Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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‘Grading for Equity’: Promoting Students by Banning Grades of Zero and Leaving No Class Cut-Ups Behind



Joe Feldman has faced many tough crowds in the course of successfully selling his “Grading for Equity” program to school districts across the nation. During the consultant’s presentations, teachers concerned that his approach lowers standards have rolled their eyes, questioned his understanding of students, and worse.

“A guy in the front row got his stuff together and walked out of the room,” Feldman told RealClearInvestigations.

Despite the frequent resistance from teachers, dozens of districts from California to Massachusetts are giving the consultant’s ambitious project a shot. As schools face a series of crises, including a spike in chronic absenteeism and sharp academic decline, grading for equity offers a path to better grades and higher graduation rates. Its practices include the removal of behavior in calculating grades, the end of penalties for late assignments, allowing students to retake exams, and a ban on zeros as the lowest mark.

Since the pandemic, districts have been lowering standards by making grading more lenient to help struggling students, according to several studies. But Feldman insists that his sweeping overhaul isn’t part of that controversial trend. He says the practices he promotes are a matter of fairness and accuracy in an educational system that’s stacked against blacks, Latinos and other disadvantaged students.

Grading for equity, however, stirs enough dissent among teachers and parents that some districts have dropped the difficult revamp in mid-stream. They say Feldman’s reforms are a form of leniency that brings out the worst in some students, hurting the very kids he wants to help. 

“What’s most troubling are the practices that lower expectations, like giving a 50 percent grade instead of a zero even when a student doesn’t attempt the assignment,” said Meredith Coffey, a former teacher and now a researcher at Thomas B. Fordham Institute who co-wrote a report on grading for equity. “If students know that they could do nothing and get 50 percent, why would they work hard? Many would do nothing.”

In some districts, grading for equity is part of the controversial agenda that’s taken hold in urban areas and seeks to wash away perceived “systemic racism” in classrooms in the wake of the George Floyd murder in 2020. In Fairfax County, a district that’s embraced grading for equity, leaders have also pushed “anti-racist” education for students and paid author and crusader Ibram X. Kendi $20,000 to give a one-hour Zoom presentation, telling staff that anti-racism means working to achieve equitable outcomes. 

Like critical race theory, cops in schools, and transgender bathrooms, grading for equity is galvanizing divisions in the cultural conflict over public education. Progressives support it as a path to closing the stubborn achievement gap between rich and poor students while conservatives fear it further undermines high expectations that encourage all students to strive to improve. 

A savvy promoter, Feldman frequently posts on X, expressing his excitement to schools and conference organizers who tap his expertise. He likes to plug his book, too. “Grading for Equity,” with a second edition in 2023, has sold 175,000 copies, a top-five bestseller from publisher Corwin.

Grading for equity, a term coined by Feldman, isn’t a fringe movement. Some districts adopted pieces of the program before the pandemic undermined the ability of many students to keep up academically. Since then, many more districts have embraced it.

Last year, with Feldman’s help, Boston Public Schools approved a shift to equity grading. In Oregon, Portland Public Schools is making plans to implement similar grading reforms by 2025, and thousands of New York City and Los Angeles teachers have been trained in equitable grading practices. Smaller districts in California, Nevada, New York, and other states have also adopted the program.

A Boon for Education Consultants

Feldman, a former teacher and principal with degrees from Stanford, NYU, and Harvard, is part of an army of educational consultants who charge as much as $10,000 per day. They work in every facet of public education, typically promising districts major transformations in teaching, leadership, technology, and performance. Big firms like Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey & Co. as well as smaller outfits like Feldman’s Crescendo Education Group are in the game, vying for the sizeable “professional development” pool of funding that’s part of every district’s budget. It totals an estimated $26 billion.

The pandemic’s harsh toll on students – chronic absenteeism almost doubled to 26% of students, contributing to many months of learning loss – has boosted demand for consultants. Some 50 of them work in grading practices, and Feldman, who has consulted with hundreds of schools, is perhaps the most popular.

Feldman’s program calls for a profound change in grading practices that raises fundamental questions about human motivation. He believes the traditional practice of grading almost everything a student does is antiquated and superficial. It relies on the extrinsic motivation for points, turning students into grade grubbers, rather than the intrinsic desire to learn because the subject is inspiring and meaningful.

