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Brett Rusnock can follow his students’ every move on his laptop: how much time they spend on computers each day at Houston’s Waltrip High School, their scores on quizzes, how much of a class they’ve completed — and when they stop working altogether. He even gets email alerts when they toil at home into the wee hours. “I can play Big Brother a little bit with this,” says Rusnock, clicking on student profiles.

dropouts and credit recovery
Austin High school students in the credit recovery program part of the Hechinger Institute. (Photo by Caleb MIller Bryant/ The Texas Tribune)

Rusnock isn’t a teacher. He’s a “grad coach,” one of dozens in Houston monitoring “credit-recovery” courses. Like many districts— particularly those struggling with high dropout rates — Houston Independent School District offers students these self-paced make-up courses, which some students complete in days rather than months.

In the spring and summer terms, 6,127 Houston students earned 9,774 credits in these programs. About 2,500 more enrolled for the fall term. And the district plans to expand the program into “original credit” courses — a replacement for regular classes, rather than just a make-up opportunity — under a contract with online curriculum provider APEX Learning that will cost the district about $1.2 million for the 18 months ending in June 2011.

Spearheaded by new Superintendent Terry Grier, Houston ISD’s program reflects a trend in Texas and nationally as school districts seek cost-effective ways to boost graduation rates. But questions remain over whether such classes effectively mirror the difficulty and quality of traditional courses in all school districts. Almost no research exists on how much, or how little, students learn in credit-recovery courses.

The Texas Education Agency doesn’t regulate the classes or even track their proliferation. Commissioner of Education Robert Scott reasons that state standardized tests, soon to include end-of-course exams in high schools, already prevent some students from graduating — even if they slip too easily through some classes, traditional or otherwise. But Scott remains wary that some districts may be offering an easy way out rather than an avenue back into a rigorous curriculum. “Any tool that helps get kids credit toward graduation is certainly worth having,” he says. But “any time you’re accelerating education that quickly, there’s a concern that the quality of the content standards you’re going over will be lessened.”

Although the state keeps no official numbers, credit recovery by all accounts has expanded rapidly over the last decade and remains poised for growth. Austin ISD and Dallas ISD each report educating about 4,000 students last school year in this way. Pearson Education, makers of a popular credit-recovery software, NovaNet — one player in a crowded and booming market — reports that 400 Texas schools use its program.

In the bigger picture, credit recovery represents just one example of a larger devolution in the traditional 8 a.m.-to-3p.m., lecture-and-textbook high school model, which educators increasingly acknowledge fails many children. Among the rising trends is flexible scheduling, including night and weekend classes and schools for overage students, along with raising of the maximum age for Texas high school students to 25. There has also been a rapid growth of “dropout recovery” charters that exclusively serve troubled teens. For accelerated students, dual-credit classes, taught in partnership with local colleges, also have expanded rapidly in Texas over the last decade. The old model will continue to slowly crumble, predicts T. Jack Blackmon, who heads up the credit-recovery program in Dallas ISD.

“It’s the vision for the future as far as I’m concerned: kids going at their own pace,” he said, mentioning a program he studied in Colorado, where students worked through NovaNet courses from home, seeking help only when needed from a storefront school. “They don’t show up to a traditional school — ever. The traditional school is only good for about a third of the kids, the ones who want football, or choir or social activities — kids who have the school bug. For the rest of them, it’s just standing in line, waiting for the factory model to give them an education. A lot of kids have a BS meter that goes off — they don’t want to wait in line.”

National trend

Houston ISD’s credit-recovery program prides itself on academic rigor and student support, provided mostly by grad coaches but sometimes by teachers who grade written exams. Even so, educators must guard against abuse of a largely student-directed system. Grad coaches are not necessarily certified teachers, yet they make daily decisions about when students have mastered the material, and how much time is enough — or too much — to spend on a particular skill. Students in Houston take an average of 61 days to complete credit-recovery courses — about 26 days fewer than a typical semester-long course — and in extreme cases might spend only a few hours racing through the material.

dropouts and credit recovery
Austin High school students in the credit recovery program part of the Hechinger Institute. (Photo by Caleb MIller Bryant/ The Texas Tribune)

At any moment, one student in Waltrip’s lab might scribble through an algebra problem, while another reads a first-person document for a history class. Others might write English essays, while still others labor over chemistry exams. Rusnock must ensure they all master whatever material they missed. That sometimes means keeping the lab open well into the evening or on Saturdays.

Like many large districts, HISD has provided the option for years. But credit recovery once took place in traditional classrooms with teachers rather than computer labs with grad coaches. Before implementing a larger program with grad coaches in January, Grier had launched credit-recovery classes in his last two posts, in San Diego and in Guilford County, North Carolina. In both places, he cut the dropout rate in half. One of Grier’s key goals upon arriving in Houston last year was to lower the dropout rate, which district officials currently report as 15.8 percent, though other estimates are higher.

It’s a challenge many urban districts face. With pressure on both dropout rates and budgets, online credit-recovery programs have boomed into a thriving market segment. Many companies, including Aventa and Pearson, expect their enrollments to double or triple within a year. An estimated 250,000 students will take an online credit-recovery course this year, according to John Murray, president and CEO of AdvancePath Academies Inc., a Virginia-based producer of curriculum for at-risk students. Major cities — from Boston to Chicago to Los Angeles — have increased investments in online credit recovery. Programs look different from place to place. Some allow students to work from home; others require a certified teacher. Some push students to power through courses on spring break; others take months.

