What is a virtual school? How does it teach? Who uses it? What does it cost? Is it any good? Those were legitimate questions when Georgia Virtual School opened its online learning doors to students in fall 2005. Those same questions are valid today and there are a few new ones.
There are many answers to what is a virtual school and how does it teach. Online learning may include internet-based courses taught by a classroom teacher, or internet courses taken with or without access to an online instructor. The distinct advantage is students have access to courses not taught in their own schools. In Georgia, six county school districts offer their own online courses, and the state also has a large charter cyber school.
Georgia Virtual School (GAVS) is a $5.4 million entity within the $7 billion state Department of Education. This small and fairly low profile division distributes online courses to public, private and home school high school students – no middle school courses are offered this year.
GAVS is nationally well-regarded. The 2009 Southern Regional Education Board analysis of state virtual schools commended Georgia for becoming the first state to create online teaching certificate standards. GAVS also has become a national leader for its advanced placement course offerings.
A new performance report from the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts is a thorough Georgia Virtual School analysis loaded with recommendations to make it better. The 46-page study was released three days before Christmas which explains why there has been sparse public recognition of its findings.
The best way to think about GAVS is as a supplemental program service and not a school. It does not offer degrees; you never “graduate” from GAVS. More than two-thirds of its 30,000 students last year participated in online credit recovery to retake a course they initially failed. GAVS provides faculty for all courses except credit recovery which is entirely online.
Performance report analysts wrote positively about GAVS but they also concluded it “does not have a strategic plan that addresses the fundamental issues of who should be served, the future direction of the program, or measurable goals and objectives. In addition, the program lacks sufficient performance measures and benchmarks for assessing the quality of the program.”
Challenges GAVS faces during its sixth year are virtually every kind – how to fund the model, student eligibility, decisions about course offerings, how to establish a cost basis, the proper balance between full-time and adjunct faculty, how to measure student performance, and how to divide compensation between GAVS and local school districts when students enroll in GAVS.
Analysis of 31,070 course enrollments taken since GAVS opened in fall 2005 found a 75% completion rate and an 80% passing rate. “These indicators suggest that GAVS is providing quality online instruction to its students,” the performance report said.
Measuring online student performance against students in traditional classrooms is an inexact science because sample sizes are so different. For instance, 31,761 classroom students enrolled in fall 2009 high school biology; five took online high school biology.
The Department of Audits performance report found GAVS enrolled 5,547 students in 8,923 courses last year, up 16% from one year earlier. The vast majority (83%) were public school students while 9% attended private schools and 8% were home-school students.
Nearly half of total enrollments (46%) were in core subjects – math, science, social studies and language arts. Another 40% were electives and 14% were enrollments in advanced placement courses. GAVS offered 114 courses last year; half (exactly 57) were core subject courses.
The performance report said GAVS “has not established a systemic approach for selecting courses to add to the curriculum or established priority areas for the types of courses to offer.” It said course decisions are made by “informally consulting” with stakeholders. The report said a formal curriculum review process should be developed.
The funding discussion is complicated with many stakeholders. GAVS leaders would like to expand course offerings and increase the number of students. During our conversation last fall GAVS director Christina Clayton discussed how she would like to grow the student base to 100,000 students.
“I really want to break into K-5; we don’t serve that population now,” Clayton said. “Listening to teacher and parent focus groups, what I am hearing is we need more of a resource to support technology literacy for our K-5 students so they are ready for middle school, high school and beyond.”
GAVS funding comes from three sources: the legislature, public school districts and students. The largest share is state funds allocated by the General Assembly; state funds paid tuition for 78.6% of course enrollments last year. Public schools paid for 14.4% and students paid for 7% of enrollments. Students pay directly for all courses taken during summer.
Importantly, the performance report said GAVS “has not analyzed whether the per-segment allocation of state funds or the tuition approximates the actual cost to deliver an online course.” Without that information, the report said, GAVS cannot ensure that it is covering costs.
The General Assembly also limits state funds; last year it agreed to fund not more than 8,500 course enrollments. GAVS has not outgrown state funding – some 500 fully funded enrollments were not used last year – but a cap of any kind is a roadblock that serves to slow the potential for program growth. Georgia has some 1.65 million public school students. Barely 2% participate in GAVS courses.
Students must receive approval from their local school districts before they are permitted to enroll in GAVS courses. Some local public school district facilitators told Department of Audits analysts that they have denied permission so the local district can hold onto state funding rather than transfer those dollars to the state virtual school.
The report noted, “GAVS’ current funding model was established in 2005 without any analysis of what the cost of delivering an online cost should be.” It said, “GAVS should determine the purpose of the tuition amount (to recover all costs or partial costs), and periodically update the tuition amount as necessary to reflect the actual cost to deliver courses.”
GAVS should write a three-to-five year strategic plan and then update it annually.
GAVS should develop student eligibility policies to reduce inconsistencies when local districts decide which students should be granted or denied access to GAVS courses.
GAVS should establish a standard student-teacher ratio and better monitor instructor workloads.
GAVS should consider how to handle hiring in-house so that it could cancel a $135,000 contract with Kennesaw State University which currently handles GAVS hiring and background checks.
Department of Education footnotes in the performance report often said the agency agreed with findings and would work to incorporate recommendations into new planning.
(Read the complete report on the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts website. Click here and then click on the Performance Reports icon. Enter “Georgia Virtual School” into the search window and click again. You will need to download the 46-page report.) (Georgia Virtual School link here.)
Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
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