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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 08/12/2010

Are education credit recovery programs really effective?

By Valerie Strauss

This report about credit recovery programs was first published on The Hechinger Report, the blog of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, an independently funded unit of Teachers College at Columbia University.

By Sarah Butrymowicz
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.

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.


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By Valerie Strauss  | August 12, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  credit recovery, educational programs and credit recovery, hechinger report  
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Well, you can assume that if big testing companies are involved in credit recovery, then there will be more of it.

"Credit Recovery" in DCPS is a joke. It is well known by pretty much everyone in the system that it is "time served" in the summer or after school, no learning is required. For the last couple of years (I am not certain about this past year) teachers were not allowed to give homework during after school credit recovery or summer school credit recovery.

I don't doubt that there are some kids that benefit from seeing the material again, and there are some teachers and administrators that treat it seriously. However, in DC it is just a way to increase the graduation rate by giving students credit for courses that they can't or won't master the material for.

Unfortunately, this is often a problem as a student who "passes" Geometry in credit recovery is usually not ready for Algebra II and the cycle starts all over again. I have taught at least 5 students who have told me that they haven't passed a math class anywhere but credit recovery since they entered middle school. This should tell you everything you need to know about the programs DCPS offers.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | August 12, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

I understand the reason for credit recovery programs. However, I have been unimpressed with the quality of the curriculum. I teach geography and world history; both classes have a specific set of standards that my students must meet. However, my curriculum also includes public speaking, research projects, reinforcement of critical reading and writing skills, and everyday math practice. I have yet to see an online credit recovery program that includes any of those features.

When my 10th graders pass my class, they not only have mastered the world history standards, they have also had exposure to speaking competently in public, planning and conducting long term projects, and writing fluently for a variety of audiences. All 21st century skills. Yet the children completing the online curriculum have only shown "mastery" of the basic knowledge of world history. The 21st century skills are not even mentioned.

By continuing poor credit recovery programs, we are only widening the gap between our best and worst students. We are also creating a 2-tiered educational system in which some students are taught the skills they will need in order to be successful and others are merely ushered through the system. After all, doesn't the world need manual laborers?

Posted by: mtnmeyer2 | August 12, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

For DCPS, credit recovery is a joke. I taught a course last summer. The student who recieved an A truly deserved it and would have passed in the regular system but had some serious issues that prevented school attendance. The rest of my students ( those that showed up) did not pass. Why? They never attended their classes during the regular semester and really had no idea or interest in the CR class. There was no foundational knowledge and usually skipped classes 3-4 times per week. USually did not study, review notes or take notes. Most students that end up in credit recovery in the summer are those that failed across the board in regular semester and teachers draw the line at grade inflation. As for covering the standards, it was a joke. Grades 9-12 were lumped together in the same class and students came from all over DC.

Posted by: NewDCPSTeacher | August 12, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Remember the good old days in public education before that guy from Texas told us that the government should mandate that every child be proficient.

Things have certainly changed where once we had summer school and now we have Credit Recovery.

Just imagine the business opportunities of using cheap labor in India via computers to tutor American students in math for Credit Recovery. Think of the profits.

When I went to public school in New York City there were academic, commercial, and general diplomas. The general diplomas were for the students that would sit quietly in a class while the teacher read his newspaper. Great system based on money based on attendance.

Great to see the same idea of money per head is still one of the hallmarks of our public education system and allows for such outstanding ideas such as Credit Recovery.

Too bad there is no possibilities of profit in Intelligence Recovery since the nation clearly needs it.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 12, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

The worst part about credit recovery is that the students are all too aware of it.

I've had many students make 0 effort in my (traditional) class because they knew how easy credit recovery is/was... why put in 10 months of work to pass if I can just fail, fill out a packet and get the D?

One of the biggest challenges in education is the HUGE number of students that aim to do as little as possible to get a D.

Posted by: someguy100 | August 13, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

The NYS Education Dept. only legalized credit recovery in October 2009. All credits granted to NYC DOE high school students prior to that time were granted illegally and are void. While the students shouldn't be penalized for adults' wrongdoing, the NYC DOE also shouldn't be allowed to claim these kids as legitimate NYS high school graduates ... because they aren't. From anecdotal reports in media as well as directly from from NYC DOE high school teachers, it would appear that illegal credit recovery schemes were widespread throughout NYC. My guess would be that its graduation rate would decline by at least 5% if such "recovered" credits were removed from records.

Other anecdotal media reports lead me to believe that credit recovery shenanigans were (and still are) widespread in NYS. State Ed.'s own memos indicate this and also show that it was fully aware of the pervasive irregularities, but did nothing about them in the hope that NY's grad rates would look better than they really should be.

Posted by: deealpert | August 13, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

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