The use of online learning for credit recovery has become an easy target for media pundits criticizing the online approach as a “quick fix” or “shortcut” intended simply to generate meaningless credits used by districts to pump up graduation rates.
A Washington Post column earlier this year pointed to online credit recovery courses as a mirage leading to inflated graduation rates (January 8, 2017). It shuns the idea of a self-paced approach to learning, as if seat-time somehow ensures success. Another article (The New Diploma Mills, Slate, May, 2017) highlights a district that bought into an online credit recovery approach that “promised a radical turnaround in student performance. It was cheaper than any other option; it was easier …” The reporter criticizes the program’s resulting increased graduation rates without any data to support the claim that online credit recovery courses have been “meaningless.”
Well meaning writers in the education media sometimes fail to dig deeply or broadly enough to understand the complexities and importance of the implementation of online credit recovery. Nor do they have the time to explore the many instances where an online approach is well-implemented and finding success.
Certainly there may be instances where online credit recovery may be poorly executed, often in situations where district administrators, desperate for a new approach to a vexing problem, are sold promises from providers without considering the critical support and structure required to ensure student success. In some districts, online credit recovery options are seen as a simple alternative for running students through a classroom a second time, or even worse, selected as a less expensive option. Administrators making the purchasing decision for online credit recovery may be inexperienced in online learning and may fall prey to claims of easy success from providers. As with schools in general, some online credit options are quality and effective while others fall short in giving students a meaningful learning experience.
An online credit recovery course is a tool, a very effective and efficient tool, designed to support an approach that provides students with an alternative to the traditional classroom experience. It allows them to move past content they might have mastered the first time through the course. The online format allows them to work at a comfortable pace and to work on their studies when and where time permits. Successful digital approaches to credit recovery start with an understanding that the student that has failed once in the classroom almost certainly needs additional support regardless of the pathway.
Credit recovery students have a wide array of challenges that in one way or another has interfered with their learning and led to failure in a class or classes. Montana Digital Academy (MTDA), Montana’s state supported online program, has offered self-paced credit recovery courses within a semester deadline since 2011. An online MTDA Academic Coach, a licensed Montana teacher who is the teacher of record, is paired with local school district personnel to support students online and on-campus. Students may move at an accelerated pace, but the on-site support requirement provides the additional support that MTDA believes gives online credit recovery students the best opportunity for successful completion.
Through MTDA’s Student Connect credit recovery program nearly 9,000 Montana high school students successfully completed 14,000 credit recovery courses between 2011-2016. Despite this level of student success, and what many in our state saw as an already effective credit recovery program, the MTDA team felt more could be done to enhance student achievement. Therefore, the program was redesigned for the 2015–16 SY with a focus on creating a more personalized, linear learning path in the courses for students. In the new version all credit recovery courses embed an advanced notification system that fosters communication between the MTDA academic coach (teacher), local school support and administrative staff, parents and the student with information regarding the student’s progress and areas on which they need to focus. Using an adaptive release model, students are presented the course content in a linear manner designed to keep them focused on their learning path with one task needing to be completed before the next task appears. This redesign has resulted in enhanced communication to all stakeholders and a clear, focused pathway to meaningful recovery of credit for students.
The MTDA credit recovery model is a flexible, mastery learning based approach where students are able to work at their own pace taking up to a semester to complete a course. Most students enroll in one course and when they complete it move to the next. Experience gained during the first four years of the program has provided clear information that many credit recovery students who attempted to take multiple classes were unable to complete all or most of them. Based on this another new feature of the retooled program requires that the local school commit to providing additional in-person assistance to these students from their support staff. MTDA has also combined its work with the EdReady math readiness assessment and remediation program and students enrolled in credit recovery algebra must take a readiness assessment and complete the related remedial learning content before moving into the credit recovery course.
We agree with critics that more needs to be learned from the study of successful online credit recovery programs, as well as those that appear to fall short of giving students a meaningful learning experience. In 2016, REL Northwest, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences completed a study that evaluated 2013-14 enrollment and passing rate data from MTDA. The findings were also based on interviews with school leaders from eight districts across Montana, representing both urban and rural districts and varying in size. The REL study found MTDA’s passing rate falls at the high end of the range found in prior studies, indicating that MTDA online credit recovery students do at least as well as students in other online classes.
Los Angeles County School District just received a grant of $3.256 million from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) for a five-year study of the efficacy of online credit recovery classes for high school students.
Our hope is that these studies will eventually help critics provide a more balanced and complete view of what is becoming an essential online alternative for students to reach graduation.
Note: Credit recovery refers to “a wide variety of educational strategies and programs that give high school students who have failed a class the opportunity to redo coursework or retake a course through alternate means, and thereby avoid failure and earn academic credit.” (Glossary of Educational Reform)