The Los Angeles Unified School District is back in the news for its use of technology, this time for its online credit-recovery courses. In a recent editorial, the Los Angeles Times called into question the district’s record-high 75 percent graduation rate, as it said that the figure was based in part on LA Unified’s dependence on its less-than-rigorous online credit-recovery courses.
Yet, in calling for the University of California (UC), which has authority to evaluate whether credit-recovery courses meet admissions standards, to set “clear and rigorous rules governing how much time and effort students must put into make-up courses in order to earn credit,” the editorial board makes the common mistake of equating time spent with actual learning.
The Times acknowledges that the district’s online credit-recovery courses, developed by Edgenuity, are rigorous. But it notes that students can pass them without completing assignments. Students who correctly answer 60 percent of the 10 multiple-choice questions on a pre-test can skip that unit.
The problem, however, is not that students can pass courses without completing assignments. It’s that a student who earns 60 percent on a test—whether online or in a physical classroom—has not demonstrated that he or she has mastered the course material. And, not only are LA Unified’s pre-tests for its online credit-recovery courses relatively easy, the district allows students to surf the web while it takes them.
The newspaper cites the NCAA requirement that credit-recovery courses be comparable in “length, content and rigor” to those taught in classrooms.
That recommendation, if realized, would bind LA Unified to a time-bound, one-size-fits-all model that fails to focus on the most important criterion—whether a student has learned the material. Focusing on inputs has the effect of locking a system into set processes, a natural enemy of innovation. Shifting the emphasis to outcomes, on the other hand, encourages experimentation so that there can be continuous improvement to achieve stated goals.
Online courses have an advantage over traditional classroom teaching: Students can work at their own pace. If they’ve mastered a course unit, they’re allowed to demonstrate that mastery and move on. With rigorous, competency-based learning, effort is all but guaranteed since students must keep working until they truly master material. They simply can’t move on until they’ve grasped the subject matter.
Moving to a competency-based learning system—in which time becomes the variable and student learning the constant—is a positive step in the right direction if the outcomes are valid and rigorous. The answer is to improve the assessments and the conditions under which they are administered. UC must do a better job on assessment and clearly define the outcomes students must master in any given course. In turn, it should allow individual schools to determine the best way to reach those goals.
The Times says LA Unified and UC’s attempt to address concerns about credit-recovery courses will only mean something if schools improve graduation rates without lowering their standards. Exactly. But that means focusing on actual learning—and not the time spent pouring over course material.
– Michael Horn
Michael Horn is the co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and an executive editor at Education Next. This article has appeared on the blog of the Christensen Institute and on EdSurge.