Reconsidering What Effective High Schools Do, and What Failing High Schools Miss

Credit Recovery Programs Should be Strategic, Selective, Student-Focused, and Not the Only Game in Town

Dear Colleagues,

Introduction:  What Really is an “Effective” High School?

   I consult with many high schools across the country—sometimes on grants, and many times, because these high schools are in their state’s school improvement program.  And for those in school improvement status, the biggest issues often are their low high school graduation rates and students’ lack of proficiency on end-of-course exams (or the equivalent).

   And while these indicators reflect some elements of a high school’s success, they are fluid from year-to-year and, when they trigger a school improvement initiative, they often force schools into “quick fix” solutions that involve “smoke and mirror” band-aides. 

   Critically, even when these quick fixes are “successful,” they typically are short-term in nature, unsustainable, and not in the best interest of at-risk, underperforming, or failing students.

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   Part of the problem here rests with the criteria used to operationalize the school success (or improvement) outcome or indicator.

   For example, why do some states define a high school (or district) as “successful” when it graduates a high percent of its students in four years (as opposed to five years or even six years)?

   No one has a problem when “advanced” students graduate from high school to go to college in three years.  Nor are there concerns when high school seniors are dually enrolled—simultaneously earning both high school and college credits.

   So why, conversely, is it problematic when some high school students need or take five or six years to graduate?

  While the answer should be:  “It isn’t a problem” . . . it becomes a problem when high school staff push at-risk, underperforming, unsuccessful, or ill-prepared students into courses just to get them “graduated”. . . so that the school avoids being “red-flagged” in the state’s school improvement system.

   But the bigger problem is that, often, these students still fail, many of them drop-out anyways, or some of them “graduate” without the academic or social, emotional, or behavioral skills to be successful in the workplace—never mind in college.

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   So. . . for students who want or need to take more than four years to graduate from high school:

  • Why can’t they complete a planned work-study apprenticeship during their junior or senior years—even if it means they graduate in more than four years?
  • Why can’t they work part-time during their junior or senior years—because they want to, or because their family needs the income—even if it means they graduate from a community-based adult learning center during their fifth or sixth “high school” year?
  • Why can’t they attend a (more than four-year) Career and Technical Education (CTE) high school program—in computer science and technology, health care and medical technology, green energy systems and environmental control technology, or the “traditional” auto mechanics, home construction, and culinary and food service areas—while catching up on their job-embedded academic skill proficiencies?

   And, once again, the answer should be, “They can.”

   But, in my work all across the country, I find that these options, and the programs, centers, and partnerships needed, are few and far between.

   This sometimes is because it takes vision, time, money, knowledge, staff, and a long-term commitment to negotiate, plan, build, and sustain these programs. 

   But, once again, a more compelling deterrent is that many state education departments do not “reward” these initiatives—especially when they use a four-year graduation quotient as part of their school effectiveness/ improvement criteria.  When this criterion is present, the entire system is driven to that end. . . thereby, causing student casualties (i.e., drop-outs) even as the school and district concurrently “crashes and burns in school improvement hell” itself.

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Credit Recovery as a School Graduation “Solution”

   Credit Recovery Programs are one of the most-prevalent “solutions” when students fail a number of high school courses and get behind relative to graduating in four years. 

   Critically, these programs vary in format and staffing: 

  • Some involve no staffing.  They use, for example, distance learning courses in a self- or independent-study format. 
  • Others are computer software-based, with a paraprofessional in the room to “supervise.” 
  • Others mix the distance learning or software-based approaches with a certified teacher to provide instruction when needed. 
  • And still others offer certified instruction in small groups so that more individualization and remediation (as needed) is possible.
  • Beyond these variations, some of these programs have standards or criteria for the number of students who can be physically in a classroom or enrolled in a course at the same time (to optimize the student-to-staff ratio). 
  • Some programs dedicate specific periods of the day for specific academic course areas (e.g., Period 1 for Algebra I/II, Period 2 for English 11/12, Period 3 for Biology and Chemistry). 
  • And some programs, “control” the skill levels of the students in a class—so that teachers can comfortably group the students, and are not working concurrently with students with wide and diverse skill abilities and gaps.

