Getting the incentives right for online credit recovery


Apr 28, 2016

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The American Institutes for Research (AIR) recently released a study on how online credit recovery impacts student achievement and outcomes in Algebra I. The study found that only 66 percent of Chicago Public Schools students who took an Enriched Virtual Algebra I class successfully recovered credits, whereas 76 percent of students who took a face-to-face class successfully recovered credits. Students taking the online course also had lower grades in the course and lower scores on the end-of-course algebra post-test. Unsurprisingly, given these outcomes, the study also found that students in the online course had more negative attitudes toward mathematics.

At first, these results seem to be a huge setback for blended learning and its advocates. But before detractors use this study to categorically dismiss blended learning as an ineffective instructional model, they should keep in mind that online learning is only one piece of the blended-learning equation. Quality blended-learning programs, such as those profiled in our proof points case studies, require good software and online materials, a learning environment with an achievement-oriented culture, and, most importantly, good teachers. Whether a blended-learning program positively impacts student achievement depends on how well all these components are orchestrated.

All that being said, this disheartening news actually creates an important opportunity to reshape the innovation trajectory of blended credit-recovery programs. As I’ve written before, organizations innovate toward performance improvements that lead to success—however success is defined by their business models. If smartphone customers are willing to pay extra for a phone that allows them to watch movies and play realistic video games, then phone manufacturers figure out how to pack phones with faster processors and bigger screens. If commuters are willing to pay extra for a car that can effortlessly connect to the navigation and music apps on their smartphones, then car manufactures figure out how to improve their cars’ wireless connectivity. Innovations evolve to address the problems we hire them to solve.

Education is no different. If we want blended credit-recovery programs to get better at helping students learn, then we need to tie the rewards these programs receive to how well the programs improve student achievement. Unfortunately, the business models of many credit-recovery providers do not align with improving student learning. Typically, districts fund credit-recovery programs based on the number of students they enroll, and the only outcome they monitor is credit completion. Because of this, providers are not motivated to double down on finding ways to improve student-learning outcomes such as improved test scores and improved attitudes toward learning. Instead, their business models encourage them to seek student enrollments and then set a minimal bar of rigor for course completion and let state curriculum requirements be the ultimate bar for educational quality. If, instead, we shift the focus and funding from inputs to outcomes, then providers will invent new approaches to promote better student learning.

Studies, like this one by AIR, play an important role in putting pressure on blended credit-recovery programs to improve. But districts do not need to wait for AIR to publish a study to prod blended credit-recovery programs to innovate. Districts should start paying credit-recovery providers based on student-learning growth, not enrollments. Course-credit completion should be a baseline for blended credit-recovery programs, but we also need to tie part of the funding for these programs to student-learning outcomes. One idea for how this might look would be for districts to create contracts with credit-recovery providers that would reward them in tiers: a portion of the funding up-front for enrollments, a second portion when students earn credits based on successful course completion, a third portion based on student-learning outcomes, such as student scores on state end-of-course exams, and, possibly, a fourth portion based on students’ satisfaction and measurable improvements in students’ attitudes and mindsets toward learning.

With incentives that refocus blended credit-recovery programs’ innovation trajectory on student learning outcomes, we would likely see blended credit-recovery providers rethink their approaches to credit recovery. As mentioned above, quality blended-learning programs depend not just on the devices and software they employ, but also on the ways they orchestrate other important factors such as the culture of the learning environment and the quality and roles of teachers. Programs and online-curriculum providers that are on the hook to improve student-learning outcomes will likely need to think more carefully about how they integrate online curriculum with face-to-face support in order to more effectively instruct and motivate students.
As stated earlier, innovations evolve to address the problems we hire them to solve. If districts want credit-recovery providers to solve the problem of helping students get back on track academically, then they need to make sure they are hiring providers to produce measurable improvements in student achievement. Without such incentives, blended learning will likely fall short in fulfilling its promise to create personalized-learning experiences that unlock each students’ potential for academic success.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.