The consultant says the pre-eminence of grades disproportionately harms disadvantaged students, who often get dinged for missing homework, late assignments, and misbehavior – issues that can stem from a lack of parental support and resources at home, research shows.

Feldman asserts that schools have a “moral obligation” to close the achievement gap, and his fix is far-reaching: no points for daily homework and classroom behavior, eliminating the distinction in the gradebook between students who lead discussions and those who disrupt them, and no penalties for the late submission of assignments, which shouldn’t be given much weight in grading.

Grades are all about tests. Teachers assess only what really matters – learning – based on a set of well-defined standards and demonstrated on a test at the end of a unit. This summative evaluation doesn’t really count either, because students who don’t ace it get a chance to review their mistakes and take the exam again, and possibly a third time. It’s better to encourage them to master the material, the consultant says, than accept a demoralizing low mark.

Here’s the kicker: Even the student who keeps failing the test, or doesn’t show up to take it, gets 50% credit. On a 100-point scale, Feldman says, a zero is disproportionately punitive for the lowest mark, when a passing grade begins at 60%.

Teachers who support Feldman’s program say it gives them better insight into students’ academic progress and problems, making them more effective. “I have more meaningful conversations with students about the English standards and how grades are not arbitrary points for effort, but directly reflect their knowledge of the skills,” said Savannah Berry, a high school English teacher in the predominately Latino and black San Leandro district in California.

Fewer Students Fail

School districts and their elected boards tout the program’s main result – fewer kids fail – and that plays well politically in many communities. In an examination of four high schools that have embraced grading for equity, non-white students had 37% fewer Ds and Fs at the end of a school year, and white students, no longer benefiting from extra credit and good behavior points, saw a 19% drop in As, according to a report by Feldman’s firm.

In Virginia’s diverse Fairfax County Public Schools, the significant drop in Ds and Fs for blacks and Latinos led to a 4% increase in the graduation rate between 2018 and 2022.

Critics dismiss such progress as a mirage produced by lenient practices that inflate low grades. Students are also getting the wrong message about the importance of meeting expectations, several teachers told RCI, leading some to blow off studying and just coast. With less focus in class, more kids are also misbehaving.

Zenaida Perez says half of the teachers in her Fairfax district, the largest in Virginia, oppose grading for equity but are afraid to speak up because they fear retaliation. “At least 30 percent of my students definitely make less effort,” said Perez, who has taught in the district for 16 years. “Sometimes they do not come to school and I still must give them a 50%. That is absolutely ridiculous.”

In some ways, Feldman’s biggest roadblock are the students, who like all humans procrastinate if given the chance. DePaul University psychologist Joe Ferrari, who has written extensively about the condition, says 20% of people are chronic procrastinators. If schools remove deadlines with penalties, he says most students would likely also delay and delay doing their work. “People will always gravitate to the easiest path,” he said. “Humans seek pleasure and avoid pain.”

The Worth of Consultants

Feldman didn’t come up with the grading practices he tirelessly promotes. He borrowed the ideas from others, including consultant Ken O’Connor, a pioneer in standards-based grading, and reframed them with a lens on equity for disadvantaged kids.

“All of the basic ideas in Feldman’s book are exactly the same as my guidelines,” said O’Connor, who published his first paper on standards-based grading in 1995. “His popularity is probably from having the right idea at the right time. I respect his work.”

Feldman’s boutique shop in Oakland, Calif., operates with seven staffers, including a chief operations officer and a marketer. Education consultants say their fee averages between $5,000 and $10,000 a day. Feldman says he might charge a couple hundred thousand dollars to help a district roll out his program over three years.

“We are not making much money,” he said. “If people think I’m buying a boat, that is not happening. I’m not trying to gouge districts.”

Consultants tap into the big bucket of funds that districts set aside for the professional development of teachers. In a study by education nonprofit TNTP, districts spent about $18,000 per teacher each year, or the equivalent of perhaps a third of their salaries, on “PD,” as it’s known.

The study and other research found that despite spending almost 20 days a year in PD sessions, most teachers don’t become more effective over time because of the training. They learn more from classroom experience and peers than from consultants who often pitch the latest educational gimmicks, says Tim Daly, the president of TNTP when the 2015 study was done.

“Teachers don’t see PD as a primary vehicle for improving,” said Daly, a former teacher and now CEO of EdNavigator. “It’s something for the most part that they tolerate, not something that they look forward to.”

