Published Online: September 20, 2010
Published in Print: September 22, 2010, as Distinctive Demands Make Compensation Complicated

Distinctive Demands Make Compensation Complicated

Pay Structures for Online Educators Vary Widely

Some teachers might apply to work for virtual schools in search of extra cash to supplement their brick-and-mortar day jobs; others may want to experience the flexibility of an online environment, the chance to reach students beyond their traditional district boundaries, or the opportunity to more fully utilize technology.

What they shouldn't expect is a more lucrative source of primary income.

Compensation for virtual instructors more or less mirrors what instructors in regular schools earn, though the pay structure for them can vary greatly, say online education experts. And given the distinctive demands and connectivity of online teaching - many novice online teachers struggle with time management and find themselves in constant teacher-student communication - it is possible that some virtual educators earn less per hour than their colleagues in brick-and-mortar schools.

But employment practices for virtual educators differ so widely that establishing or improving any norms is a major challenge.

"The biggest concerns...are the lack of consistency from one agency and/or virtual school to the next," Ken Bradford, Louisiana's director of education technology, which runs the Louisiana Virtual School, said in an e-mail. "Some schools pay flat fees, some pay per student ratios, and some pay per student that passes a course. There are no standards for online-teacher pay across the nation."

State of Pay

With state education departments, for-profit education companies, regular school districts, and independent online-only districts all managing virtual schools, it can be hard to establish fair and structured compensation practices. State education departments struggle with how to pay virtual teachers when their pay scales are designed to establish fair compensation for all state employees, while state and national teacher groups struggle to grasp even how many of their members are virtual instructors. In all virtual schools, there is debate over how much brick-and-mortar experience should affect pay for online instructors.

State-run virtual schools often use an intermediary financial agent to handle teacher compensation, sometimes to avoid the negative publicity of hiring more state employees during a difficult economic period, say virtual school officials. At the 5,800-student Louisiana Virtual School, for example, teachers are officially paid by the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts, a state-supported residential high school in Natchitoches, through what Mr. Bradford termed an interagency- agreement contract. The virtual school's 16 full-time instructors are paid on a pay scale that mirrors a traditional district's, Mr. Bradford said, while its roughly 100 adjunct teachers are paid per student enrolled, with a cap on enrollment at 25 students per course.

In Georgia, the 32 full-time instructors and 80 to 120 adjuncts at the 30,000-student Georgia Virtual School, or GVS, are paid directly by Kennesaw State University, the intermediary financial agent. Full-time teachers' salaries are determined by a combination of the state board of education's guidelines, which stipulate the base salaries for teachers of different experience levels, and an average of the supplemental pay across the state's districts, said Christina Clayton, the school's director of virtual learning. The state lists base bay for starting teachers at $33,424 annually, though what beginning teachers actually make depends on their level of certification. District supplements typically range from $3,000 to $8,000.

Full-time GVS teachers also receive employee benefits from the university, situated 20 miles north of Atlanta, including the opportunity to take up to nine graduate-level or continuing education credits per semester after nine months of teaching service.

Like their Louisiana counterparts, the Georgia Virtual School's part-time instructors are paid according to the number of students enrolled in their courses; they can receive up to $310 per student for a course carrying one Carnegie unit of credit. All new teachers are required to complete a yearlong training course in delivering online instruction, Ms. Clayton said, but that course is paid for by the Georgia Virtual School.

Flexibility on Incentives

While state-run virtual schools grapple with how to compensate their instructors, state and national teachers' organizations are largely inactive on the issue. Officials from the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, say only that they represent very few full-time virtual instructors. The number of part-time or "blended" instructors they represent is impossible to determine, they say, because of the fluidity of teachers' incorporating online elements into learning.

Some online education experts argue that the relative absence of unions helps the online-teaching process, easing the sometimes tense relationships between traditional teachers and administrators, and allowing alternative pay structures for organizations with more flexibility to offer teacher incentives.

"This gives teachers greater freedom to openly discuss any questions, concerns, and issues they might have in regards to any part of their employment and relationship," said Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for the for-profit online education company K12 Inc., based in Herndon, Va., which manages online schools and offers services to others. "It also enables high-achieving teachers to be rewarded for their individual success."

The Experience Factor

Determining how experience should factor into a virtual instructor's compensation can also be more difficult than in a brick-and-mortar school.

In "Going Virtual," an October 2008 study from researchers at Boise State University in Idaho, only one in 13 new online teachers did not have previous traditional teaching experience. That's fine with many experts, who say experience leads to better traditional teaching, which leads to better online teaching.

"The literature is very clear that being a good teacher in general is most related to being successful in online environments," said Priscilla Norton, an instructional technology professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "Companies that create online courses and market them to K-12, they hire people who have classroom experience - people who understand curriculum, who understand teaching and learning - to then work in an online environment."

But while some schools reward brick-and-mortar experience with pay, the Florida Virtual School, or FLVS, which operates as its own school district within the state, starts all new virtual teachers at the same base pay. If their experience in regular schools makes them better online teachers, they will quickly earn more money through performance incentives, said Pam Birtolo, the school's chief learning officer. Those incentives, she said, are more popular among the virtual school's teachers than recently passed performance-pay plans for Florida's traditional teachers, which hinge primarily on student performance.

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Ms. Birtolo said an FLVS teacher is evaluated on whether parents and students perceive the teacher to be caring, whether the teacher can bring students of all ability levels through completion of a course, how many students he or she can bring to course completion during a school year, and how responsive the teacher is to individual student issues.

The performance incentives "are not based on some state mandate. They've been designed and developed and tweaked by our teachers," Ms. Birtolo said. "In order to require the hard work our teachers do, we also have to be fiscally accountable to them."

Ms. Birtolo would not assign dollar amounts to how FLVS teachers are paid, but said the amount FLVS pays it teachers puts it in the upper third of Florida school districts. According to the National Education Association, full-time Florida teachers earned an average annual salary of $47,000 in 2008.

'All Over the Map'

Yet, in many cases, the inconsistency in virtual-instructor pay simply reflects the inconsistency in traditional teacher pay. For example, Teresa Scavulli, the director of K12's teacher-effectiveness division, said virtual instructors in highly sought-after fields like Mandarin Chinese, math, and science are sometimes more heavily compensated.

Also, virtual teachers are generally still subject to the salary policies of states and districts. And with some teachers losing brick-and-mortar jobs in a sour economy, the supply of potential online teachers is exceeding demand, giving online schools less incentive to boost pay, said Susan D. Patrick, the president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, based in Vienna, Va.

"Teachers in virtual programs are compensated at a similar rate to [traditional] teachers," Ms. Patrick said. "It's just that it's all over the map."

Vol. 30, Issue 04, Pages s14,s15

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