   Regardless of program format, staffing or organizational considerations, a recent November 29, 2018 Education Dive article presented data from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute concluding that, “More than two-thirds of U.S. public high schools enroll students in credit recovery programs, but almost 10% of those schools have at least a fifth of their students in these courses.”

   [CLICK HERE for Education Dive article.]

   The article went on to say that:

  • Even though states track high school graduation rates, most don’t define and monitor the quality of the credit recovery programs that contribute to some students’ graduation in a consistent way.
  • Schools with at least 75% students of color are slightly more likely to have credit recovery programs, while schools with higher proportions of poor and minority students, as well as urban and large high schools, enroll more students in credit recovery classes.
  • Credit recovery programs that (a) dilute the rigor of the courses, (b) do not include actual instruction from a certified teacher, or (c) that allow students to take end-of-course tests without taking the actual course typically produce students who have not functionally mastered the material and who, if they go on to college, often need to take remedial courses once there.
  • A recent American Enterprise Institute report, using state-by-state credit recovery data, noted that while graduation rates have increased, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the ACT or the SAT have not increased.
  • Students who are chronically absent or who often get in trouble might not benefit from online courses.
  • Some districts are recognizing that some of their credit recovery students simply need additional instruction, practice, and focus on selected concepts or standards—and not an entire “re-do” of a course.  These students were close to mastering these concepts or standards in their original courses—they just needed more time and practice opportunities to fully master the material.
  • Other districts are helping students to pass some courses by giving them “advanced standing” for what they have already learned and mastered in their original courses—allowing these students to re-do assignments, re-take assessments, or take alternative assessments.
  • Some states (e.g., Alabama and Tennessee) require students to earn a minimum score in the original course before being allowed to use a credit recovery program.  If they don’t reach that minimum, they need to retake the original course.
  • Some educators are urging states to evaluate and “certify” any on-line programs being used, and to still require students to take the same end-of-course exams as their peers in traditional courses.

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   The point here is that high schools need to develop and use Credit Recovery programs strategically—adapting the program(s) to the students, and placing the “right” students into the program(s). 

   First, they need to design, format, staff, and resource the program to give students the support that they need so that they have the highest probability of not just passing the courses. . . but of mastering the material. 

   In other words, the program should not become a one-size-fits-all punitive dumping ground which is the “last resort” for students who “should have passed the regular course the first time.” [This describes the “worst case” scenario.]  Moreover, the programs should not be implemented “on the cheap.”

   Second, only those students who will most-benefit from the program should be accepted and placed.  This relates directly to the bullets above that talk about which students will or will not, respectively, benefit from a Credit Recovery program.

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   In order to differentiate among these students, high schools need to complete—before making a Credit Recovery program placement—a functional assessment process for each student to determine why he or she is failing multiple courses. 

   In my experience, some of the common underlying reasons include the following:

  • The student has had chronic (or recent) attendance, school/course tardiness or skipping, or similar problems related, for example, to health or medical (including drug or alcohol), family or transportation, or disability or economic issues.
  • The student has experienced past (or recent) in- or out-of-school events that have resulted in a chronic (or acute) emotional (or traumatic) reaction.
  • The student has past (and/or current) social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health issues that have impacted school and class attendance and engagement including, for example, numerous office discipline referrals, suspensions or expulsions, or school attendance or avoidance. 
  • Other possible social, emotional, or behavioral issues may relate to students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, transgender, or gender non-conforming.
  • The student has never mastered the core academic skills needed before entering 9th grade because, for example, s/he masters these skills more slowly than other students, or had one or more earlier years being “taught” by an ineffective teacher (a long-term substitute?) who provided poor instruction.
  • The student has (or has had) a learning disability or a disability that could have been minimized through, for example, assistive supports and/or strategically-selected accommodations that were not provided.
  • The curricula (or instructional units chosen by a teacher) in earlier years had skill and content gaps such that students were not exposed to, or did not learn and master, the core skills.
  • The student has motivational issues or conflicts (for example, being influenced by a “negative” peer group) that influence how s/he prioritizes, for example, school attendance, classroom engagement, and academic achievement.

