A series of articles in Slate has upped the ante on the mounting evidence that online credit recovery has a rigor problem, even as such programs have become nearly ubiquitous across the country. As the reporter wrote, the practice of offering online credit recovery seems to be “falsely boosting graduation rates” at the expense of rigorous learning experiences for students.
What’s sad, and often unmentioned, is that we shouldn’t be surprised. People are rationally following their incentives—to boost graduation rates and make sure students have a high school diploma in hand. Because few states tie external, objective assessments for required high school courses to graduation, there is accordingly little attention paid to the underlying quality of online credit recovery courses.
This means, though, that this is a system-wide problem that goes well beyond credit recovery courses. Credit recovery is just where the incentives are most urgent to make sure students get credits as quickly and cheaply as possible—regardless of what they have learned.
Our system’s lack of attention to individual student outcomes, and a preoccupation with input-based measures, such as the amount of time students spend learning and easily manipulated metrics such as graduation rates, have led to the current situation.
Although we might not be getting what we want, we are certainly getting what we deserve.
The online credit recovery innovation opportunity
Online credit recovery began as a big opportunity for innovation in the public education system. Across rural and urban school districts, there were lots of students who needed to make up credits. But for a variety of reasons, there was not always a remedial class available for students who failed a course, which proved problematic as they moved toward their senior year of high school.
This area of “nonconsumption,” where the alternative was nothing at all, was the perfect place for a disruptive innovation—an initially primitive innovation that introduces simplicity, convenience, and affordability to a problem—to take root, improve, and then grow.
Enter online learning, a classic disruptive innovation that could fill in the gaps before it was too late for students. The exciting opportunity meant that students did not have to waste instructional time on concepts they had already mastered; they could simply take the modules with which they struggled in order to pass the class—or at the very least breeze through the parts they already understood.
As a result, online credit recovery could theoretically have been the place where the public education system began to switch from a seat-time based system—in which students make progress based on time and schools are paid based on attendance—to a mastery- or competency-based system, in which students progress as they demonstrate mastery. The result could have been a system far more focused on rigor and each individual student’s learning needs. This would have been in keeping with how disruptive innovations operate in other fields, as they redefine performance and the measures of success.
Missing the potential for transformation
Outside of isolated pockets, however, the public education system largely missed this opportunity. In the absence of rigorous, externally-validated learning outcomes, the ability for students to move quickly through an online course has instead become one of its signature problems, as stories of students passing whole courses in just a few days have abounded.
What’s clear is that many have agreed with what an educator told me years ago: When a student has failed a course and is in danger of not graduating, what they need most isn’t the learning, but the diploma. That view (which is not mine), coupled with traditional funding mechanisms, meant public education has had an incentive to deploy the fastest, lowest-cost online credit recovery experiences that plausibly showed some alignment to the standards of the original course.
The NCAA, Los Angeles Times, Education Next, and now Slate, among others, have taken notice of the online credit recovery failures. But they have largely ignored the fact that students can pass brick-and-mortar courses with a D average having learned next-to-nothing, so long as they show up. Because the NCAA and the Times in particular haven’t paid attention to the larger systemic issues, many of their prescriptions have doubled down on the current time-based system that got us here in the first place.
For example, the Times suggested that to fix the problem, the University of California system should set “clear and rigorous rules governing how much time and effort students must put into make-up courses in order to earn credit.” Here the Times mistakes the time a student spends learning for rigor and actual learning. Its recommendation would only serve to keep schools stuck in a time-bound model that doesn’t focus on student learning.
If a student has already mastered a particular unit in a course, being able to showcase that mastery on an assessment and move forward—rather than wasting their time on something they understand—isn’t a flaw. It’s a benefit of online credit-recovery compared to our traditional time-based education system.
The Times has also praised the NCAA for setting “rigorous standards.” What standards are these? That any course “taken for credit recovery must be comparable in ‘length, content, and rigor’ to a regular course taught in a classroom. And students must have regular interaction with a teacher during the course.” This again focuses on the inputs, not outcomes.
What’s more, there is evidence that more interaction in online learning may not always be a good thing (see here), particularly for novice learners and, of course, depending on the desired learning outcome. So the NCAA is essentially forbidding good instructional design in certain cases. This is the danger of creating input-based policies.
Recovering the innovation opportunity
So where do we go from here? Given districts’ near ubiquitous reliance on online credit recovery, is it too late to recover?
Honestly, I don’t know. It may be too late. But we must try to set rigorous outcome-based standards for credit-recovery courses with rigorous assessments. My recommendation would be to make online credit recovery the guinea pig where we try out different systems of external and valid assessments and play with performance-based funding mechanisms to try and get it right.
Some online learning innovators say they are willing to start tinkering—but only if traditional schools and courses also get onboard. That is unrealistic. The current system will never be the first to experiment with performance-based funding; arguing for waiting is akin to saying “no.” Plus, seat-time funding is anathema to online learning—far more so than for brick-and-mortar schools that have been funded on this model for generations. What better place to try out a new mastery-based funding formula that will need experimentation to get it right?
And finally, the upstart disruptive innovator always looks “worse” at first than the traditional system because it’s not how “things have always been done.” But by proving that a new system performs better on a more rigorous standard, only then might we have a conversation about rethinking funding and assessments for the larger system. If we can prove that such a model isn’t too onerous, who knows, maybe it can be a model for transforming the overall system as well, much as disruptive innovations do in other fields.
It would be a shame if we only use this moment to focus on credit recovery rather than the perverse incentives that exist across the public education system. But if we don’t act now and up the ante on online credit recovery in the right way, then we may lose a bigger opportunity to transform public education for the benefit of students and society. It’s time to step it up.
This piece was originally published on Edsurge.