San Diego Unified may have taken unnecessary steps to meet the No Child Left Behind rules on qualified teachers in its credit recovery program by assigning employees who never interacted with the students to be their official teachers, according to advice given by the U.S. Department of Education about the federal rules.

Last week I wrote about the strange step that San Diego Unified took to ensure that its credit recovery classes, which are taken on a computer, didn’t violate federal rules that require a qualified teacher to teach every class. The school district tapped employees from the central office who had the right credentials to check over the grades and be the official teachers — even though they didn’t really do any teaching.

From my story:

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 (Cesar) 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.

But federal officials say assigning teachers to the computerized classes may have been an unnecessary step, at least under the No Child Left Behind rules that San Diego Unified was trying to hew to. Stephanie Babyak, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, wrote me in an e-mail this week that the teacher qualification doesn’t always apply to classes “where some or all of the instruction is provided via a computer program.” She explained:

It depends on the extent to which the computer and the teacher actually provide instruction. If the computer program is providing all of the instruction—lessons, assessments, grades, etc.—and the teacher is present in the classroom only to monitor student behavior, then the teacher does not need to meet highly qualified teacher standards. Such classes, where no teacher is actually providing instruction, are not courses in the traditional sense and as such, do not require a highly qualified teacher.

If, however, the teacher is actually providing instruction that is only assisted or augmented by the computer program, then the teacher does need to be highly qualified.  Highly qualified teacher requirements apply when the teacher is employed to provide instruction in a core academic subject.

That means that the steps that San Diego Unified took to fit the No Child Left Behind requirements were unnecessary, at least if the program continues to be run without any teacher grading. If the school district introduces writing assignments and discussions into the classes, as they were originally designed and as educators are now trying to do, they would need to have a qualified teacher with a credential in the subject they were being graded for.


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