Mr. Rusnock is not a teacher. He is a grad coach, one of 27 in Houston monitoring thousands of students who take so called credit-recovery courses online. Like many other districts across the state, particularly those with high dropout rates, the Houston Independent School District offers these self-paced make-ups to any student who fails a class. In the spring and summer terms, 6,127 Houston I.S.D. students earned 9,774 credits in such courses, which are generally taken in conjunction with a full load of regular classes. About 2,500 more students are enrolled this fall.
The program reflects a trend in Texas and nationally as school districts seek cost-effective ways to bolster graduation rates. But questions remain over whether the digital curriculum — which school districts buy from Apex Learning and other providers — offers the same quality of education as traditional courses. Little research exists on how much, or how little, students learn.
The Texas Education Agency does not regulate credit-recovery courses or even track their proliferation, though the courses have expanded rapidly over the last decade. The Austin I.S.D. and the Dallas I.S.D. each reported educating about 4,000 students in credit-recovery courses last year. Pearson Education, makers of the popular credit-recovery software NovaNet, reported its use in 400 Texas schools.
Robert Scott, the state’s commissioner of education, said he was concerned that some districts might be offering an easy way out of a rigorous curriculum, rather than an avenue back to regular classes.
“Any tool that helps get kids credit toward graduation is certainly worth having,” Mr. Scott said. “But any time you’re accelerating education that quickly, there’s a concern that the quality of the content standards you’re going over will be lessened.”
Apex Learning, Houston’s provider, supplies written tests in addition to the standard computer-based multiple-choice assessments, and school districts determine whether to use them. NovaNet does not provide such tests. The Austin I.S.D. uses its own written tests in combination with the company’s online curriculum; without this safeguard, students would be able to earn an English credit without writing a single sentence.
Credit recovery is just part of a larger devolution in the traditional 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., lecture-and-textbook high school model, which educators increasingly acknowledge fails many children. Other trends include raising the maximum age for Texas high school students to 25. There has also been a rapid growth of “dropout recovery” charter schools that exclusively serve troubled teenagers. For accelerated students, the number of dual-credit classes taught in partnership with local colleges has increased.
T. Jack Blackmon, who heads up the Dallas I.S.D. credit-recovery program, said the old model would continue to crumble.
“It’s the vision for the future as far as I’m concerned: kids going at their own pace,” Mr. Blackmon said. “The traditional school is only good for about a third of the kids, the ones who want football or choir or social activities — kids who have the school bug. For the rest of them, it’s just standing in line, waiting for the factory model to give them an education. A lot of kids don’t want to wait in line.”
Terry Grier, superintendent of the Houston I.S.D., expanded Houston’s credit-recovery offerings in January. He had successfully started similar classes in San Diego and in Guilford County, N.C. In those cases, the dropout rate was cut in half during his tenure, though credit-recovery was just one of the programs at play.
One of Mr. Grier’s goals upon arriving in Houston last year was to make similar improvements. District officials put Houston’s dropout rate at 15.8 percent — higher than the self-reported rate in New York (13.5 percent), but lower than Indianapolis (29.8 percent) and Los Angeles (34.9 percent).
The district prides itself on academic rigor and student support, provided mostly by grad coaches who make daily decisions about when students have mastered the material and how much time they should spend on a particular skill. Students in Houston take an average of 61 days to complete credit-recovery courses — about 26 days less than a typical semester-long course — and they are required to take written tests.
This article was produced in partnership between The Texas Tribune and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.