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Education reform often appears a zero-sum battle, one that pits crusaders demanding accountability and choice against much of the traditional education establishment, including teachers unions. The political skirmishes in Florida, including court fights over vouchers and charter schools, and ongoing struggles over a parade of different merit pay plans for teachers, give credence to the standard portrayal.
But state-run Florida Virtual School (FLVS), a decade-old public education experiment, departs from this conventional script. This most radical of choice based schools-where students and teachers never meet in physical classrooms and state funding flows on a performance-based, demand-driven model-has largely avoided the political and legal tangles that have stymied other reform efforts. And, free from the geographic constraints and facilities costs of traditional schools, FLVS has grown rapidly, scaling up to match the considerable demand for the school's courses. In the 2008–09 school year, approximately 84,000 students will complete 168,000 half-credit courses, a 10-fold increase since 2002–03.
To accomplish this rare feat, the school has adroitly walked a fine line. It has built a distinct educational philosophy, approach, and culture. At the same time, it has maintained its identity as a public school and remains part of the system. This unique positioning, far enough outside to do business in a different way yet sufficiently inside the system to avoid political backlash, has been a key element in the school's success. Mark Pudlow, spokesperson for the Florida Education Association, the teachers union that has fought pitched battles against many of Florida's recent initiatives, acknowledges the result of Florida Virtual School's approach: "[It] never developed the kind of mistrust that tends to be associated with other reform ideas." Savvy leadership, strong political support, and a series of well-timed decisions around growth have helped FLVS become the country's most successful virtual school, and perhaps one of its most important reform stories as well.
School on Demand
FLVS is a supplemental virtual school: most students attend brick-and-mortar schools and take FLVS courses in addition to their traditional classes. While the vast majority of FLVS students come from district schools (82 percent in 2007-08), the school is open to charter, private, and home-schooled student. Much of the school's recent growth has been driven by minority enrollments. Between June 2007 and July 2008, African-American enrollments grew by 49 percent, Hispanic enrollments by 42 percent, and Native American enrollments by 41 percent. Students enroll for a variety of reasons, but most come to fulfill graduation requirements, make up credits for missed or failed classes, or take Advanced Placement (AP) and other courses that are not available at their physical school.
The FLVS motto, "any time, any place, any path, any pace," emphasizes the school's flexible and mastery-based approach to learning. Here, the content remains constant, but the time required—be it 16, 18, or 22 weeks—adjusts. Students at FLVS choose an accelerated, traditional, or extended pace for a particular course, taking extra time if needed to review and receive additional guidance on lessons or move through a course at a quicker pace than is typical. Moreover, FLVS students don't have to wait for the semester to begin; they can choose the month in which they would like to start.
While its courses are virtual, FLVS strives for highly personalized instruction. The school employs more than 715 fulltime and 29 adjunct teachers-all Florida-certified and "highly qualified" under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Depending on the course, teachers use a variety of methods to engage students, including live one-to-one or small group virtual whiteboard sessions, asynchronous discussion, and even a new experimental, immersive online game for an American history course. Given the school's flexible pacing, there isn't a set class size, but full-time teachers are limited to 150 students each and individualized feedback is extensive. Instructors are expected to respond to student questions and provide comments on assignments within 24 hours. In addition, teachers phone students at least monthly, many times using oral assessments to ensure that students' work is their own. Via the online course site, teachers post syllabi, readings, assignments, and other course materials. …
Read the full article on Education Next.
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