Eric Wolf Welch is a stellar educator at Justice High School in Fairfax County, Va., where more than half of the students are low-income. He focuses on preparing disadvantaged teenagers for tough courses such as the International Baccalaureate that will get them into and help them succeed in college.
He just sent me the longest (4,764 words) email I have ever received from a teacher. For many years, I have found Welch worth listening to. His latest concerns I have heard from other teachers around the country, but not with as much passion and detail.
The new push to ease grading and teacher practices “is the biggest issue facing secondary education in decades,” he said in his email. “The impact of what schools do on this issue … goes beyond just high school. It will impact the future of our nation’s economy and our competitive status in the world.”
“I think most who are for these grade reforms mean well and I respect that they think they are doing what is best for students,” he said. But since graduation rates have replaced standardized test scores as the key measure of high school quality, administrators who fear losing their jobs have found “creative ways to help students meet the standards — re-take tests, accept late work, don’t count attendance or participation in class toward a grade, don’t put zeros in the gradebook for missing work, … do a one-month online course in the spring or summer that can be substituted for a year-long class and thus allow a student to pass a required course,” Welch said.
“And from top to bottom in the education system,” he said, “this has become accepted practice — find a way to pass students at all costs, and, thus, keep that graduation rate up.”
That’s fine with Welch when teaching what he called the “approximately 20 percent of low-performing students who would fail without these measures. … We need to help these students who struggle by finding alternative ways for them to succeed.”
But having worked 22 years as a social studies teacher in what is the 11th-largest and one of most successful U.S. school districts, he sees a huge problem. “The education system now is considering these policies that have provided struggling students an alternative pathway to graduation be used with all students.” That’s his boldfacing, not mine.
“Instead of it being the exception,” he said, “it is becoming the rule. This is dangerous.”
I think he has identified what may become the pandemic’s most troublesome long-term impact on schools, the notion that academic pressure is bad. Welch said: “Those who make the argument for these reforms being used district-wide with all students now use two powerful issues to support their argument — equity and mental health. The supporters of grading reforms will use these two issues like blunt objects to beat back anyone who is against such reforms.”
In response to Welch’s arguments, Fairfax County Public Schools spokeswoman Helen Lloyd said, “We aim to ensure that grades are based on demonstrated student achievement, knowledge, and skill proficiency and that they are separated from work habits. … Research tells us that using grades as a system of extrinsic rewards and consequences can have a negative impact on learning … and can be particularly demotivating for low-performing students. … We utilize practices such as reassessment and reasonable late-work policies to ensure that students have positive paths forward to demonstrating their learning.”
My email address is email@example.com. I will send Lloyd’s full statement to anyone who seeks it. If you want to see Welch’s full email, ask me to pass your request on to him.
The best public charter schools focusing on disadvantaged children appear to have preserved during the pandemic the high standards that are their key ingredient. I will have more data on that soon. Welch’s arguments are one more reason the Biden administration should withdraw its plans that could restrict the growth of those successful charter systems, a recipe for mediocrity.
Welch works with children who don’t have college-educated parents demanding they turn homework in on time no matter what the new rules say. To those calling for grading reform, he said, equity means “we should not expect students of color, low-income, and/or non-native English speaking backgrounds to do things like homework, participate in class, or meet deadlines because these students have disadvantages.”
“I wholeheartedly believe this is not equity,” Welch said. His beginning years as a teacher in New York City and Fairfax County taught him that “equity means holding all students to high expectations, even when it may be difficult for them to meet those expectations.” To do otherwise, he said, “would be cheating students out of an education they deserve and need to compete in the world.” Advocates of grading reform insist that won’t happen, but there is little control-group research on either side of the argument to settle the issue.
As for mental health, Welch said that “it is extremely important our schools address the increases in depression, anxiety, and suicide among teens. Implementing specific social-emotional learning (SEL) programs, providing more counseling and mental health staff for schools, and creating a more welcoming environment for students to address their mental health needs at school are long overdue.”
“Teaching students to manage stress must be a core component of education,” he said. “To do this does not mean we should eliminate reasonable sources of stress in students’ lives.” Methods like setting homework deadlines are stressful, he said, “but I think that is good. We want students to learn how to manage this stress because as adults they will be faced with stress.”
School is a safe place to do this, he said. “Schools have a network of people — teachers, counselors, administrators, social workers, psychologists, nurses and others — that are there to support students dealing with stress. This is exactly the time in a person’s life that they should be grappling with pressures and how to deal with those pressures.”
Welch runs the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program at Justice High. It is a 40-year-old approach to raising achievement, found in schools across the country, that includes special training for teachers. For students, it has study skill lessons and innovative tutoring that forces them to think through how to find the answers to difficult questions. “I believe programs like AVID are how we can support students academically and emotionally so they can meet high expectations,” Welch said.
His students have let him know how the pandemic slowed their progress. One wrote on a scholarship application that because of a policy prohibiting teachers from lowering grades after the first semester, he stopped working the rest of his sophomore year. That student also said he lost interest in schoolwork his junior year when told that he could turn in work late and that no assignment would be graded less than 50 percent.
The pandemic is hopefully receding. Most high-schoolers are back in school. Welch makes a strong case that it would be a betrayal of all the sacrifices they have made to tell them to relax, don’t stress themselves, and turn in their assignments whenever they feel like it.