There has been a recent focus on the Los Angeles Unified School District’s high school graduation rates, which have reached an all-time high that many attribute to the district’s reliance on credit recovery. Credit recovery has gotten a bad rap for reducing the quality and rigor of education. Some believe that when schools use credit recovery and online makeup courses that students are actually being robbed of their right to learn.
Despite the hyperbole, the dangers of a quick-fix approach to graduation are real. In some cases, the use of credit recovery does lead to lowered academic standards. Even when students pass the course, they may not have received the type of instruction that will prepare them for success in college or careers. Additionally, some educators worry about the message we send to students when they fail a class for reasons such as chronic absence, but are then given the chance to “recover” the class in a two-week crash course. This challenges the values of the importance of hard work and effort that American schools try to instill.
In light of all these issues with credit recovery, why do schools and districts still use this system? Because the pressure to graduate students is tremendous; in fact for school leaders, their jobs depend on it. In addition to qualitative indicators, high school graduation rates are a major factor in a principal’s overall evaluation.
In New York state, where I serve as an assistant superintendent, graduation rates are one of the criteria used to determine school standing. The consequences for not being in good standing can range from the imposition of additional compliance mandates to inspections by state officials to state takeovers.
No community wants its local school to be labeled “failing.” But I would argue that the most important reason schools turn to credit recovery is the potential impact the practice can have on students. There is no greater despair than can be found on the face of a 17-year-old student with no hope of graduating from high school. Once students cross the threshold between early adolescence and young adulthood, thoughts of the future weigh heavily on their minds. When they have no sense of a future, well, they have no hope. That’s when dropping out seems to be the only answer. Why come to school day after day if you don’t see your way out and your school hasn’t provided you with a lifeline so you can stay afloat? That is the reality for many of our overage, undercredited youths who struggle in our traditional schools and seek transfer and alternative schooling in order to graduate. When schools don’t create viable pathways to graduation for struggling students, we are effectively pushing those students out of school.
Many of the problems with credit recovery are adult problems. As adults, we can fix them."
Many of the problems with credit recovery are adult problems. As adults, we can fix them. We don’t want the standards of our institutions lowered? So don’t lower them. We can create high-quality credit-recovery programs by establishing committees of teachers and administrators to establish thoughtful guidelines for these programs. School committees can determine that students have to demonstrate competency in a course.
For example, the students at Forsyth Satellite Academy, a New York City school that uses performance-based assessments, must present their final projects to a committee of faculty and external advisers for evaluation. I once participated in one of their final project committees as an external evaluator and was amazed by the effort these students put into their thesis projects. Some of their projects rivaled work I completed in my freshman year of college.
We can also set limits on how many credit-recovery courses a student is eligible to take in a given semester. Online programs can add value to a credit-recovery program, but we can’t just outsource teaching to a computer screen. The best strategy for using an online program is a blended model in which a teacher is present for a portion of the learning, facilitating the lesson and providing support to students as they navigate the programs.
Lastly, we can solve the “values” problem by reframing the goal of education from re-creating our way of doing school to focusing on the individual and dynamic needs of the students in front of us. If you are sending students to summer school to teach them a lesson, then perhaps there are a few lessons you need to learn. The goal of education is not to reward or punish individuals but to provide students with skills they need to be productive, independent, and critical-thinking adults. Let’s use every tool available to make that happen.
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A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as We Can Fix Credit Recovery