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Thompson: The Perils -- And Potential -- Of "Right-Click" Credit Programs

image from apps.npr.orgNational Public Radio committed fourteen reporters to an investigative series, The Truth about America's Graduation Rate, which identifies three major ways that school systems try to improve their graduation rates.

NPR finds that some districts did it in the proper way, by "stepping in early to keep kids on track." 

Too many improved graduation rates by "lowering the bar by offering alternate and easier routes when students falter," or "gaming the system by moving likely dropouts off the books, transferring or misclassifying them."

NPR's excellent series should push us to ask some tougher questions, such as what is the harm of "juking the stats" in order to graduate more students? Credit recovery is the alternative route that might have the most potential for helping students graduate, but when abused, it has great potential for harm.

In the early years of NCLB, my students shunned credit recovery as "exercising your right-click finger." But, as credit recovery expanded, the practice literally became dangerous. In many inner city high schools, most of the chronic disorder and violence is prompted by students who attend irregularly and/ or who come to school but don't go to class.

Credit recovery can send the message to students that attending class is optional and that "hall walkers" will have an infinite number of chances to accumulate credits. Few students intend to cut class and covertly engage in inappropriate behavior in the unsupervised corners to the point where they can't graduate. But many get caught up in the drama. One day, truant students wake up and realize that they are too far behind to even be saved by their right-click finger.

The second problem is that, when misused, credit recovery can undermine high-quality instruction. It is no problem making up online worksheets in December in lieu of filling out paper worksheets in September. But, in classes that stress analysis and synthesis, the concepts that a student needs to master during the first part of the year lay the foundation for deeper learning.

When students are given a de facto "get out of jail free" card for cutting classes in the first and third quarters, too many find themselves lost in the second and fourth nine weeks. So, credit recovery becomes extra invaluable for systems as a tool for "passing on" those students, despite their lack of learning.

That being said, at some point, most students mature, and seek to learn and graduate. The same credit recovery program which helped lure 15 year-olds into self-destructive behaviors can now be beneficial to 17 year-olds seeking to atone for the youthful errors.

The problem with credit recovery is that it offers incentives for bad habits for both teenagers and for adult systems. The persons who benefit from credit recovery shortcuts often lack the incentives necessary for using online systems properly. So, I believe that credit recovery programs should be operated in a separate part of the school or in another building by persons who are not accountable to the school system's data-driven metrics. Students should have to knock on the door, enter a different institution (that will not encourage the normative games and tricks of high schools schools,) and meet the standards of the online provider.

A second huge issue must be considered in the light of Anya Kamenetz's great book, The Test. She describes both the damage done by bubble-in accountability and the potential of sophisticated assessments that can be tools for learning in an engaging and challenging manner.

I fear that we must overcome an education version of Gresham's Law, which describes bad money driving out the good. It will always be easier to make a profit producing lousy online assessments. Similarly, it will always be easier for under-the-gun-districts to manipulate accountability data than it is to find authentic methods 21st century learning.



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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.