   Clearly, some of these reasons—explaining some students’ multiple course failures—will not be resolved and/or will persist even in a great Credit Recovery program. 

   Putting students who will not benefit from these programs not only wastes resources and (further) discourages staff—for example, regarding the potential that certain students will (ever) be successful, but it also is a continuing disservice to the students—who may interpret their “failure” in Credit Recovery as further proof that they “will never be successful in or graduate from high school.”

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   In summary—and knowing the good intentions of my high school professional colleagues:

  • We need to, first, understand the underlying reasons why many of our high school students are failing multiple courses.
  • We then need to identify the students whose underlying reasons will be best addressed through a Credit Recovery program.
  • We then need to design the program around the needs of these students.
  • In doing this, we need to format, staff, and resource the program to give students the supports that they need so that they have the highest probability of not just passing the courses. . . but of mastering the material.

   While I understand that a Credit Recovery program in a single high school cannot realistically be tailored to the individual needs of every student, I would suggest using the 80/20 Rule.

   That is:  Establish a program where 80% of the components meet the core needs of virtually all of the students, and where the remaining 20% of the instructional “add-ons” are tailored to smaller cohorts of the same students with the same learning needs.

   Concretely:  A high school may address virtually all of its Credit Recovery students’ needs in Algebra I by mixing a distance learning or software-based course with a certified teacher for skill-specific instruction or remediation. 

   But within that same Credit Recovery course, the high school is providing (a) additional text-to-voice assistive supports and accommodations to one small cluster of students who cannot effectively read the course materials; (b) calculator instruction and use to another small cluster of students who have not mastered their basic math facts; and (c) shorter assignments to a third small student cluster—so long as the students can demonstrate mastery of the material at-hand.

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   Critically, in the same high school, the Credit Recovery approach may differ from subject area to subject area, and from class period to class period—all as a function of both the students enrolled and the course demands involved.

   In the final analysis, as noted above, Credit Recovery programs need to be strategic, student-centered, selection-smart, and mastery-driven.

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Bonus Section:  How to Prevent or Minimize Student Course Failures

   Of course, another way to avoid failing high schools, failing students, and the need for Credit Recovery programs is to prevent student failures from the beginning.  While I know that this is near impossible (unfortunately, virtually every high school will have some student failures), let’s at least move to minimize these failures.

   And so. . . this brings us “full-circle” to the beginning of this Blog.

   More students will be more successful and proficient in high school, and more high schools will graduate higher numbers of skilled and prepared students (thereby avoiding “school improvement” status) if they prepare and provide high quality instructional courses. . . delivered in different settings. . . with diverse options—even for students who need five or six years “in residence.”

   We have already suggested different ways to address the latter students:  for example, work-study apprenticeships, using community-based adult learning centers, Career and Technical Education programs.

   But for students who are not learning the essential academic and social, emotional, and behavioral skills from preschool to high school, we have to look at our general education classrooms.  To start this discussion, I want to revisit a Blog message I wrote back in May of 2015:

A New Federal Report Confirms that State Departments of Education are Trying, but Not Succeeding. . . Twelve Essential School Improvement Questions Needed to Jump-Start the Process


   In that piece, I outlined twelve foundational questions needed to make classroom instruction successful, and needed to help teachers identify those students who need to enter the multi-tiered assessment-to-intervention process.

   If every teacher and school staff used these questions to organize their multi-tiered systems of supports—based on my experience in thousands of schools across the country, we would have fewer student failures, fewer high school students entering 9th grade with critical skills gaps, and fewer high schools in improvement status.

