A growing network of online classes is giving thousands of high school students a second or third chance to pass courses they need to graduate, from algebra and history to health and physical education.
The classes are part of a widening phenomenon called credit recovery — a term that sounds more about erasing debt than advancing education but actually enables troubled students to get credit for classes they’ve previously failed or didn’t complete.
Such opportunities have long been available in summer school. But as pressure mounts in school districts for higher graduation rates, more for-profit companies are cashing in by providing the classes.
The self-paced classes represent one of the fastest growing segments of the $2 billion digital learning market for elementary and secondary students. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia allow students to take classes, including credit recovery, online, says Susan Patrick, president of the Virginia-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNacol).
She estimates that at least 250,000 students are taking credit-recovery classes online.
The exact number in such classes is hard to quantify, in part because some students enroll for a course or two, while others are getting through several courses they failed the first time, says Steven Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association in Rockville, Md.
Increased use of online credit recovery comes at a time school districts are under pressure by states and the federal government to raise graduation rates, hovering nationally around 70%, according to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.
At the same time, many districts have been forced to reduce school budgets.
“It’s partly economic and partly transforming practice to better serve our students and increase their achievement,” says Themy Sparangis, chief technology director of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“If online credit-recovery programs connect better with the students, and the students get back on track sooner, we aren’t spending money remediating over and over the same way we always did. ”
The U.S. Department of Education got behind credit recovery when it unveiled a new National Education Technology Plan earlier this month.
Karen Cator, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, called credit recovery “a critical strategy towards improving the opportunity for more students to graduate.”
Gregg Levin, vice president of Aventa Learning, which supplies credit-recovery classes to 31 cities, said the company’s revenues have grown more than eightfold in the last two school years.
Other providers include education business giants Pearson and Kaplan, which operates as a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co. Karl Gustafson, Pearson’s digital learning vice president, predicts subsidiary NovaNet will see double-digit enrollment growth for the coming year.
Plato Learning, which was recently purchased by Chicago-based private-equity firm Thoma Bravo for $143 million, served twice as many students in 2010 as in 2009, says Mary Schneider, director of marketing. The majority are in credit-recovery classes. Former Plato chairman and CEO John Murray values the online credit-recovery business at $500 million. Murray is now chairman and CEO of AdvancePath Academics, a Virginia provider of alternative education solutions for at-risk high school students. Like iNacol’s Patrick, he estimates 250,000 students are enrolled in online credit-recovery classes.
Yet, some educators worry that in the rush to increase graduation rates, credit-recovery classes represent a shortcut.
“The good stuff is it gives opportunities in a variety of forms for students to gain credit,” says Henry Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “But I’ve seen enough cases where it’s fraudulent.”
For example, Levin says, “People who may not go to English class in their junior year for the entire semester are given a packet of materials and told, ‘All you have to do is write five essays.’ That’s basically one or two paragraphs each essay. They are given the packet on Friday. Monday, they turn it in. They get credit for the course. We have no idea who did it. And that’s not atypical.”
Politicians and business leaders are hoping to develop standards and policies in the field. Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, and Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia, announced in August the formation of a Digital Learning Council that will include executives from Apple, Microsoft, Pearson and iNacol. Credit recovery is one of the areas they’ll examine.
“I see it as a growth area, one more pathway for a youngster who is struggling,” says Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University in South Carolina.
This article appeared in USA Today on November 26, 2010.