A Virtual School Compensation Model Based on Student Completion Rates Raises Eyebrows
Many services are paid for upon the satisfactory completion of a task—such as car maintenance, or hair styling, for example. But should a similar model apply to teacher compensation?
In South Carolina, Horry County Schools’ virtual program proposes to do just that. The district recently implemented a model that pays its online teachers based on how many of their students complete a course. It’s a model that proponents say is appealing, offering an incentive for educators to improve relations with virtual students. But it also attracts the scrutiny of those who fear that such compensation models give educators the burden of trying to control attrition rates.
This system was put in place to almost force our online teachers to document what they are doing. If the teacher drops the ball, they don’t get paid for that student.
Edi Cox, the executive director of the program, says teachers are happy with the compensation plan. “The feedback has been very positive.”
Cox has been through four different compensation models since the district started its virtual program ten years ago. With 15 part-time online teachers, she has found that paying them based on students’ completion rates is a better performance motivator and more cost-effective than offering the flat-salary model that exists in brick-and-mortar schools.
The virtual program in South Carolina was not originally designed to be a degree-granting institution, but rather to provide classes that supplement the courses offered at the physical schools in the region. But as the course offerings have expanded, so have the number of students using the school as a full-time institution.
Here’s how the online teachers are paid. Each semester, teachers get a base pay of $500 for each enrolled student in a course and an additional $120 for each one who finishes. For example, a class with five students who all finish would net the teacher $3100. If a student fails to complete the course, the teacher can still get the bonus—provided that they show that they have done everything they can to support the learner. The burden of proof can be vague, but for evidence, teachers can point to their efforts to contact parents, get students involved online and “going above and beyond” to help students be successful. If the educators’ documentation reaches this standard, they will be paid $120 per student for the work.
“This system was put in place to almost force our online teachers to document what they are doing,” Cox explains in an interview. “If the teacher drops the ball, they don’t get paid for that student.”
Cox does not claim credit for inventing this compensation structure. She said she modeled the program after Florida Virtual Schools (FLVS), which pioneered a model during the 2010-11 school year where teachers received a base salary and then earned bonuses based on predetermined goals such as quarterly completion rate targets. This practice was nixed, however, after Florida laws changed in reference to teacher compensation. As a statewide public school district, FLVS implemented changes to comply with the state statute. Today FLVS pays teachers a standard salary model with no pre-determined goals for additional compensation.
The goal according to Cox is to motivate teachers to try their best to keep students in the virtual space engaged as they complete courses—something, as evidenced by high attrition rates in the programs, has no easy solution. When asked if there was clear evidence showing that the compensation model Horry County used resulted in improved completion rates for students, Cox said there was no proof.
“What it has done is helped us keep our teachers because that base fee was not in place before. That’s now a guarantee, so it has given us some consistency that we may not have had before,” says Cox.
I wonder what I would do if I were out there a free agent getting paid per student per course completion. One of the reasons I say that is because with my courses there are so many factors that influence my students’ attendance.
Bruce Friend, the chief operating officer at iNACOL (International Association for K-12 Online Learning), a nonprofit organization for virtual education providers, has seen other inventive ways that districts design teacher payment schemes. He says full-time virtual charter schools that issue diplomas are more likely to hire full-time teachers to work with them, while supplemental programs generally hire part-time staff.
Other common part-time compensation models include paying teachers:
- a flat rate per class regardless of the number of students;
- by the number of students enrolled in the course;
- based on students’ progression milestones or performance.
Some schools also task a full-time teacher to teach some classes in-person and others online.
However, all these models have benefits and drawbacks, says Friend—all tying back to the age-old conundrum of aligning financial incentives with human motivation. Some schools pay teachers based on how far a student has progressed in a course, but not whether the pupil actually finishes. In such a model, districts will see that a sharp dropoff in student retention after the instructor gets paid.
“Several years ago I was asked to come in and do an external evaluation of how an online program was paying their teachers because they felt that there was a gap between the number of students entering the courses versus the number of students completing the courses,” says Friend. “I noticed they had incentivized the teacher just to make sure Johnny gets through the course for ten days. That’s a bad model.”
All these experiments beg the question: Is there any particular compensation model that gets the best results? Friend says the jury’s still out, and that he has not seen any correlation between how virtual teachers are paid and how they teach.
“I have been very fortunate that in all the programs that I have run myself or worked with teachers have been really dedicated to students being successful and learning the material,” says Friend. “I don’t think too many teachers get into teaching classes online because it’s somehow going to be a big moneymaker for them. I don’t think compensation is the driving force that leads a lot of teachers to this mode of teaching.”
Not all virtual teachers are onboard with the performance-based incentive model, however. Andrea Pokrzywinski, a full-time, salaried virtual teacher in Anchorage, had a strong response to the model asking if doctors were paid based on how many patients they cured.
“I wonder what I would do if I were out there a free agent getting paid per student per course completion. One of the reasons I say that is because with my courses there are so many factors that influence my students’ attendance,” says Pokrzywinski in an interview. “I feel really lucky to be part of a school district that is part of the National Education Association because I am a full-time employee, a union member and get the benefits of that.”
Author: Jenny Abamu
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