The Washington Post

Under policies opposed to bad grades, teachers are forced to do even more

- Jay Mathews

I communicat­e often with teachers, usually by email. They are my best sources. They see me as a so-so student who needs more help if I’m going to get anywhere.

I almost always name them when I quote them. But some ask me not to. Being mentioned in a newspaper can offend colleagues and lead to awkward calls from the principal.

Many teachers have been emailing me on an issue I have been writing about — the move in many states and districts to cut back on homework and reduce penalties for not doing assignment­s. So far, I have been persuaded by teachers who think that is bad. They say such changes make it more difficult to motivate students to learn.

One educator recently provided me much detail on how the changes in homework and grading are affecting his work. He spoke to me on the condition of anonymity so that he could speak frankly without fear of retaliatio­n by his district. He is a high school teacher in Montgomery County, one of the largest and best-performing school districts in the country. He has been teaching for more than two decades.

The district has told teachers that they may give a zero for an assignment that is not done if they can document their efforts to contact the parent about the problem. Otherwise teachers have to follow the district’s rule — part of a nationwide grading reform — that even a totally missed assignment can be scored no lower than 50 percent.

“If I have 140 students, and 20 of them do not complete an assignment (a realistic number for many teachers), then I have to email those 20 parents about that assignment,” he said. “If I don’t hear back, I have to email them again. I have to document this effort and then, only then, can I assign a zero.”

“This takes time, at least 40 minutes if I have 20 students to follow up on (if I assume an efficient 2 minutes per email). That’s 40 less minutes for me to plan a lesson, grade papers, follow up with other bureaucrat­ic tasks.” He mentioned duties ranging from Individual­ized Education Programs reports for students needing specialize­d instructio­n to college recommenda­tions. “I could work well beyond my duty day and do everything, but there is a point where my personal health and family need to take priority. So, like many others, I choose the path of least resistance and give the 50 percent.”

Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Christophe­r Cram told me “the Well-being team at each school is available to provide additional support” in such cases. He said the team includes “counselors, admins, mental health team members, team leaders, and outside partners (where possible).”

The teacher told me he wasn’t clear on the Well-being team and its duties. What he does know is the issue of time for teachers to communicat­e with parents isn’t being addressed.

There are also changes in how to weight grades. Before, if a student got a C one marking period and a B the next, the grade for the semester would be a B because the student was showing progress. If the student got a B the first marking period and a C the next, the final semester grade would be a C. Under the new policy, if a student gets a B in either marking period the final grade is a B.

“I have made my peace with the student who makes a sincere effort and gets a 30 percent on a test being given a 50 percent,” the teacher said. “I understand the argument which says that a grade less than 50 percent is a ball and chain on their grade and may lead students to give up.”

“However, as a parent of children in the district, I don’t like the idea that we’re deluding ourselves and the students into the idea that they’re something they’re not,” he said. “We as a school system are teaching a value to our students — you can do nothing and still get something. When these young people go to college, this will present a problem.”

Cram said that “MCPS is committed to grading and reporting policies and practices that accurately reflect student achievemen­t of learning objectives over time, include varied assessment­s, and are equitably applied within and across schools. No grading system is perfect.”

The teacher had a highachiev­ing student who told him there was little point studying for an upcoming quiz. Because of the no-less-than 50 percent rule, the student said even if he didn’t take the test, he’d still have a 91 percent. The teacher told the student that reasoning was flawed.

“This is a lousy way to look at education and it’s one that I wouldn’t want my children to have,” the teacher told me. “The school system will tout their high graduation rates as proof that their policies are turning out educated people into the world equipped to handle the challenges of the 21st century. And it would be a lie.”

What bothers me most is the notion that teachers must be told exactly how to teach in excruciati­ng detail by officials who sometimes don’t understand what works in classrooms. Will the changes improve achievemen­t? There is little control-group research on this. Teachers who want to enlighten me should feel free to email me.

“We as a school system are teaching a value to our students — you can do nothing and still get something.” A high school teacher in Montgomery County

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