lunch ladies, custodians, or myriad other traditional education costs and expenses, will only spend $11 million of the $73 million the state's preparing to pay the school this coming school year on teachers. So ECOT could give every kid a brand new, $2,000 laptop and still clear 30 percent.

For the record, ECOT kids are definitely NOT receiving $2,000 laptops and the 30 percent calculation doesn't include the 50 additional lost staff, many of whom could be making more than the teachers.

So the margin is probably larger than 30 percent. In fact, it's so large (even with $30 million fewer over the year, ECOT's per pupil state funding of $5,192 is more than what kids in 56 percent of local school districts received from the state last year) that ECOT could still pay politically connected founder William Lager his $20 million a year to "manage" and provide the software for the school and still have about $8 million to pay for its servers, administrators, etc. To give you an idea of what $8 million gets you, that's about what Lancaster Local or Brunswick City schools spend annually on administration.

In other words, Bill Lager can still clean up and the school can still run.

Of course, the school could have paid Lager a mere $10 million and kept all of its teachers, but as with nearly everything else about ECOT, profits trump kids.

No surprise there.