Brett Rusnock can follow his students’ every move on his laptop: how much time they spend on computers each day at Waltrip High School in Houston, their scores on quizzes and when they stop working. He even gets e-mail alerts when they toil at home into the wee hours. “I can play Big Brother a little bit with this,” Rusnock says.
Rusnock is not a teacher. He is a grad coach, one of 27 in Houston monitoring thousands of students who take so-called credit-recovery courses online. Like many districts across the state, particularly those with high dropout rates, the Houston Independent School District offers these self-paced make-ups to any student who fails a class. In the spring and summer terms, 6,127 HISD students earned 9,774 credits in such courses, which are generally taken in conjunction with a full load of regular classes. About 2,500 more students are enrolled this fall.
The program reflects a trend in Texas and nationally as school districts seek cost-effective ways to bolster graduation rates. But questions remain over whether the digital curriculum — which school districts buy from Apex Learning and other providers — offers the same quality of education as traditional courses. Little research exists on how much, or how little, students learn.
The Texas Education Agency does not regulate credit-recovery courses or even track their proliferation, though the courses have expanded rapidly over the last decade. Austin ISD and Dallas ISD each reported educating about 4,000 students in credit-recovery courses last year. Pearson Education, makers of the popular credit-recovery software NovaNet, reported its use in 400 Texas schools.
State Education Commissioner Robert Scott says he's concerned that some districts may be offering an easy way out of a rigorous curriculum, rather than an avenue back to regular classes. “Any tool that helps get kids credit toward graduation is certainly worth having,” Scott says. “But any time you’re accelerating education that quickly, there’s a concern that the quality of the content standards you’re going over will be lessened.”
Apex, Houston’s provider, supplies written tests in addition to the standard computer-based multiple-choice assessments, and school districts determine whether to use them. NovaNet does not provide such tests. Austin ISD uses its own written tests in combination with the company’s online curriculum — without this safeguard, students would be able to earn an English credit without writing a single sentence.
Credit recovery is just part of a larger devolution in the traditional 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., lecture-and-textbook high school model, which educators increasingly acknowledge fails many children. Other trends include raising the maximum age for Texas high school students to 25. There has also been a rapid growth of "dropout recovery” charter schools that exclusively serve troubled teenagers. For accelerated students, the number of dual-credit classes taught in partnership with local colleges has increased.
T. Jack Blackmon, who heads up the Dallas ISD credit-recovery program, predicts the old model will continue to crumble. “It’s the vision for the future as far as I’m concerned: kids going at their own pace,” Blackmon says. “The traditional school is only good for about a third of the kids, the ones who want football or choir or social activities — kids who have the school bug. For the rest of them, it’s just standing in line, waiting for the factory model to give them an education. A lot of kids don’t want to wait in line.”
Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier expanded Houston’s credit recovery offerings in January. He had successfully started similar classes in San Diego and in Guilford County, N.C. In those cases, the dropout rate was cut in half during his tenure, though credit-recovery was just one of the programs at play.
One of Grier’s goals upon arriving in Houston last year was to make similar improvements. District officials put the Houston’s dropout rate at 15.8 percent — higher than the self-reported rates in New York (13.5 percent) but lower than Indianapolis (29.8 percent) and Los Angeles (34.9 percent).
The district prides itself on academic rigor and student support, provided mostly by grad coaches who make daily decisions about when students have mastered the material and how much time they should spend on a particular skill. Students in Houston take an average of 61 days to complete credit-recovery courses — about 26 days less than a typical semester-long course — and are required to take written tests.
Rusnock supervises statistical progress, but he also looks beyond the numbers and tries to divine learning. Students retake quizzes until they pass them, but if a student fails one three times in a row, it is up to Rusnock to decide how to proceed. Frequently, he will make a student stay on that lesson, but he assesses on a case-by-case basis. “We’re not producing cars here,” he says.
In Houston, students can work from home or in a grad lab at their school. In Austin, every high school has a Delta credit-recovery lab. During a recent day at Austin High School, students got a heavy dose of one-on-one help. In a long, skinny classroom, about 40 computers lined cinder-block walls adorned with motivational sayings and posters, including one that showed a frog hanging halfway out of the mouth of a pelican, reaching its arms out to strangle the bird. The message: Never give up.
Martha Louis, a 37-year teaching veteran, runs the Delta lab with the help of another teacher and two assistants. Twenty to 40 students drop by throughout the school day. She says the classes are a great alternative for students who might struggle for a variety of reasons, but that they are not a replacement for traditional learning.
Louis insists that students, even those working rapidly, must work methodically through the content. “They can’t just click-click-click-click-click and go straight to the quiz,” she says. “They have to take notes.”
But students are permitted to use those notes on quizzes, which is a tremendous help to Monique Romero, a freshman. “I have trouble remembering,” she says, while scribbling in her notebook about the Russian geography unit on her screen. Several students describe the courses as “easier,” a reference more to the method than to the material.
Students end up in the Delta lab for a variety of reasons. Krendon Reynolds, a junior, takes mostly Advanced Placement classes. But he failed one of his classes, he says, because he did not do the homework. “I’ve just got a lot of other things to do at home,” including a job, he says.
In one extreme case, a 19-year-old who was a freshman last year earned enough recovery credits to become a senior this year. The student raced through economics in just four weeks, Louis says. Most take longer, but the main reason that all of them can move faster is because they have seen the material before — even though they got an F, they learned something.
Quilson Norales, a senior at Yates High School in Houston, snoozed through Spanish — his native language — and failed. The Apex version of the class took him only three hours to earn back the credit he had squandered during a semester’s worth of naps.
Some grad coaches worry that such extreme examples might give other students the wrong impression. Rusnock says he tried to get across the message that passing the first time beats staring at the same material on a screen.
Quilson seems to be getting it. As he slouches in a plastic chair and works his way through his final English test, he vows never to take another class twice. “I ain’t going through this again,” he says.
This story was produced in a partnership between The Texas Tribune and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University. Susan Sawyers of The Hechinger Report also contributed reporting.