Ever since LA Unified vaulted from a loominggraduation crisis to potentially breaking its graduation record last school year after implementing a wide-scale online credit recovery program, questions have been raised about how much students are actually learning.
The apparent ease with which the district was able to substantially boost the number of diplomas it handed out through a $15 million credit recovery program turned heads and has some asking if the online courses are rigorous enough. Board President Steve Zimmer has questions, as did the Los Angeles Times editorial pages and some academics.
But while online credit recovery has been making headlines in Los Angeles this year, LA Unified is far from the only district using it, and one of the nation’s largest providers of online credit recovery programs has found a growing appetite for its product over the last 10 years.
Apex Learning CEO Cheryl Vedoe said the company began in 1999 by providing online advanced placement programs, but in 2005 it started providing online credit recovery programs, which have “really just taken off from there.” Before long, she said, Apex learned that when it comes to online classes, credit recovery is what districts want most.
Apex is one of two companies contracted by LA Unified to provide online credit recovery courses. The other is Edgenuity. Apex has over 1,500 contracts with school districts nationwide and is in the first year of a five-year contract with LA Unified to provide online courses. The contract for the two companies is not to exceed $5 million over the five years, and schools can choose between the two companies when selecting their courses.
Below is an edited version of LA School Report’s recent interview with Vedoe.
Q: What have you learned the most since starting online courses when the company began?
A: We learned very early on that where digital curriculum is most often used first in school districts is not with the college prep students, but rather with those who have not previously been successful. And so we have really focused on how can we support struggling readers, English learners, students who might have learning gaps and not have all the prerequisite skills to be successful in a course, and how can we best help those students who don’t have good study habits and skills. So we have really focused on building those supports and scaffolds into our courses. We believe that students do rise to high expectations and we have built a rigorous curriculum.
Q: Many parents are probably not aware how widespread online credit recovery is. Is it fair to say that it would be rare to find a large district not doing it, and that it has long ago moved past the experimental stage?
A: I would say that the vast majority of school districts who offer credit recovery are doing it through some form of digital content. But it makes sense that would be the case. The need for credit recovery is not new. Before digital curriculum was available, districts required students to retake the entire course, but when I think about that these are students who failed it the first time, and these are students who are not likely to be successful in the same model. So the online and digital programs have really played a key role. And we are seeing a higher success rate than we ever saw in those old programs.
Q: There has been some recent criticism in Los Angeles of online credit recovery, and in particular with allowing students to pretest out of some of the curriculum. The Los Angeles Times editorial board was critical recently, and some academics have also spoken out. What is your response to the criticism?
A: It is important to take a look at the kinds of students taking credit recovery in the first place. Many of the ones in need of credit recovery, it is not the case that they didn’t learn a great deal in the course that they were in, but for what can be a variety of different reasons students haven’t passed the course. It’s not surprising that some students, when given the opportunity to accelerate through a course in order to recover the credit can do that and can do that successfully. So I think we need to recognize that. There are also some students who failed a course because they weren’t mastering any of the material.
Q: What about the fact that the NCAA does not accept credits that were received through accelerated online courses? Do you know why it does not accept them? Are you concerned if other organizations or districts began to follow the NCAA’s lead?
A: I can only surmise why that is. I can surmise that is because not all programs are created equal, and rather than having to analyze every single accelerated program to make sure that it is meeting their requirements, what they are saying is we want students to complete the entire course.
Q: What is your response to those out there asking if the courses are rigorous enough?
A: I would say when it comes to our courses, they are generally viewed as being rigorous and challenging. We develop our courses to fully meet the expectation that our students are ready for college after taking the courses… Our courses are put through a fairly rigorous review. When you look at credit recovery and students who are accelerated through courses, first of all it is not all students who are able to do that. But for the student who sat through the entire course and for some reason wasn’t successful on the final exam and now they are in a credit recovery situation, they are sometimes more highly motivated because this is what is standing between them and graduation. I think sometimes it is natural for people to question whether all students are able to do that, because these are students who weren’t successful.
Q: Are you aware if the UC system is reevaluating if it will accept online credit recovery or pretesting?
A: I’m not aware of that. The process has changed slightly over the years, but we have regularly submitted courses to the UC system. I am not aware that there have been any changes to the process. And I think it is a fairly rigorous process.
Q: What about the paranoid “Terminator 2” question: If online courses are really so effective, is this the beginning of computers and robots taking the place of teachers?
A: I don’t believe this is the beginning of computers taking over and teaching kids everything. When our courses are implemented there are teachers actively involved. What our courses do is offer an option for teachers so they can reasonably individualize instruction for every student, particularly those who have not been successful.