A recent Los Angeles Times editorial sums up the latest movement well. “Schools have stuck to an outdated system that relies heavily on students’ compliance — completing homework, behaving in class, meeting deadlines and correctly answering questions on a one-time test — as a proxy for learning, rather than measuring the learning itself.”
The big handicap for journalists as well as everyone else in the discussion is a lack of useful data on how many teachers use these allegedly worn-out methods and what are the measurable results. I asked four experienced public school teachers in southern California, northern California, Texas and Virginia how they handled grading and homework and what they thought of the notion that the old ways were wrong.
In some aspects, the four teachers are in sync with the suggested reforms. None of them assign much homework, except as a way to complete work begun in class. They don’t emphasize one-time tests.
But when making sure everyone is behaving in class, they are firm traditionalists. Class time to them is vital because, in their minds, the give-and-take between students and teachers during those precious hours is the essence of what they do.
Mark Ingerson, a social studies teacher at Salem (Va.) High School, said, “You are kidding yourself if you think you have any control over what happens once that child leaves your class. … So my sole focus has been maximizing every single second of class so it results in student mastery of skills and knowledge.”
The best teachers I know do their best to make sure everyone contributes every day, even if they have to insist that the most reluctant students answer questions and keep up with the discussion.
D’Essence Grant, an eighth-grade English and language arts teacher at the KIPP Academy Middle school in Houston, said, “My content requires meaningful conversations about the text to help support text comprehension and character development. Grading these conversations and pushing students to articulate their thoughts helps prepare students for college and beyond. Making claims, supporting claims with evidence, and listening, building and challenging other student claims verbally is just as important as writing them on paper.”
Mary Stevens is the English and language arts department chair at Marshall Fundamental Secondary School in Pasadena, Calif. Enrollment at that school is by lottery. Seventy percent of the students are from low-income families. “I mostly only assign the work and/or reading we didn’t complete in class as homework,” she said. She doesn’t like the phrase “behaving in class.” She said “it has negative connotations for students. I center responsibility, hence productivity, and try not to frame my expectations around outdated ideas such as behavior.”
Greg Jouriles, a social studies teacher at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, Calif., noted reformers’ argument that homework “discriminates socioeconomically and racially” and might be “unfair to students with household obligations and no quiet place to work.” He said that “while all of these factors carry weight, I don’t see a problem with some homework or why practicing academics isn’t as worthwhile as practicing extracurriculars, to which students will devote hours and hours. Most of what I grade is based on what happens in class.”
He said: “I disagree with the people who say time and practice and repetition don’t matter, that once a student exhibits a skill, they’ve achieved a standard. If that were the case, a basketball coach would end practice after each player made one free throw. Teachers face the ongoing challenge of making the homework they assign as engaging as extracurriculars.”
His argument suggests a weakness in the push for mastery learning, which is part of the new thinking on school work and grading. Each child, reformers say, should get a grade of completion once they have mastered a skill or subject. That leaves open the possibility that schools could dumb down the definition of mastery to make sure everyone graduates on time.
The traditional approach to grading — assessing every paper and assignment, giving zeros for work not turned in — has been abandoned by many teachers and their districts in the past two decades. Ingerson said he dropped the tough approach in 2004 because he found “many students just got destroyed” by his grading sledgehammer.
“I had students scoring advanced on the Virginia Standards of Learning tests, but had a D in the class … because of missing notebook checks or homework assignments,” he said. His intense class discussions make sure that all his students know the material, or realize he is going to be hovering over them until they do.
Many teachers I know don’t see any difference between the mastery learning embraced by the new movement and what they do with traditional grading. They use zeros to motivate students but erase those horrible marks when they see improvement. They have assignments and class discussions every week. They repeatedly let students know how they are doing. The emphasis on mastery is obvious in the way they teach. They don’t see the point of disposing of the grading tools they have.
We will be hearing more about this new movement to promote learning. If changes are made, we will need as usual some reliable measure of how much students know and understand.
I don’t see how we can do that without challenging and independently graded tests, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, to ensure assessments are accurate. SAT and ACT exams appear to be fading away. I never liked them because they were not tied to classes where our teachers could make sure every student was engaged every day.
We need some measure of learning we can trust. The latest educational buzz words may suggest otherwise, but we have learned enough during the pandemic to know that if productive class work is not happening for everyone, we have to do something about that.