That’s particularly true when consultants push ambitious programs like grading for equity. At its core, it requires a new way of thinking about education for everyone in a school, overturning an embedded tradition that awards points on a frequent basis to keep students on track toward a final goal of a good grade. Since many students have yet to develop executive functioning skills, or the ability to create their own study plan and stick to it, external pressures from deadlines play a key role in education, researchers say.

For students to develop a new mindset about the value of doing work without getting an immediate reward takes a tremendous amount of persistence and encouragement by teachers, says O’Connor, who has consulted with schools in 47 states. He says students must think like athletes, who devote themselves to weeks of hard practice in hopes of later excelling in a competition. One school brought in a football coach to give students pep talks on the importance of practice.

Beyond the students, all the stakeholders in a district have to be willing to change their views on the role of grading. While board members debate the practices for months, and teachers sit in days of training, administrators must sell the plan to families and deal with the inevitable complaints and protests. Even the district’s grading software needs to be updated.

A Report Card on Grading for Equity

The report card on grading for equity is mixed. After districts hire Feldman and start making changes, a “significant number” abandon the project, the consultant says. A lack of follow-through from school leaders to stick with the overhaul and opposition from teachers are often to blame. 

New York City made a mess of grading for equity. While suffering an exodus of students in the wake of the pandemic, officials tapped Feldman for help. Teachers in District 6 attended his workshop at the National Museum of the American Indian. They received a copy of Feldman’s book and were urged to bring his ideas back to their schools and lead the effort to implement them.

Janessa Tamayo, a high school math teacher who attended the training session, says she initially saw value in the program for her students from low-income families. But the grading changes she made backfired, with fewer students participating in class and doing homework. When she offered retakes on tests, she was frustrated that many students didn’t bother to take them. 

“To participate and turn assignments in on time is a life skill these students need to learn to be successful,” Tamayo said. “Grading for equity works fine for the small percentage of kids who are highly motivated. For the rest, it encouraged them to do the minimum.”

After teachers tested the program for a year, Tamayo says, administrators never followed up to assess its effect. No one collected data and asked for feedback. The program just faded away. Teachers like Tamayo have mostly returned to their old grading practices.

Arlington Public Schools in Virginia had big plans for Feldman, hiring him for what was envisioned to be a three-year project. But teachers at Wakefield High, a school with mostly Latino and black students, sent a letter to the board and superintendent, saying the changes would harm students by removing accountability and high expectations. Early this year, the district backtracked on several of Feldman’s practices, allowing penalties for late work and limiting retakes of exams.

“It’s the politics of the place, whose voices are loud,” Feldman said of the rollback in Arlington. “They could resolve it and continue down the path.”

To be sure, some districts make it to the finish line. Solon, a small, mostly white and high-achieving district near Iowa City, pulled off grading reform, thanks to the devotion of its then leader, Matt Townsley. It took four sometimes rocky years, with a handful of teachers quitting.

Townsley, now a professor of education and consultant, says districts must hang on through the tough times to get through the “implementation dip.” Initially, there’s a big decline in effort, with some districts seeing less than half of the students doing their work. But eventually, the vast majority of students get over the dip, realizing that practice prevents them from bombing the test, and taking it again.

Placer Union, another small and predominately white district in Northern California, also made it work. With Feldman’s support, the high-performing district directly involved teachers in shaping the program – a key to winning their support. For students who used to struggle and give up, retakes on exams gives them hope that they can achieve academically, says Superintendent Jeff Tooker.

“This process takes patience, support, communication, grace, and a lot of time,” he said.

Are Students Learning More?

Even for districts that fully implement grading for equity, a big question looms: Does it result in more learning, the ultimate goal of public education? No one knows for sure. Feldman says he would like to know if his program improves state test scores, the most objective measurement of learning, but researchers haven’t tackled this question.

Several studies, including a peer-reviewed examination by Fordham’s research director Adam Tyner, have looked at what happens with learning when grading standards are lifted – test scores go up too. Tyner says students strive to meet the expectations that teachers set for them, whether high or low.

“The grading for equity advocates don’t have any research showing that their changes lead to greater learning, and that’s very concerning,” said Tyner.

This article was originally published by RealClearInvestigations and made available via RealClearWire.