Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Online Providers Find a Market in Dropout Recovery

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 31, 2013 8 min read
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While accountability demands and economic pressures sparked educators’ drive to bring dropouts back to school, those efforts are largely being powered by online and hybrid credit-recovery programs.

But the advent of such innovations also gives some industry experts and educators cause for concern: Will dropout recovery’s promise be derailed by programs that offer uneven academic rigor and insufficient social and emotional support for this very vulnerable group of returning students?

“I worry that the growth of access in this space has outpaced quality,” says Michael B. Horn, a co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, published in 2008 by McGraw-Hill. “You’ve started to solidify models that focus on getting students to graduation as opposed to an outcome measure focused on the actual learning.”

Dropout recovery is a textbook example of an education area ripe for disrupting traditional instructional models: For more than 40 years, high school has not worked for as many as a third of students. Because districts take a hit in both per-pupil funding and accountability ratings when students walk out on school, many are eager for outside help with tough-to-teach students.

More than 60 percent of online courses now are being taken for credit recovery, according to Patte Barth, the director of the Center for Public Education, an initiative of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, and supporting them now are “a lot of players"—nonprofit community-based organizations, schools, universities, and a “big for-profit field emerging,” she says.

John Murray, the chairman and chief executive officer of AdvancePath Academics Inc., a hybrid dropout-recovery company based in Williamsburg, Va., believes a lot of good has come from new schooling models that pair proficiency-based credit—rather than seat-time requirements—with social and often psychological support. A former dropout himself, Murray says recovery programs can help students integrate education with work and family duties, as well as overcome the previous trauma or academic failure that killed their motivation to learn.

‘Noise and Distraction’

However, he also sees “a lot of noise and distraction” in the dropout-recovery market, particularly in online and blended learning. “Funding doesn’t make quality, and my concern is a lot of these guys are going to chase the money and do a bad job,” he says.

A similar opportunity arose in 2002, when billions in federal funding supported new tutoring programs called supplemental educational services, or SES. Hundreds of new companies sprang up, but the program burned itself out within a decade, hammered by the mistrust of school districts and the lack of consistent ways to evaluate the quality of tutoring programs.

Debating 'Mastery' Vs. 'Seat Time'

Whether they work in brick-and-mortar or online classes, district-run, or community-based programs, almost all dropout-recovery educators agree on one thing: Standard time-based credit just doesn’t work for returning students.

For students with personal and academic struggles, it may be physically impossible to graduate in four years in a diploma that requires a set amount of seat time to earn credits and in which needed classes may not be offered every semester.

“Sitting at a desk is not synonymous with learning; we’ve had very polite dropouts who would sit in class but never do anything,” says Larry M. Perondi, the superintendent of public schools in Oceanside, Calif. “A student in a regular program can only take six classes a semester because you have to count seat time.”

Lili Allen, the director of Back on Track dropout-recovery programs for the nonprofit Jobs For the Future, in Boston, says she has seen an “explosion of interest” in awarding credits based on mastering content rather than time in class. Four states—Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, and Oregon—have laws or policies to award credits for mastery rather than seat time. Another 22 states are experimenting with pilot programs and credit flexibility or have established task forces to study the issue, according to the International Association of K-12 Online Learning.

However, there is no federal or common state definition of how to assess course mastery without seat time, or of what constitutes a high-quality, rigorous course based on academic proficiency. Without such a definition, the validity of the credits students earn in these courses has been up for debate, and their rigor has been all over the map.

Surprisingly, the clearest countrywide definition of what it means to be a high-quality program for credit recovery comes from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The group’s rules for courses that can be used to meet student-athlete eligibility put specific requirements on “nontraditional” classes that award credits based on content mastery rather than seat time, particularly for credit recovery.

For an NCAA-approved course in high school or college:

•It must cover all content requirements for a core course.

• The student and instructor have regular, ongoing access to each other and interaction for teaching, evaluating, and helping the student throughout the course.

• The student’s work, including exams, papers, and assignments, is available to be evaluated and validated.

• Appropriate academic officials evaluate student work.

• The course includes a set time period for completion.

• The course is acceptable for any student and is included in the student’s high school transcript.

The NCAA specifically advises student-athletes to “avoid a ‘quick-fix’ through credit recovery or other short cuts,” noting in a “frequently asked questions” guidance document that credit recovery may not be accepted and “could trigger extra review” of a student’s academic record.

—Sarah D. Sparks

“We are hoping to avoid another situation like SES,” says Steven Pines, the executive director of the Education Industry Association, a Vienna, Va.-based trade group. Districts and for-profit providers seem to be more willing partners in dropout recovery than they were in the federally driven tutoring programs that drained their budgets. But then, as now, Pines says, “the expectations are hyped, and, if you don’t deliver, it sours relationships for the whole industry—the blowback can be far reaching.”

Horn attributes the “SES blowup” to the lack of a yardstick to evaluate the quality of services—an equal or greater danger for dropout-recovery providers, he says.

