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Study of CPS shows in-person remedial classes better than online

CPS uses "online credit recovery" programs to improve graduation rates, but a new study shows students do better with in-person instruction. | File photo

Students who retake algebra online after failing it in 9th grade are less likely to pass — and if they do, they pass with lower grades than students who retake the class face-to-face with a live teacher.

That’s according to new research about Chicago Public Schools freshmen conducted by the American Institutes for Research, professing to be first look at the popular educational strategy that boasts greater individualized feedback and flexibility.

The findings are significant as Chicago Public Schools leans on such “online credit recovery” programs to improve graduation rates and to offer students more flexibility and individualization.

The findings favored the in-person classes:

  • More than half — 53 percent — of students in the face-to-face course earned an A, B or C compared with just 31 percent of students in the online course
  • Those in the traditional classroom were 10 percentage points more likely to pass than those studying online — 76 percent versus 66 percent
  • The online students found their course more difficult and less clear on grading expectations than kids with the face-to-face teacher. They also reported less confidence in math.
  • In this case, the online credit recovery cost more than the face-to-face course because the teachers involved were paid their regular rate to teach the class or serve as a mentor for the kids studying online

“If what you need is a certified math teacher to answer questions in an in-person setting, then why not just offer a face-to-face class? I think it’s actually a really great question,” said coauthor Jessica Heppen of AIR, who conducted the study with researchers from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, in conjunction with Chicago Public Schools. “Some of it is about the remaining promise and really great potential to leverage the affordances of technology to make content come alive for kids but to balance that with a real grounding in the school that kids can rely on and adults in their lives can provide.”

The researchers looked at 1,224 CPS 9th-graders at 17 schools who failed second semester Algebra I who were then enrolled in summer school in 2011 or 2012. To make up the course, the students were randomly assigned to a face-to-face class or an online version.

Algebra I is gateway course, as well as a common stumbling block, Heppen said.

It’s the class most failed by CPS students, and the ones who don’t make it through are especially unlikely to graduate. About a third of CPS’ 9th-graders fail one or both semesters of Algebra I, and just 15 percent who failed the whole course in 2006 graduated within four years.

For those who took the online course, the ones with a mentor in the classroom who spent at least 20 percent of class time answering math questions fared best.

“There are features of online courses that certainly don’t make them a replacement for face-to-face, high-quality instruction,” Heppen said. “But under certain conditions in certain cases, they may be quite a good and potentially improving alternative again with these supports in place.”

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner couldn’t say how many students continue to do online credit recovery or how much the district spends on the programs that do help some students get to graduation day.

She said that the classes are “especially important for students who don’t have the flexibility to take classes after school or in the summer. CPS is committed to meeting our students where they are, and providing flexible instructional methods so that they can move on from high school into college and the workforce.”