‘It’s easier’

In Austin, every high school has a so-called “Delta” credit-recovery lab, and one school, Garza Independence High School, offers credit recovery as a main focus. On a recent day at Austin High School, a diverse campus of high and low performers, students got a heavy dose of one-on-one help. In a long, skinny classroom, about 40 computers lined cinder-block walls adorned with motivational sayings and posters, including one that showed a frog hanging halfway out of the mouth of a pelican, reaching its arms out to strangle the bird. The message: Never give up.

Teacher Martha Louis, a 37-year-veteran, runs the Delta lab with the help of another teacher and two teaching assistants aspiring toward certification. For a classroom ranging between 20 and 40 students, that’s an uncommonly low ratio.

The students end up here for a variety of reasons and with a variety of abilities. Junior Krendon Reynolds takes mostly Advanced Placement classes outside the lab; he failed a course, he says, because he didn’t do the homework, not for lack of knowledge. “I’ve just got a lot of other things to do at home,” he says, including a job. “When I do my homework, I get As. But I hate grades; they’re a horrible reflection of intelligence.”

Louis said the classes are a great alternative for students who might struggle for a number of reasons, but they are not a replacement for traditional learning.

She insisted, though, that students, even those working rapidly, still must work methodically through the content. “They can’t just click-click-click-click-click and go straight to the quiz,” she says. “They have to take notes.”

But students are permitted to use those notes on quizzes, which helps freshman Monique Romero tremendously. “I have trouble remembering,” she says, while scribbling in her notebook about the Russian geography unit on her screen. Monique and several other students describe the courses as “easier” — but they refer to the method rather than the material. “It’s exactly the same,” says Henry Claypool, clicking through an algebra graphing lesson, “just on the computer.”

In one extreme case, an academically able 19-year-old student, who was a freshman last year, has become a senior this year. The student raced through economics in just four weeks, Louis said. Most students take longer, but the main reason that all of them can move faster is they’ve seen the material before — even though they got an F, they learned something.

Mom was right

In Houston, Magali Cabanes spent her first two years of high school working too many hours a week at Denny’s, returning home late at night and sleeping through school. “I missed almost my whole freshman and sophomore year,” she says. After her mom’s encouragement — and threats to make her quit work — Cabanes scaled back on her hours and focused on school. Lamar High School’s grad lab speeded that process. She completed a semester’s worth of U.S. History in just a month; but geometry actually took the whole semester. Now she’s on track to graduate in May.

“She was right,” Cabanes now says of her mother.

APEX says its courses match the difficulty of any classroom. And any company that wants to be a viable competitor in this market must align its content with state standards and tests that apply to students statewide. So maybe it’s no surprise that some students in Houston say their credit-recovery courses are actually harder than regular classes. The proctored exams they take at the end of every unit are brutal, most students agreed. Cabanes had found the courses easier — until that exam. “That test. Oh my God,” she says, shaking her head at flashbacks to the history final.

APEX provides the written tests in addition to the standard computer-based multiple-choice assessments, but school districts can decide whether to use them. NovaNet does not provide such tests, but Austin ISD employs its own tests in combination with the company’s online curriculum.

Houston uses APEX’s assessments, although grad coaches have some leeway in assigning them. If one of Rusnock’s students performs well on computerized tests, he might exempt the student from the written portion. It’s one reason Rusnock works on a case-by-case basis, stepping in to assess a student when he senses the material has been mastered. “We’re not producing cars here,” he says.

The do-over

Rusnock makes lots of judgment calls, as all grad coaches do. They monitor a student’s statistical progress but also look beyond the numbers, trying to divine actual learning. As headphone-wearing students plod through courses, seemingly dead to the outside world, the grad coaches say they can tell when students know the material and when they don’t. When a student fails a quiz at Lamar, Jonathon Eyles — alerted by his computer — quickly asks: What did you miss?

It’s a vital discussion, because students will have to try the quiz again. In fact, students can fail such quizzes with few repercussions. To progress from unit to unit, a student must pass — but he or she can make many attempts. An F is almost never recorded; students just retake the test and keep the grade whenever they pass. If they fail three times, the course locks them out and the grad coach intervenes.

Decisions on whether a student can advance rely more on instinct than science. Coaches can decide to make students keep retaking a quiz, but occasionally might feel that a few points aren’t worth stalling their progress and allow them to go on to the next section. Coaches agree their evaluations of student learning are based on content mastery — not seat time, as in traditional classrooms. If students are able to pass the tests, especially the final, then they’ve demonstrated they know the material.

Sleeping through Spanish

Quilson Norales, a senior at Yates High School in Houston, snoozed through Spanish — his native language — the first time. And so he failed. The APEX version, however, took him only three hours to earn back the credit he squandered in a semester’s worth of naps.

Some grad coaches worry that extreme examples like that of Norales might give other students the wrong impression. Rusnock tries to get the message out before students fail — that passing the first time sure beats staring at the same material on a screen. “I tell teachers and kids — as many people that will listen,” he says. “You don’t want any part of this.”

Norales seems to be getting the message. He has to take another class or two to make up for failures. But as he slouches in a plastic chair, working his way through his final English test, he vows never to fail another class: “I ain’t going through this again.”

Susan Sawyers contributed reporting.

This article was produced in partnership with the Texas Tribune. A version of it appeared in Texas edition of The New York Times on November 5, 2010.

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