How schools got hooked on online learning to boost graduation rates

Nearly a decade ago, state officials decreed that starting in 2009, graduation data would factor into the letter grades assigned to individual schools. The stakes were high: Consecutive failing marks meant that the state could mandate major changes, like replacing the school’s principal; significant improvement translated into extra cash for perks like teacher bonuses and athletic equipment.

The policy change worried Reginald James, then the superintendent of the Gadsden County School District in the Florida Panhandle. By 2010, Gadsden’s graduation rate had fallen to a bleak 43 percent.

So at the start of the 2010-11 school year, James initiated a host of new efforts: lecturing parents about the importance of keeping their teenagers on track, meeting with guidance counselors to review student performance, and pouring money into an after-school tutoring program. For his efforts, he saw a 12-point boost in the graduation rate. That was pretty good, but not nearly enough.

The summer after that exhausting school year, James heard about a different way to raise Gadsden’s graduation rates: online credit recovery.

Despite its anodyne name, online credit recovery promised a radical turnaround in student performance. It was cheaper than any other option; it was easier; and, James says, “It was getting results” in other districts around the state. He bought in, licensing a virtual program called EdOptions for students in his district who had failed in-person classes and needed another way to graduate on time. “I was driven by what we needed to do,” James says.

By 2016, Gadsden’s graduation rate had swelled to 68.4 percent. And as that metric improved, local reliance on online credit recovery grew. The average pupil in Gadsden will take two or three of the virtual classes before graduation, most in core subjects like math and English.

What has happened in Gadsden shows how the push to rank schools based on measures like graduation rates, codified by the No Child Left Behind Act, has transformed the country’s approach to secondary education, as scores of districts have outsourced core instruction to computers and downgraded the role of the traditional teacher. It also offers a glimpse into what that shift means for the students who are increasingly dependent on online courses to help prepare them for college and the workforce. The view from the ground suggests that many online credit recovery courses are subpar substitutes for traditional classroom instruction.

<p><br></p>(Brian Stauffer/<p>Special Contributor</p>)
(Brian Stauffer/Special Contributor


Growth of online learning

When online education emerged about two decades ago, many experts believed it would be used to fill gaps in curricula, allowing students in rural schools to take classes that might not otherwise be available, like Mandarin and Advanced Placement physics.

But online credit recovery, which started proliferating in earnest nearly a decade ago, has morphed into a booming, baffling business in which dozens of companies of varying quality compete to sell school districts the latest virtual versions of courses like English II and geometry. There are no comprehensive national statistics on how many districts are using it.

“The bottom line is there really aren’t good numbers,” said John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group, a consulting company dedicated to online learning. But “one of the things we have come to believe is that credit recovery makes up a very significant part of online courses.”

Almost 90 percent of school districts use some form of credit recovery, according to a 2011 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. (The center doesn’t distinguish between online and other forms.) And data cited by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a trade group, shows that at least 75 percent of districts use some form of online learning. Texas is among the states that allow students enrolled in public schools to take online courses for credit. So we can say this about online credit recovery: It’s pretty big.

Across the country, many school districts, including several of the nation’s largest, have seen graduation rates soar after introducing online credit recovery.

In Nashville, that metric increased from 70 percent in 2007 to 81.6 percent in 2015 following the introduction of online credit recovery. In Los Angeles, officials introduced online credit recovery during the 2015-16 school year, around the time that the school board put in place strict new graduation guidelines. Their efforts were promptly rewarded when the city’s projected graduation rate grew from 54 percent to 75 percent in a single year, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In Georgia, where half a million high schoolers enrolled in more than 20,700 online credit recovery classes in 2015, officials admitted that the courses had helped the state improve its graduation rate. But a review by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that just 10 percent of students who passed online credit recovery classes in subjects included on the state’s standardized test that year were actually proficient in the relevant areas. “They’ve created a second-class credit,” said Jeremy Noonan, a former teacher in Georgia’s Douglas County.

State investigations, or investigations of any kind, into the prevalence and quality of online credit recovery remain rare. While many state education departments have started to review online education providers, few bar districts from using companies that don’t meet their standards. Most fail to track the number of students enrolled in online credit recovery courses statewide, and almost none caps the number of virtual classes a student can take to qualify for a diploma.


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