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As Shelby County Schools seeks to expand ‘credit recovery,’ board reluctantly approves Pearson contract

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II, center, with Shelby County school board president Kevin Woods, left, and board member Billy Orgel, right.
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson aims to increase the district's four-year graduation rate from 75 percent to 90 percent by 2025.
Kyle Kurlick

After heated debate, the Shelby County Schools board voted this week to hire Pearson, the global education company, to help high school students make up failed classes.

Under terms of a contract that the board approved on Tuesday, the district will pay Pearson $225,500 next year to provide a “credit recovery and intervention” program that would allow students who have failed classes to receive credits after completing work online.

The district also is asking the board to approve rule changes that would expand eligibility and access to credit recovery courses.

Some Shelby County schools have offered credit recovery in the past, but the new program would bring the option in math and English to all high schools, as well as add opportunities to intervene before students have failed.

Credit recovery has been controversial in other places where it has been widely used. Proponents say that allowing struggling students to make up failed classes without repeating the courses allows students on the brink of graduation to get over the finish line — an argument that Shelby County officials made when lobbying for the contract.

“If this purchase is not approved, the district’s graduation rate will continue to decrease and struggling students will not be provided supports,” said the briefing document provided to board members by district administrators.

But critics say the programs can allow students who are unmotivated and unskilled to receive credits easily, devaluing high school diplomas for all. In some high-profile instances, credit recovery policies have been abused to give students who had not attended class or completed any assignments credit for completing as little as a packet of worksheets.

Asked to approve spending on a credit recovery program, Shelby County board members did not raise concerns about the practice itself, which the district estimates 15,000 students will use next year. Instead, they questioned why a company that has drawn criticism for struggling to carry out its promises to other districts should get the district’s business.

During their discussion, members raised concerns about the company’s recent track record, as well as some low marks on Shelby County’s assessment of its contract bid, where it earned the highest overall rating of four applications. (Pearson recently saw its stock price plummet after announcing lower-than-expected earnings.)

“I read constantly on the Web that states and localities are rejecting Pearson,” board member Mike Kernell said, alluding to the decision of states such as New York to stop using Pearson to produce their tests. “And then we find that their support is very, very low and that concerns me.”

At first, the board split on the contract, meaning that the district could not move forward and would have to seek a different vendor. But Superintendent Dorsey Hopson implored them to reconsider.

“This could have an impact on students’ ability to graduate,” Hopson said. “Just know that a ‘no’ vote will have consequences for students.”

Hopson also said he was surprised that board members had so many questions after not raising concerns in the week since they first briefed on the contract.

“We had a robust committee meeting, we talked about it, we presented information last week, and had we known there would be additional questions then, we would have been prepared for them,” he said. “But we haven’t received questions on this all week long.”

Board member Kevin Woods put the contract back on the table, and after another round of debate, the board voted 5-2 for approval. But not everyone who cast a “yes” vote did so eagerly.

Board Chairwoman Teresa Jones said she would have preferred the district to find another company to provide credit recovery services. However, she said she was faced with the difficult position of either opposing the contract and taking away an option for struggling students, or signing off on it despite her concerns.

“I’m not going to continue to vote on things just because of the timing,” Jones said. “We really need to work on scheduling and getting things to us in time, so that if things come up at the last minute we’ll have time to reissue it.”

According to the contract proposal, training for the program will begin immediately.

Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez said a district analysis showed that 10 percent of high school students tend to be two or more credits behind where they should be after the first quarter of the school year. The district’s four-year graduation rate is 75 percent, and it has a goal of boosting that to 90 percent by 2025.

“Now that we’ve finished the first quarter, we already know we have students short on credits,” Ramirez told the board. “We’re really trying to get something in their hands.”

The district is also asking the board to relax or revise rules governing credit recovery. The proposed changes — which the board reviewed for the first time this week — would allow people other than licensed teachers to supervise credit recovery; open enrollment to students who have not completed prerequisite courses or who have been absent frequently; and make it possible for students to earn more than six credits through credit recovery.

The district’s proposed rule changes make clear that credit recovery is crucial to the district’s strategy to boost graduation, emphasizing that students who do not make progress in credit recovery courses should get support to get them back on track.

“Removal from course/credit recovery shall be limited to only extreme cases and based on individual student needs,” reads one proposed addition.

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