Education Industry Education Reform Ohio Privatization Virtual Charter Schools

Ohio: Whistleblower Says Online Charter Used Software to Inflate Enrollment, More $$$$

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A whistleblower informed state education officials that ECOT (the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) had used software that inflated its enroll,wants and its state reimbursements. He filed his complaint in early August but state officials ignored it until December.  

ECOT’s lobbyist disagreed.

“COLUMBUS, Ohio — Education regulators are reviewing a whistleblower’s claim that Ohio’s then-largest online charter school intentionally inflated attendance figures tied to its state funding using software it purchased after previous allegations of attendance inflation, The Associated Press has learned.

“A former technology employee of the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow said he told the Ohio Department of Education last year that school officials ordered staff to manipulate student data with software obtained following the state’s demand that it return $60 million in overpayments for the 2015-2016 school year. He also took his claims to Republican Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, whose office said they were incorporated into a financial audit being prepared for release.

“The employee spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions for speaking out. His concerns were first raised in an Aug. 3 email to the state a month before it released its 2017 attendance review of ECOT.

“The state challenged ECOT over how it claimed student time using the new software, called ActivTrak, after finding that it duplicated learning hours, according to Education Department spokeswoman Brittany Halpin.”

ProgressOhio reported:

Columbus – Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that the Ohio Department of Education is reviewing allegations that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) deliberately inflated attendance records in order to get more money from the state. Though a whistleblower initially contacted the Department in August 2017, officials did not interview him until December.

“Manipulating attendance records is the cherry on top of ECOT’s cake of fraud that it keeps trying to serve Ohio taxpayers,” said ProgressOhio’s Monica Moran. “While taxpayers are happy to see that these claims are being looked at, it seems that once again the state is slow-walking the investigation. Ohio regulators cannot put their heads in the sand like they did for years while ECOT was still operating.”

From the report:

“A former technology employee of the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow said he told the Ohio Department of Education last year that school officials ordered staff to manipulate student data with software obtained following the state’s demand that it return $60 million in overpayments for the 2015-2016 school year…

The whistleblower told the AP that the first run on the new software returned results showing students with just more than half the hours needed to justify ECOT’s full reported enrollment — and, with that, its full state payment. He shared his assessment with the Education Department’s top lawyer, Diane Lease, in an Aug. 3 email.”

Another perspective, taken from a personal email to me from a parent in Ohio, including the whistleblower’s letter:

http://www.wlns.com/ap-top-news/whistleblower-school-used-software-to-get-more-state-money/1135319359

In an Aug. 3, 2017, email, a whistle-blower who calls himself ECOT Voice sent explosive information to ODE Legal Counsel Diane Lease. He said ECOT implemented a new system to intentionally inflate its attendance and warned ODE to get back-up documentation of the attendance padding. Instead, ODE took ECOT’s word for the higher enrollment.

ECOT Voice urged the state to “demand clear documentation of the role of the ActivTrak software, how the data aggregation process distinguishes academic work from other use of the student computers, how much idle-time is allowed between verified student interactions, and how that data is used in relation to the other verified academic sources (the iQity Learning Management System, the Blackboard Collaborate online sessions, and other imported sources).

I have met with, and spoken to, ECOT Voice multiple times and verified his employment with ECOT. He said ECOT purchased new software from ActivTrak that allows the school count as classroom time anytime a window is opened on a student’s laptop. The whistleblower estimated that the new software allows ECOT to improperly collect an additional $10-20 million per school year.

It appears as if the “clear documentation” he urged Lease to obtain is readily available. I telephoned ActivTrack and spoke with both the salesman who handles the ECOT account and the CEO. They said ECOT purchased 20,000 copies of ActivTrak and provides ODE with two sets of reports: One that shows ALL time on the computer, another provides very detailed breakdowns of student activity.

We know that ECOT Voice’s warning was ignored because a Nov. 19, 2017, report in the Columbus Dispatch, states that ODE relied on ECOT’s attendance figures, clearly showing that the agency did not take ECOT Voice’s suggestion to “demand clear documentation of the role of the ActivTrak software….’’

From the Dispatch:

When the Ohio Department of Education audited ECOT’s attendance for a second school year last summer, the embattled online charter’s verified attendance went up more than 80 percent, and the amount it was forced to repay was $19.2 million, down from $60 million the previous year.

But documents show that the state used different methods during the second audit completed over the summer, as the two sides bickered over how to handle it. Instead of figuring out the attendance itself, as it had done in the previous year, the department asked the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow on July 31 to compile computer records showing how many hours a year students performed classwork.

The process did not go smoothly. By mid-August, according to correspondence between the charter school and the department, the department was complaining to ECOT that “the manner in which the data was provided did not allow the department to validate the summary data” with ECOT’s underlying daily attendance records.

On Aug. 30, ECOT submitted yet more data that the state used “as the basis for the final determination.” In the end, the department signed off on the much-higher attendance number, but with the following caveat: “This final determination was based on the records provided by ECOT to the department,” Aaron Rausch, the department’s director of budget and school funding, wrote ECOT on Sept. 28.

Exactly what all this means about the independence of the latest audit is unclear. Neither Rausch nor department spokeswoman Brittany Halpin would answer questions about the most recent review, which ECOT will begin challenging before an arbitrator next month.

Here is the full email that warned of attendance padding:

 

 

 

From: ECOT Voice [email protected]>
Date: Thu, Aug 3, 2017 at 4:24 PM
Subject: ECOT Related Inquiry
To: [email protected]

Ms. Lease,

 

I am a former ECOT employee who was referred to you by Tess Elshoff.  She declined to accept my approaching her due to pending litigation with ECOT.

 

As ODE is in the midst of evaluating the accuracy of reported engagement data from ECOT, I believe it to be an opportune time to express my concerns over the funding claims based upon that data. I am not an endorser of the change in how ODE is evaluating the services rendered and the resulting funding model change; nevertheless, I am also not supportive of claiming funds based upon suspect data.

 

While employed by ECOT (until July of this year) I had occasion to be present when strategies for calculating the per-pupil “educational opportunity” were considered, including various models tested by ECOT prior to submission.  The primary concern I would raise relates to how statistics were gathered that may not have sufficiently distinguished between non-academic and academic usage of systems, as well as the methods used to assess whether students were active or idle while logged on may have been overly generous in allocating classroom time during inactivity.

 

As I understand, the typical audit of selected students is unlikely to delve into the original source data used to determine the duration of student work sessions and the assumptions that may have been encoded in the processing of the raw data.  I would strongly advise that the audit process demand clear documentation of the role of the ActivTrak software, how the data aggregation process distinguishes academic work from other use of the student computers, how much idle-time is allowed between verified student interactions, and how that data is used in relation to the other verified academic sources (the iQity Learning Management System, the Blackboard Collaborate online sessions, and other imported sources).

 

While recent news reports indicate that a modest percentage of the audited students may have raised concern and identified need for further research, I am concerned that the scope of questionable data might be much larger.  Internal opinion at the time of my departure was that actual verifiable academic engagement is not likely to be much greater than 50% of the enrolled FTEs (a bit better than the 41% of last year) but that submitted data will represent a much higher funding rate than that — even on the order of 80% or higher.  A level many find difficult to believe.

 

Please consider this as a communication from a concerned citizen of the State of Ohio and forward its content as you deem appropriate for the purposes of completing an trustworthy audit of the public interest in charter school funding.

 

Regards,

 

E

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