   The questions are:

The Student Learning and Mastery Questions

  • Does every instructional staff person know the current functional skill level (mastery) of every student in their classroom in the areas of literacy, math, oral expression, and written expression?
  • Does every lesson, unit, class, and course identify the expected knowledge and understanding outcomes, and skill and application competence expected of students?
  • Do all teachers and students know what the outcomes and competencies in #2 above look like, and how they will be accurately evaluated relative to formative learning and summative mastery?
  • Does each lesson, unit, class, and course identify the prerequisite knowledge/content and skill/application competencies needed to effectively teach (and have students learn) its expected outcomes?

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The Curriculum and Instruction Questions

  • Do teachers have the curricular materials (direct and supplemental, course syllabi, class lessons) to effectively teach and differentiate?
  • Are teachers working in cross/trans-curricular ways and teams so that they are consistently teaching and reinforcing common literacy, math, oral expression, and written expression skills?
  • Can teachers differentiate instruction given the number of different skill levels of students in their classrooms?
  • Do teachers understand and demonstrate the components of effective, differentiated instruction and universal designs for learning, and can they provide (or guide) classroom-based remediation, assistive supports, accommodations, and modifications when needed.

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The Student-Staff Interaction Questions

  • Do students take responsibility for their academic and social interactions and progress and that of their peers?
  • Are students and staff taught and reinforced for their skill in the areas of organization, time and stress management, and ways to prioritize their learning and social, emotional, and behavioral actions and activities?
  • Are students and staff taught and reinforced for interpersonal, social problem solving, conflict prevention/resolution, and emotional coping skills?
  • Are students and staff receiving the services, supports, strategies, and programs they need to be academically and interpersonally successful?

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   This Blog has integrated a number of critical needs relative to high school instruction and student programming across the country.

   First is the need for state departments of education to change their high school graduation criteria where present in their “school effectiveness” ratings away from a four-year “graduation clock” to one that allows selected students (a) to take more time to master their skills, (b) to participate in Career and Technical Education—and other—job preparation programs, and (c) to experience both of these things without pressure from parents and teachers, and stigma from peers and others.

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   Second is the need (a) for high schools to give selected students (especially juniors and seniors) more flexibility in how they complete high school over this five- or six-year period of time; and (b) for districts, communities, regions, and states to create networks of work-study apprenticeships, community-based adult learning centers, and Career and Technical Education programs.

   If universities can establish Research, Business, Health, and/or Technology “Centers” or “Corridors” with their community partners, why can’t districts establish the same types of partnerships to address this need?

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   Third is the whole issue of Credit Recovery programs, and how they often are used as “graduation panaceas” for students who have failed multiple courses.  As discussed earlier, high schools need to develop and use Credit Recovery programs strategically—adapting the program(s) to the students, and placing the “right” students into the program(s).

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   Fourth is the need to use a functional assessment process for each student who has multiple high school course failures to determine why he or she is failing in school.  The root causes of these failures then need to be strategically linked to high-probability-of-success services, supports, interventions, and programs—with a recognition that a Credit Recovery program may be the best option for only a few of these root causes.

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   Finally, fifth is the need for every school and teacher to ask themselves the twelve foundational questions so that classroom instruction maximizes every student’s learning, and so that students who need to enter the multi-tiered assessment-to-intervention process are identified as soon as possible.

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   In many ways, this entire discussion is about student mastery, school success, and continuous school improvement.  Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, districts and schools have more flexibility than ever in how to improve their schools and serve their students.

   Hopefully, this discussion will (continue to) motivate everyone to look objectively at their current programs and successes, to analyze deeply the reasons why some students are struggling and failing, and to program strategically and flexibly to address these reasons so that more students can turn their current failures into long-term successes.

   As always, I look forward to your thoughts and comments.  Even during the upcoming break, I am always happy to provide a free hour of telephone consultation to those who want to discuss their own students, school, or district needs.

   Feel free to contact me at any time if there is anything that I can do to support your work.