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credit recovery programs
Tyce Johnson works on his credit recovery course at Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn. (Photo by Vadim Lavrusik)

In high schools all over the country this summer, thousands of students who failed high school courses are getting a second chance. They are taking advantage of a wide variety of programs under the label of “credit recovery” that are meant to boost students’ chances of graduating.

The classes are generally shorter than the original class the student failed or quit. The courses can be completed online, in person or through independent study. Some programs allow students to do their required coursework online at home – without adult supervision.

Although the concept of credit recovery isn’t new – summer school is perhaps its oldest and most traditional form – little is known about the effectiveness of most recovery programs or even how widely they’re used. But credit recovery is an essential part of efforts to increase high school graduation rates in urban, suburban and rural schools nationwide.

Several big districts like those in New York City and Chicago have used credit recovery programs for a few years now. Some entire states, like Florida and Georgia, offer a range of online courses, including credit recovery, through state-funded virtual schools. And every day school districts announce the creation of new programs or expand those they already offer.

But even as credit recovery has grown into a movement, it hasn’t received much scrutiny. Here are highlights of what’s been written about it and what you need to know:

Why the big push?

The national four-year graduation rate has hovered around 70 percent for decades. The graduation rate in the 50 largest U.S. school districts is about 50 percent. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 required states to set goals for improving their graduation rates. By 2012, states will have to follow a common formula for calculating their dropout rates. There also are big financial incentives to keep kids in school. The higher the attendance, the more money schools receive. Graduation rates also may be factored into principals’ evaluations and salaries.  Meanwhile, states are raising their graduation requirements. All of this means that school districts everywhere are under increasing pressure to make sure students graduate.

There is a tension between high graduation rates and high academic standards.   Teachers have to ensure students learn, but if they make classes too difficult, they run the risk of students not showing up. On the other hand, a high school diploma should mean something, signaling that a graduate has acquired knowledge and mastered essential concepts and skills. Studies find that as many as 60 percent of students who drop out within six years of starting high school didn’t earn a full year’s worth of credits as ninth-graders. But analyses of the dropout problem in a number of cities also show that while some students who drop out are years off track, others are only a credit or two behind.

Enter credit recovery. It can take many forms but the idea remains the same: Help students graduate.

Pros and Cons

 The big question surrounding credit recovery is basic: Are these students really learning?

Some critics argue that they’re not.

credit recovery programs
Students work on their credit recovery courses at Tilden. (Photo by Vadim Lavrusik)

Many bloggers attack the use of credit recovery. Well-known blogger Joanne Jacobs, for one, is skeptical that credit recovery can motivate students who’ve failed before: “I see potential for a game of let’s pretend: Students pretend they’ve learned, online providers pretend they’ve taught and schools pretend all their graduates have a high school education.”

And in some cases, credit recovery standards are shockingly low. In New York City, Jamaica High School teacher James Eterno pointed out to the New York State Assembly Education Committee that a credit can be recovered after putting in only nine hours of work during winter or spring break. New York Times coverage of credit recovery programs suggests several types of credit recovery require little work. Such examples have led many to argue that credit recovery classes don’t make up for a semester or year’s worth of learning.

But not everyone objects to credit recovery. Some educators see the merits of these programs, according to an article in the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press.

Proponents argue that not all students need to sit in a classroom for a semester or year to learn the required material. The growth of credit recovery is occurring at the same time as interest builds among educators and policymakers in a competency-based approach to standards. This approach holds that students should be judged on their mastery of material rather than the number of classes they’ve taken and passed.

In credit recovery programs, students are given credit for how much they know, not how much time they spend in a seat. If students only failed to master a few components of a course the first time around, they shouldn’t be required to sit through the entire course again, proponents say.

When done well, credit recovery programs can offer students who legitimately struggled with the material a second chance. Some credit recovery programs target dropouts. One in Jackson County, Florida is open only to students who are two or more grades behind their peers.

A reporting project by a group of students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism tackled some of the nuances of the debate, looking at a range of schools from those clearly gaming the system (much to the frustration of teachers) to those that reflect the ideals behind credit recovery. The reporters also looked at a closing school trying desperately to get low-performing students through to graduation and regulations (or lack there of) for credit recovery in New York City. Many states, including New York, have begun to regulate credit recovery programs, but few have hard-and-fast rules about how they should operate.

Online learning

Credit recovery programs can take many forms. Some look no different from traditional classrooms, with teachers at the front lecturing. Others consist of nothing more than a thin packet of fill-in-the-blank sheets that a student completes on his own time. As credit recovery grows in popularity, though, it’s becoming increasingly common for school districts to turn to online companies.

An Education Week chat explains how online credit recovery programs generally work. EdWeek recently reported that at least three major school districts – Boston, Chicago and New York City – offer online credit recovery classes. And states such as Missouri and Wisconsin have online credit recovery programs.

Online programs let students work at their own pace, and supporters say they present course material in a new way. Terry Grier, superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, has made online credit recovery classes the centerpiece of his aggressive dropout-reduction strategy. He launched similar efforts in San Diego and in Guilford County, N.C. prior to his 2009 arrival in Houston. Grier says the online programs get students back on track quickly, and that students respond positively to the interactivity of the lessons.

Grier also has hired graduation coaches, and teachers are expected to closely monitor students’ progress. Other online programs have virtual teachers who work with students via email and “web-chat” software. And some programs take the teacher out of the equation entirely by designing courses that students can click through – they read materials and then take quizzes on what they’ve read so they can earn credits without teacher assistance.

Big national online education companies are trying to capitalize on the interest in credit recovery. Plato, Pearson, Apex and Kaplan all are competing for a share of this burgeoning market, and they charge anywhere from $175 to $1,200 per student per credit. At stake are multimillion-dollar contracts with large urban districts like Houston and New York City. Plato alone has a two-year, $4.2-million contract with New York City schools, according to city data. Districts have defended such expenditures by saying credit recovery programs are a bargain compared to the costs associated with students who drop out of school.

A version of this story appeared on The Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” on August 12, 2010.

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