Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

At a time of Covid and parental anger toward schools (only some of it justified), Arlington Public Schools is mulling a standards-based pedagogical reform.

To achieve “more equitable grading practices,” some 120 staff and administrators at the middle and high school levels are studying a movement to end the grading of homework.

The idea of motivating the student to master material by relieving some competitive pressure—at least as perceived in certain quarters— is drawing nervous criticism from parents, commentators and even some teachers. They worry about going soft.

The inspiration comes from a national trend based on the 2019 book “Grading for Equity” by Oakland, Calif., consultant Joe Feldman, a former English and history teacher who founded Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, D.C. He says teachers hate grading, aren’t trained in it, and, by not questioning the practice, become “accessories to the inequities in our schools.”

Ungraded homework “is a way for students to practice,” I’m told by Sarah Putnam,  Director of Curriculum Instruction. In a “growth mindset,” teachers “would only grade the final tests, which are more substantive, so the student is not penalized for not knowing things YET. They’re only penalized when they’ve had time to engage.” This would leave fewer kids behind by assessing mistakes and providing support.

“When we grade students’ performance, are we grading their mastery of content, or are we grading their behavior?” asks Bridget Loft,  Director of Curriculum Instruction. “The change is moving to intrinsic from extrinsic motivation.”

Another technique, says Putnam, “is more motivational. Rather than use zero as a score, we would use 50. Many times when students get a zero, they can’t recover.”

In December, some Wakefield teachers protested in a letter to the superintendent. “We believe that these changes will impact student learning and socio-emotional development and growth in a negative way,” they wrote. The changes would “also result in the decline of high expectations and rigor in the classroom across all APS high schools. We agree that homework, summer assignments, summative as well as formative assessments need to be meaningful, engaging, and be clearly communicated/explained to students and their families.” But under the proposal, the “accountability `piece’ of the learning process will exist in theory only.”

Concerns about lowering quality are familiar to Loft, who says part of it stems from a biased assumption that “we really need to set deadlines” for students “to be successful at the next level. But in the real world, there are all sorts of opportunities to repeat if you miss a deadline.”

Loft welcomes the dialog, saying adapting a change in culture “includes circling back to the stakeholder, not just students but teachers and parents.” Parents, they observe, often draw on their own education experience.

The working draft will go to the Advisory Council on Teaching and Learning, and to the public on a website. Parents can then have at it. APS expects several more iterations before a board vote in May or June.

School board Chair Barbara Kanninen told me the proposals “are being prematurely cast as weakening our standards when, in fact, they’re meant to improve consistency and rigor. This is about ensuring that students are learning the material and can demonstrate mastery,” she added. The board is “interested in hearing from a variety of stakeholders, especially students and teachers.”

Rich and poor, philosopher Anatole France observed, are equally banned from sleeping under bridges.

The homeless men’s tents under the W&OD Bridge at our Falls Church border, I’ve observed, include a panhandling trumpeter I chatted up. Also a young man who on a recent Saturday night dashed into traffic on Washington Blvd., oddly shouting to celebrate his near-miss by a speeding car. Peering inside their tents—at a respectful distance—I noticed one “household” contained a computer keyboard.

When I returned Jan. 16 during thick falling snow, the tents were gone. My hope is that they got the help they needed.