NPR’s Scott Simon interviewed Brad Wolverton who asks the perennial question for college athletes who are struggling in class, “Need three credits to play ball?” "Call Western Oklahoma" describes the online learning program at this isolated college. Before his expose, athletes across the nation would get themselves into academic trouble and say, “'Oh, I'm going to go take a Western Oklahoma.'" As a result of Wolverton’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools is planning an investigation of the program.
Wolverton describes a football player with 5th grade reading skills who completed a three-credit health class in three sittings. “Other students struggling to stay above a 2.0 on their own campus,” he writes, “have landed A's and B's from Western Oklahoma—all in the academic blink of an eye.”
A former instructor was surprised at how many athletes earned credit by describing how to bake a cake. Another instructor designed her class to cover seven centuries of history in 50 hours. As with many virtual learning programs, students can retake exams and the exams are not monitored.
Western Oklahoma does not seem to provide more of a shortcut than many other online programs. For instance, Colorado’s Adams State offers "Finite Mathematics" to students don’t know basic arithmetic. It teaches concepts such as linear programming, probability, and descriptive statistics but they manage to pass finite math online.
Since collegiate accelerated programs are a relatively victimless affront to scholarship in schools that are devoted to sports, it is encouraging that higher education responded to Wolverton’s journalism. The same cannot be said for the much more dangerous rush to extend digital learning into public schools. For instance, exposes in Washington D.C., New York City, and elsewhere have documented the great potential damage done by so-called “credit recovery” programs. My students used to refer to these transparent shortcuts as “exercising the right click finger.”
Just as I was mourning the refusal of public education to look into our versions of Western Oklahoma, new hope came from eastern Oklahoma City. Douglass High School has been mired in a scandal over pressure by the widely respected principal to pass students on. Unfortunately, the controversy has often focused on individuals, racial conflict, and a felonious assault on the principal. But, a new investigation has concentrated our minds on the students who are the real victims of schemes to make accountability numbers look better.
Ordinarily, Douglass would be proclaimed as a School Improvement Grant (SIG) success story. The principal had been praised for “exiting” 75% of its teachers. Almost overnight, the school with a long history of truancy posted an attendance rate that was higher than any numbers recorded by the top low-poverty magnet schools.
In 2012, Douglass posted double-digit increases in four subjects, single-digit gains in four, and declines in only three tests. The high school earned a “C” on Oklahoma’s tough new report card. It earned “A’s” for overall student growth, its graduation rate, advanced coursework, and “overall school improvement.”
Douglass, however, is now being investigated for awarding credits to students who have not earned them. Now, the Daily Oklahoman's Carrie Coppernoll, in "Douglass Transcript Finds Spur Call for Wider Auditing," reports that less than 20% of Douglass’ seniors are on track to graduate.
The latest twist, ironically, grows out the Oklahoma Gazette's Freedom of Information request. Jerry Bohnen, in "A Tale of Email," confirms that the former principal changed grades. The district explains that those grade-changes would not have been appropriate under its policies, but they may have been consistent with SIG standards. Be that as it may, the emails apparently document a trick that had long infuriated OKCPS high school teachers. Attendance is supposed to be taken twenty minutes into class. Refusing to follow such a procedure can allow students to get credit for being “present” even if they just make a token appearance as class is dismissed.
To ameliorate the harm for its seniors, Douglass has no short term option but to double-down on the full array of “credit recovery” shortcuts that got the school in the mess by “passing students on.” The district plans to further narrow the Douglass curriculum, force students to attend more test prep at night, on Saturdays, and over the holidays, and rely on its “Innovations Virtual School.”
So, while it is great that some have recognized the harm done by the high school version of “take a Western Oklahoma,” it may take awhile before policy types understand that there are no shortcuts such as the “right click finger” route to success. When “reformers” get into trouble, they will continue to call the virtual education folks.