Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009 | Cesar Alcantar gave grades to more than 500 struggling high schoolers last year, yet he never met any of them.

He is one of a handful of San Diego Unified employees who were listed as teachers for online classes last year, even though they seldom interacted with students and never taught lessons. Computers and tutors did the teaching for them. They checked that students’ grades matched their scores on tests.

The practice might seem bizarre, but pegging Alcantar and other credentialed educators as the official teachers for the online classes helped the school district stay out of hot water under No Child Left Behind, which requires every class to have a teacher qualified in that subject. It was a hasty solution to a dilemma created with the birth of a program called credit recovery, which is meant to usher more kids to graduation by letting them make up failed classes at their own pace online.

Credit recovery began last year at the urging of Superintendent Terry Grier, who touted it as a way to quash dropouts. More than 3,700 students enrolled and earned back credits. But the haphazard rollout of credit recovery illustrates the clash between the brave new world of online schooling, where classes are taught in part by computers, and the familiar rules that districts still have to live by.

The faraway teachers were not part of the original plans for the program, but were recruited as an afterthought to avoid violating the federal rules. School district officials say that dubbing the employees as teachers was legal, though it seems to stretch the definition of a teacher.

The fix also altered the classes themselves. To avoid overburdening employees such as Alcantar, who already had a regular job, San Diego Unified stripped away any assignments that had to be graded by a teacher from the online classes, nixing essays for English class and the need to show student work in math. District officials are still trying to figure out who will be the official teachers, what their role will be, and how schools can beef up the classes to include something more than computerized tests.

The idea behind credit recovery is simple: Instead of retaking a class they have failed in an ordinary classroom, students enrolled in credit recovery sit in front of a computer and click through lessons and quizzes. They are supervised by graduation coaches, teachers who do not grade work or give lectures but serve as motivational mentors. One of them, Karen Farrell, said that many of her students would have gone to prison without the program.

“It’s like throwing someone a life preserver,” said Farrell, a graduation coach at Mira Mesa High School. She takes attendance and proctors exams to prevent cheating. She has helped kids write resumes, found them tutors, given them peppermint oil to smell when they’re stressed, and hands out her cell phone number to teens to call. She added, “I’ve never been in a program that is as positive as this one.”

Credit recovery is touted as a way to give struggling students a chance to graduate, curbing the dropout rate. But its creators quickly realized that their original plans for the new program collided with No Child Left Behind, which requires that every class be taught by a teacher who is qualified in that subject. It is nearly impossible for a single graduation coach working with a roomful of students who are taking anything from biology to world history to have the credentials for every class.

Using teachers without the proper credentials was an unwelcome idea for the school system, which already had to hash out a plan for filling its classrooms with qualified teachers after falling short two years ago. It told state monitors that it would prod new teachers to get the right credentials and pay for their coursework. If it didn’t put more qualified teachers into classrooms, the school district might have to take out a newspaper ad saying they had run afoul of the rules, said Ron Rode, who manages monitoring and accountability programs in San Diego Unified.

“There were never any consequences” for not meeting the teacher qualifications, said Bess Keller, issues director at the National Council on Teacher Quality. “But the numbers don’t look as good.”

So the school district needed a Plan B for the online program. It assigned a handful of central office employees to be the official teachers for the online classes, each with the right credential for the class. They confirmed grades, but did little else. The new plan seemed to skirt the core idea behind No Child Left Behind and its dictates for qualified teachers — but it is complicated by the fact that the digital classes can mean a radically different role for the teacher.

“I don’t think this was anticipated when the rules went into effect,” said Linda Murray, acting executive director of the Education Trust West. She worried about whether it made sense to have teachers on paper. “But if it works — if the kids are learning — I don’t know how to argue with that.”

Teens making up geometry classes at Mira Mesa High might be supervised and coached by Farrell. But their grades were officially given by Alcantar, who is licensed to teach math and was working in the central office as a principal on special assignment. He checked over the grades that students got in online quizzes and made sure that their grades squared with the tests.

“I don’t get to see the actual work,” he said. “I just see what the level of the work is.”

Some of the teachers in the program assigned thousands of credits. While a typical high school teacher would grade no more than 360 students in a year, according to the teachers union, administrator Donna Campbell graded more than 1,100 English classes last year, spending roughly four or five hours every week checking scores against grades. Campbell called it “more or less double-checking” the grades.

“Did I actually see the test? No. I was just looking at the grades the students earned on those assignments,” said Campbell, now retired. She added, “It was kind of like looking at an old-fashioned grade book.”

What Alcantar and Campbell did helped boost the rate of highly qualified teachers, which reached 99.4 percent last year. Rode said the progress made it less likely that the school district would be penalized.

Meanwhile, the sheer volume of classes made it impossible to expect Campbell and others to grade essays or other assignments on top of their ordinary responsibilities. English and social studies classes were designed to include essays and discussions that are graded by a teacher; math classes required students to show their work to demonstrate how they solved the problem. Campbell was a high school improvement officer who oversaw principals, and even if she had no other responsibilities, grading thousands of papers would be a massive job.

So San Diego Unified canceled any assignments that had to be graded by a teacher. That left only quizzes and tests, which include multiple choice and true-or-false questions and short, fill-in-the-blank answers. Students can retake quizzes over and over, and the questions change each time. Teachers said there are good reasons for lightening the load compared to an ordinary class.

“They’ve already had the class,” said Hank Marxen, a graduation coach at the Crawford High School complex. “They should just be revisiting it to show mastery.”

Cheryl Vedoe, who runs the company that creates the online classes, Apex Learning, said they were meant to include an actively involved teacher, but school districts have sometimes eliminated essays and discussions and had other teachers “sign off on the validity of the course.” The classes are still tough without teacher grading, she said, but it makes it harder to gauge critical thinking. To encourage schools to keep the assignments, her company has tried to provide more guidance to graduation coaches.

“We don’t look at digital curriculum as a substitute for a teacher,” Vedoe said. She added, “But we believe that when a highly qualified teacher is not available, a digital curriculum can be a very effective alternative.”

Though school began on Tuesday, San Diego Unified is still figuring out how to inject writing and other assignments back into credit recovery. Science classes still need labs, for example, and adding in writing assignments means finding licensed teachers to grade them. Nellie Meyer, executive director of dropout prevention, said their current plan is to involve teachers at the schools themselves. Kids at Lincoln High would turn to English or math teachers at Lincoln; kids at Scripps Ranch would work with teachers there.

“I always felt like we were building the airplane while it was in flight,” Campbell said of the program. “I think it can only get better as these things get ironed out.”

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Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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