"A" for effort shouldn't count
In the District of Columbia Public Schools, where I teach social studies, “credit recovery” (CR) is a program of after-school courses for high school students who have failed the same classes during the regular school day. CR enables these pupils to receive credit towards graduation; but the “recovery” courses have distinctly lower standards than the standard kind. As a result, any increase in graduation numbers achieved through this means may well yield a false impression of improved student learning.
The ideas behind credit recovery are nothing new; for decades school systems have offered summer and night programs where students can pass courses while—often—doing less work. Credit recovery is simply the latest incarnation of this approach. And it’s not just taking hold in the nation’s capital; CR programs are being launched all around the country and enrollment is booming. But these efforts haven’t been scrutinized for evidence that students are actually meeting the same standards that “regular” courses would demand of them.
In many public school systems, including DCPS, students who fail key high-school courses such as Algebra I or English 2 are scheduled into double periods to give them additional time to master challenging subject matter. Credit recovery does the opposite; it creates separate credit bearing courses, but with 25 to 40 percent fewer scheduled classroom hours. A typical two-semester course (1.0 Carnegie unit) offered during the regular school day in most DCPS high schools is scheduled for 120 to 135 seat hours. In credit recovery, meanwhile, the total number of teacher-student contact hours is eighty-two to ninety-two hours. (Contact hours are important, especially given that most of the students enrolled in CR courses had deficiencies in prerequisite knowledge from the get-go. For these students, expanded—not constricted—classroom time is critical for success.) Plus, CR courses come with the additional restriction that “there will be no traditional ‘homework’ assigned in Credit Recovery. All assignments will be completed during class time.” (Emphasis mine.)*
In her October 28, 2008 “Chancellors’ Notes,” DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee described the expansion of CR from the previous year’s trial run of 200 students in seven high schools to “over 1,400 students…[in] all 16 high schools.” Enrollment was open to all students, grades 9 through 12, including many with no lost credits requiring “recovery.” By the end of that school year, easily more than twice the chancellor’s original estimate of 1,400 students had enrolled in CR. (The actual number of students who received credits under these conditions has not been reported and is difficult to estimate, since many CR teachers reported drop-out rates of more than 50 percent.)
Moreover, many CR class teachers were assigned courses they were not certified to teach. During the past two school years, students enrolled in different subjects were assigned to one teacher and grouped in a single classroom. In some cases, non-instructional staff members, such as counselors, were assigned to “teach” CR classes. The clear expectation of school officials responsible for these assignments was that students would spend most of their time completing work sheets with little active teacher instruction.
Many students were simultaneously enrolled in two courses, even though one is the pre-requisite for the other, as in math, Spanish, and French. Some students, mainly ELL/ESOL, were enrolled in as many as three English courses at the same time. CR teachers reported a range of direct and indirect pressure by administrators to pass students enrolled in these courses despite failing grades, extensive absences, and late enrollment.
In my experience, CR as practiced in DCPS leads to a decline in actual student learning, teacher morale, and institutional integrity. It certainly mitigates against high standards. When some of our most academically challenged students are offered shortcuts that allow them to receive course credits for only partial content mastery, knowledge and the work ethic on which it is founded are devalued. Like ancient gilded lead coins, each recipient of CR credits is deceived with an inflated sense of achievement, which will burst the moment he or she learns that full college acceptance is conditional upon completion of remedial, non-credit courses. This is, of course, completely consistent with the lamentable pattern of giving kids diplomas that purport to attest to achievement and readiness but actually do nothing of the sort—which is arguably the origin of standards-based reform and external accountability in U.S. education going back to the flurry of high school graduation tests that started in the 1970s.
Simply put, credit recovery, in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, makes a mockery of local and national efforts to improve our country’s knowledge base.
* This no-homework clause was listed on a 2007 version of the DCPS website as one in a series of bulleted "details" about credit recovery
Erich Martel is a social studies teacher in the District of Columbia Public Schools and serves on the Executive Board of the Washington Teachers Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.