In most Florida schools, state educational funding follows a student regardless of whether he or she passes or fails a course. But at the 97,000-student Florida Virtual School, the money comes through only when the student completes a course with a passing grade.
Under the funding model, which differs from the appropriations-based system that pays for many other state virtual schools, the Florida Virtual School grew from just under 13,000 half-credit completions in 2002-03 to just under 214,000 in 2009-10. But the performance-based funding model means FLVS also has to walk a delicate line between ensuring that its students complete courses at a rate high enough to sustain adequate funding, and maintaining proper standards for its courses.
The result is a school in which every class interaction is documented, and where every teacher and administrator works on a performance contract that is renewed each year. Teachers are compensated on a base-plus-incentive-pay formula that includes how many students complete their courses and how quickly they do so.
And the Orlando-based FLVS has an eight-person quality-assessment team whose biggest job is to ensure academic propriety and student satisfaction. The school also provides extensive job orientation to ensure that the teachers hired by FLVS know and accept the environment. The assessment team must ensure that the school is not dumbing down courses to increase student-success rates and thereby get more funding.
State funding per student varies slightly depending on the content and difficulty of the course, but averages about $425 per course completion, according to Florida Virtual School officials.
“If we have an integrity breach, we can part [FLVS] ties,” explained Pam Birtolo, the school’s chief learning officer, referring partly to teachers who lower course standards to ensure higher student-success rates. “The people for whom this is not a good fit, we coach them out. And I suspect if we didn’t, my [integrity-breach] numbers would be higher.”
The school, which operates as its own K-12 public school district, is also still subject to the same annual audits from the state department of education as other districts, as well as certification of its Advanced Placement courses by the New York City-based College Board. The quality-assessment team prepares for the state audits with a series of mock run-throughs, in which it pulls 200 course completions at random to make sure the documentation would match state standards, said Kimberly Rugh, the school’s lead quality-assurance instructor.
The team also conducts monthly “classroom visits” of each course, in which assurance instructors view class records through a Web link that allows access to everything from documentation of a phone call between a teacher and a student to the completion and grading of an exam. And for novice teachers during a 97-day probationary period, the team extends those checks to additional phone calls home to students and parents to monitor the class dynamic.
Frequent ‘Classroom Visits’
While the close monitoring might sound a bit Orwellian, Ms. Rugh says a combination of full disclosure and evenhanded feedback helps teachers feel comfortable.
“The teacher understands the class will be visited, and will be visited frequently,” Ms. Rugh said. “And when we see [good] things that are rocking our world, we can capture and document those, and we also present those to our supervisors. We do a lot of celebrating in our work.”
Ms. Birtolo said that the standardization of courses combines with a variety of assessment methods to help avoid instances of student and teacher academic fraud. Oral exams, in which a teacher calls a student and questions him or her on material directly, are a particularly strong guard against student fraud, she said, while the documentation of every student assignment makes it difficult for a teacher to change a student grade without giving a reason.
The school’s quality-control methods, Ms. Birtolo said, have helped earn accreditation from the Indianapolis-based National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has recently moved not to accept some virtual schools’ credit-recovery courses.
Starting this spring, all Florida Algebra 1 students, including those taking courses from FLVS, will be subject to a state-implemented end-of-course assessment. Students taking high-school-level geometry and biology courses will face such exams the following year.
While Ms. Birtolo said she isn’t concerned that FLVS students won’t learn the skills necessary to pass, she said the school may have to consider offering review groups for students, since the state exam will be at a set date, and FLVS students can progress through courses at their own pace.
“Much like we do for AP reviews that are available for anybody,” she said, “I imagine we’ll get into the business of end-of-course exam reviews and figure this out.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Fla. Walks a Delicate Line