As the pandemic continued to throw barriers in front of high schoolers' graduation goals, Minneapolis Public School officials looked at one particular group most in need — students who failed a class and needed to recover the credits.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, the more than 31,000-student school system had offered online and in-person credit recovery programs. But a "very high need" arose as students in the classes of 2021, 2022 and 2023 experienced higher rates of course failures due to disruptions to in-person learning, said Daren Johnson, the district's director of extended learning.
The urgency to support students' goals for high school graduation has led the district to dedicate federal emergency funding toward several nontraditional approaches, including a program dedicated to fifth-year seniors and credit recovery classes that use the city's resources as inspiration and lessons for learning.
District officials have even more plans in the works for creative ways to help students recover credits that they hope prove effective in supporting student outcomes and can continue even after the public health crisis.
"What we're really trying to utilize is these emergency dollars to try some new and exciting programming so we can start building sustainability, so these aren't just a one-and-done type of programs," Johnson said.
The federal government has promoted expanded learning opportunities for students during the pandemic, and at least two states — Michigan and Utah — are specifically dedicating Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding for credit recovery programs, according to an analysis by Help Kids Recover, a collection of several organizations working to support students during the pandemic.
Ensuring credit recovery programs are of high quality, given the realities of limited staff, space and time, is the difficulty high schools are facing — especially as pandemic disruptions led to higher failure rates in many school systems.
"Failure is relatively common," said Carolyn Heinrich, a Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Public Policy, Education and Economics at Vanderbilt University. "The challenge it presents for districts, of course, what you realize is that it's not cheap to have students repeating courses."
Pros and cons of credit recovery
An issue brief by the U.S. Department of Education in 2018 said 89% of high schools offered a credit recovery program for students who needed it during the 2014-15 school year, and 15% of students participated in credit recovery courses.
Online credit recovery programs were most prevalent at 71%, followed by a blended structure with online tools and an in-person facilitator at 46% and in-person instruction at 42%.
An emerging body of research links online credit recovery programs to the increase in high school graduation rates but does not find comparable increases in student learning as measured by standardized test scores or end-of-course tests, according to Heinrich.
Heinrich and colleagues have studied credit recovery programs for several years, looking at both traditional in-person and online formats. What they discovered is there are pros and cons to both, with online learning being more cost efficient (about 50% of the cost of in-person credit recovery programs) but in-person learning showing greater opportunities for teacher-student interactions to support instruction and monitor students' progress.
"Failure is relatively common. The challenge it presents for districts, of course, what you realize is that it's not cheap to have students repeating courses."
A Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Public Policy, Education and Economics at Vanderbilt University
Further research to be published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management shows students who took online credit recovery courses after failing a class had similar workforce earnings immediately after high school as did students who failed a class but didn’t use online credit recovery.
However, the gap became larger and more statistically significant by the fourth year after high school, with online credit recovery students earning less, according to the report shared by Heinrich.
Through her research, Heinrich has discovered various approaches for credit recovery programs:
- Credit recovery labs. Even if students use online platforms to retake courses at their own pace, having a physical space for students to visit to get help from teachers can help students succeed. Ideally, students would have access to a teacher who is a content specialist in the course.
- Student groupings. By holding in-person classes or online learning courses by academic subject, the hope is that content-specialist teachers can answer students’ specific questions. Having access to a course content expert can be especially important for students in online credit recovery courses, Heinrich said.
"We've seen that students get accustomed to thinking there's not going to be someone there to help them," she said. "They will just Google for answers when they get to the quiz."
Grouping students by ability, however, comes with notes of caution, as school systems want to avoid sending signals to students they are low-achieving.
- Customized course loads. Some online credit recovery programs allow students to pretest out of modules within courses, leaving fewer modules for completion and mastery of the course.
- Student engagement. Students can become fatigued during asynchronous online credit recovery courses. Some schools have tried to increase student engagement by requiring students to take notes during their lessons.
The specific credit recovery approaches schools take can depend on their resources, how many students they need to accommodate and other factors, Heinrich said.
Partnerships to support credit recovery
In Minneapolis, the school system took advantage of this past winter break to allow students to work on online credit recovery courses. Students could receive in-person support through the district's partner, MIGIZI, a Minneapolis-based organization that supports American Indian youth.
When schools reopened, students could supplement those courses with in-person instruction. The district worked with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers to coordinate teacher instructional support.
More than 600 students have participated and have until Jan. 31 to finish their courses, Johnson said.
"What we're really trying to utilize is these emergency dollars to try some new and exciting programming so we can start building sustainability, so these aren't just a one-and-done type of programs."
Director of Extended Learning for Minneapolis Public Schools
For the fifth-year senior program, created this school year, the district has hired a counselor and an English language arts teacher to work specifically with those needing to pass English courses for graduation.
The district has also partnered with community agencies to give students experiences to further develop their ELA proficiency. For example, some students may work with a theater company reading or watching plays and writing analyses of the stories and their interpretations, Johnson said.
District officials are looking to add career instruction and experiences to credit recovery programming to increase student engagement and practical applications to what students are learning, Johnson said.
The district's traditional in-person credit recovery programs also got a boost with the hiring of licensed English language and special education staff members. A shared document alerts credit recovery staff if a student misses a class.
The district has also prioritized resources for the oldest students: fifth-year seniors, current seniors and current juniors.
"What we've found is if we target those top three groups, the engagement is much higher, the enrollment stays a lot more steady, and the success rate of credits is much higher," Johnson said.
Lastly, the district made an effort to hire credit recovery staff from the city's various high schools. "It just helped them [the students] know that it was people that they could trust because they had seen them in the hallway," Johnson said.