“You have to innovate around student outcomes, not just service,” says Horn, the education executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a San Mateo, Calif.-based education and health research group. “We’re already behind the eight ball on the quality-control piece. There’s a reasonable concern by many people that the standards are low in some of these, that they can become diploma mills in many cases.”

That could discourage returning students from sticking with the program and undermine the value of the diploma they obtain, adds Russell W. Rumberger, an education professor and the director of the California Dropout Research Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “There’s concern that the graduation rate is rising, but it’s doing so because students are able to get credit for not much work,” he says. “As far as I know, there’s no oversight at all.”

That’s true at the federal level, which has no clear requirements for a rigorous credit-recovery curriculum. In general, states require only that credits earned via an online or hybrid course be roughly equivalent to the same brick-and-mortar course—meaning that both must cover the same state standards. There are no requirements for the depth and rigor of that coverage.

New York University education historian Diane Ravitch has seen screen shots of questions from credit-recovery courses that she says were “the lowest-level true-false questions.”

“The fact that a student can make up a semester’s worth of credit in a few days or a week is reason enough to suspect that credit recovery is a scam,” Ravitch says. “The quality of the online programs was extremely low. It was an easy way to get credits and a diploma without educational value.”

Providers and educators alike agree that the industry has been spotty, with limited independent validation of models.

“There’s no standardization at all in terms of what credit recovery means,” says the NSBA’s Barth. “We’re finding credit recovery working, not working, working under these certain conditions. There isn’t much evidence, and that’s something policymakers and parents need to understand.”

The Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute is in the early stages of a large-scale study to determine the quality and rigor of the most common credit-recovery services, using Florida’s massive student-data system.

Florida is one of the few states to code courses on student transcripts to note whether a course credit came from repeating a traditional course, taking a proficiency-based hybrid or online course, or learning in an alternative school, says Winkler. The study will judge the passage rates for students earning credits in different ways, the time taken to complete the credits, and students’ long-term academic outcomes.

“There’s a fundamental belief that kids deserve a second chance, but is this a high-quality intervention that will help them?” says Amber M. Winkler, Fordham’s vice president for research. “If you think the be-all and end-all is to demonstrate mastery, you had better have a great independent end-of-course assessment, and right now, we don’t.”

Taking Responsibility

There are ways to work around the lack of standardization, educators say.

Larry M. Perondi, the superintendent of the 20,300-student Oceanside, Calif., district, says the school system audits both curriculum and instructional practice in the online courses used with the 170 students in its alternative education programs.

“We work really hard to maintain credibility,” Perondi says. “The worst thing that can happen to a program for dropouts is to have the kids labeled as doing something less and getting more credit for it; that would be disastrous.”

Similarly, Superintendent Heath E. Morrison of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina, says he backed up academic progress reported by dropout-recovery programs by administering the Accuplacer college-placement exam to ensure that students completing the programs can go directly into higher education without getting stuck in more remedial classes.

“We’ve done a bad job of selling credit recovery, because it’s actually content recovery,” says BethAnn Berliner, a senior research associate and dropout expert at WestEd, in San Francisco. “We’re setting students up for a very limited future if we don’t give them the content. ... They need to be knowledgeable, not just get units.”

Even academic mastery isn’t enough when it comes to dropout recovery, as opposed to simple credit recovery, says Lili Allen, the director of the Boston-based Jobs For the Future’s Back on Track dropout-recovery initiative. Struggling students must have a rigorous curriculum, she says, but they also must learn the noncognitive skills that are vital to academic success, such as organization, self-control, and resilience.

“We have proven pretty consistently that giving an at-risk kid a user name and password and saying, ‘good luck’ is a recipe for failure,” says Rebekah Richards, the founder and chief academic officer of NoDropouts, an initiative of the online provider American Academy, based in Salt Lake City. “They need a significant increase in support.”

‘Relationship Innovation’

For example, Richards says, the returning NoDropouts students take courses that are “individually paced, but not self-paced.” Courses are entirely online, but each student is assigned a teacher who helps set a graduation-date goal and timeline and then monitors the student’s progress in meeting academic goals. Students also meet weekly with a “local advocate,” a social worker who helps address nonacademic issues.

“In the private sector, there’s been a lot of innovation on the technology side—or at least a lot of money spent there,” says Mark Claypool, the president and chief executive officer of the Nashville, Tenn.-based Educational Services of America Inc., which provides dropout-recovery programs in 24 states.

“There needs to be a lot more innovation on the relationships side, helping teachers understand how to connect with these kids and support them,” Claypool says.

Horn, of the Disruptive Innovation Institute, agrees that the most effective dropout-recovery programs have actively involved, caring teachers who understand both content and the things that can motivate or discourage at-risk students.

“We’ve seen dropout recovery across the country where the teacher was saying, ‘Well, the computer replaced me,’ and was sitting back, and those were terrible for the students,” Horn says.

“The practice around dropout recovery is very specific, very intensive, and very comprehensive,” says Richards of the American Academy’s NoDropouts program.

“Too often, there’s an idea that … a single program can meet the needs of all students,” Richards says. “We need to be a piece in the puzzle, but not the whole solution.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Online Providers Find a Market In Returning Dropouts


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