Ohio Department of Education’s ‘Regathon’ Against Online Learning

In case you haven’t noticed, bureaucracies don’t tend to be huge fans of disruptive competition.

When I was young, one of the most popular fundraising methods for countless non-profit groups was the ubiquitous “Danceathon.” The idea was for people to dance until they nearly dropped, often finishing the night in a state of stuporous, sloppy collision. By then, few participants cared or even remembered the original philanthropic purpose of the event, too carried away with the entranced reverie of their flailing exuberance. Enter the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), and its “Regathon” against online learning, which appears similar.

Online charter schools or e-schools have provided both hope and a high school diploma for many thousands of Ohioans and Americans. Sometimes these students are bored by the pace of traditional classrooms and discover that they learn much faster on their own. But a larger percentage find their way to online learning because of problems while in traditional schools. Some were bullied; some were addicted, and some got pregnant. Others got sick. Still others fled abusive homes. Whatever the root cause, dropout prevention and recovery remains one of the primary roles of e-schools in Ohio and across the country. We want these children to have another chance at an education and the more prosperous life it can bestow. And falling behind academically a year or more, the students who can still somehow overcome these often devastating setbacks to finish high school anyway enjoy successes that are both moral and economic.

And so, such come-from-behind graduations should be celebrated. The trouble is that both the Ohio Department of Education and much of the local media often count these students as failures, based on the published “on-time graduation rates” of e-schools.

In case you haven’t noticed, bureaucracies don’t tend to be huge fans of disruptive competition, because it can threaten their cherished job securities. Their go-to defensive posture is often to regulate the competition to obscurity.

In the case of e-schools, the ODE’s version of this tactic was to require 920-hours of student “login time” every year, for every student. Worse yet, despite some regulatory phrases about login time buried in government documents, the enforcement of the standard was something of a gothcha surprise. ODE suddenly applied the new 920-standard after a 2016 review letter to the biggest e-school, ECOT (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow), suggested the tracking of login duration should simply be a future goal, writing, “ECOT is encouraged to develop a system of tracking total hours of student participation.” This change in at least procedure, if not policy as well, meant that hundreds of millions of state dollars and thousands of student futures would hang on this new metric of aggregated student login time.

…How long until the auto-logout happens? Is it in 5 minutes? 30 minutes? 4 hours? 24 hours?

Without getting too far into the weeds, please just imagine one simple scenario. Johnny is online doing his Algebra II homework when his mother calls him to dinner. Instead of logging out of the school’s server, he just stands up and walks away. How long do you think the school’s computer keeps him logged in until it assumes Johnny’s no longer studying? In other words, how long until the auto-logout happens? Is it in 5 minutes? 30 minutes? 4 hours? 24 hours?

In the delirium of the ODE Regathon, no one’s quite bothered to clarify how much time should pass until a student auto-logout happens, even though they insist total computer time should determine the allocation of the aforementioned hundreds of millions of state education dollars. This means each and every e-school is free to invent its own arbitrary answer to when auto-logouts happen, creating massive differences in the schools’ total recorded login times and re-directing all kinds of cash.

Imagine you were hiring workers to paint your house. First, instead of paying them for the job, you decided to pay every worker by the hour. Second, you’d allow each worker to declare and be paid for unused lunch and break time, even though some would write down 15 minutes each day, and others, 6 hours. Under no circumstance would this remotely make sense, and yet it’s is the equivalent of the ODE paying schools based on student login time, without any rules about auto-logouts.

The fact is we all already know that time is a terrible way to measure education. Indeed the whole education reform movement started because of countless graduating seniors who couldn’t read their own high school diplomas despite having spent the requisite hours in classrooms. Whether the job is to re-pave a road, pick up trash or educate a child, the pricing, within reason, should be rooted in the task completion, not precise measurements of how long someone worked at it.

But even after selecting this bad metric for education, and even after review letters that didn’t imply its immediate application, the Ohio Department of Education’s implementation of student login time is wholly unworkable, and failure to define auto-logouts is just one simple, glaring example.

Like revelers at a danceathon, the ODE has begun regulating wildly, with arms, legs and review letters flying akimbo. At this point, they’ve forgotten why they’re there. It’s supposed to be about student learning — not measuring time, nor protecting jobs.

Bob Bowdon is the Executive Director of Choice Media, a national education news service. Choice Media recently released an in-depth interview with Rick Teeters, Superintendent of ECOT, Ohio’s largest e-school.

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Bob Bowdon

Bob Bowdon has been a television producer, reporter, political commentator, documentary filmmaker and satirist. He is currently the Executive Director of Choice Media, an education news service, website and smartphone app.

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