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KCBS Cover Story: Online High School Classes Offer Dubious Results

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A student works on a computer. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

A student works on a computer. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

DougSovern20100908_KCBS_0208r Doug Sovern
Doug began his career as a copy boy at the New York Times, and then...
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Part 1 of Doug Sovern’s KCBS Cover Story series on online high school classes. | Part 2 | Part 3

SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) – High school graduation rates are hitting record highs in the Bay Area and across the nation, but earning a diploma doesn’t always equal getting an education. An increasing number of students make up courses they’ve failed by taking classes online. They earn credits, but not necessarily knowledge.

Educators trumpet the numbers: 78% of high school kids graduating in California. 82% in San Francisco. 84% in San Jose Unified. The highest rates in history. But, as many as half clutching that high school sheepskin still don’t really know their math or English and aren’t ready for college.

“Districts are finding a way to get kids through in an inexpensive manner,” warned Mike Cooper, former principal of both Encinal High School and Island Continuation High School in Alameda. According to Cooper, that includes replacing summer school with online education, using programs such as Cyber High or Odyssey.

“It’s much less expensive, it enables kids to catch up,” he reasoned. “As far as the rigor of the classes, that’s questionable.”

Case in point: Brittany McGovern, an 11th grader at Alameda High School, failed both Geometry and Ethnic Studies, credits she needs to graduate. She signed up for Cyber High, where she can make up those courses, quickly, by taking them on a computer.

“I’ve gone there just to get my credits back because I’m missing credits from not passing my classes before,” she explained. “And I haven’t really learned anything from it and I just kind of stopped going because it was kind of a waste of time because a lot of people just play on the computers when they’re there.

Many kids manage to pass the multiple choice tests at the end of the computer courses without absorbing much knowledge, suggested Cooper, but they get the credits. Their school district gets credit when they graduate.

“There’s not much instruction going on and for kids who are highly motivated then that’s fine, but kids who are struggling, there’s not much learning that happens. It’s checking a box,” maintained Cooper.

Dr. Michael Mueller, state director for the California PASS program, which runs Cyber High out of the Fresno County Office of Education, defends it – suggesting it’s the best way to get struggling students back on track.

“It gives them hope,” declared Mueller, “that they can graduate. They stay in school and so they don’t become dropouts and they will graduate on time with their class.”

In Part 2 of Doug Sovern’s KCBS Cover Story series on online high school classes, he takes us inside those classes to see exactly how they work  and whether they function as intended. The series airs March 4 – 7, 2013 at 6:20 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 12:20 p.m., 4:20 p.m. and 9:20 p.m. on 740 AM & 106.9 FM.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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