I thought at least 50 percent credit for no work was okay. I was wrong.

D.C. teacher reveals chaos unleashed by trying not to be too hard on kids

Perspective by Jay Mathews Washington Post Oct 24th 2022

A teacher I know was working at a D.C. public high school when the district installed a rule during the pandemic that no grade on any assignment could be lower than 50 percent.

Many schools around the country, including some in Washington-area suburbs, have had such a rule for years. I haven’t seen much harm from it. Giving a zero for an F, I think, is too devastating a blow. The 50 percent rule gives students in trouble a chance to build back a decent grade-point average.

That D.C. teacher told me I was missing something. The 50 percent rule might not have hurt some schools, but the effect on his was disastrous. He saw this during the 2021-2022 school year when teachers and students returned to their building after pandemic measures were lifted.

“It only took a few weeks before our students knew the score,” he said, “and it was an insult to their intelligence to believe that our bright, savvy kids wouldn’t soon learn how to work the system. Essentially, with the 50 percent grading rule, if our students completed one or two assignments, they would pass — and they knew it.”

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The 50 percent rule, he said, created “an environment where students can come to school to pop their heads into the classroom to tell the teacher to mark them present, which the teacher is required to do, then proceed to socialize, wander the halls, flirt, fight, walk to the corner store for some food and come back, play games in the gym or atrium, vandalize school property, pop in on the few friends who chose to go to their class, disrupting everyone, and generally live a free and happy life without consequences.”

Not everyone was that out of control that year, he said. “A majority of the students … came to school a couple days a week, usually an hour or two late, maybe turned in an assignment or two,” he said. “I think most students still liked the structure of school, a safe-ish place where there’s rules, rules they can choose to break without serious consequences.”

He said teachers at his school objected to the 50 percent grading policy as soon as it was announced. They said the rule was harmful and limiting. Administrators told them that “we had to carry on the best we could,” the teacher told me. “We’re essentially throwing babies into the deep end of the pool and saying, ‘Hope you learn how to swim.’”

When I asked about this, a D.C. schools spokesperson said: “The DCPS grading policy has evolved over the years, and all changes are a result of extensive shareholder engagement and feedback, based on our philosophy and values.” Apparently the negative reaction from this teacher and his colleagues didn’t reach the district’s policymakers.

The teacher can’t report on what’s happening this year because he left the school to take a job at the charter school where he previously worked as a novice teacher. The charter doesn’t have a 50 percent rule. It focuses on preparing students for the GED high school equivalency exam, which also doesn’t have a 50 percent rule. He had moved from the charter to the D.C. district school because it had better pay and benefits. He changed his mind when he saw the terrible effect of being too nice to kids.

He is just one teacher. I would love to hear from other D.C. educators on what they are seeing. My email address is jay.mathews@washpost.com. If you don’t want me to use your name when I report what you tell me, just say so.

Other experts I know confirm what that teacher described. Frazier O’Leary was a star Advanced Placement English teacher at Cardozo High School. He now serves as an elected member of the D.C. State Board of Education. “DCPS has removed consequences from the equation of learning,” he told me. “Our students are not ready for the options that a 50 percent rule provides.”

As everyone knows, the D.C. schools had many problems before the pandemic, but I have reported good results in some high schools, particularly those committed to giving students the time and encouragement they need to perform well in challenging Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes and tests.

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I have written several columns about disputes among teachers in suburban schools related to the 50 percent rule and to new rules dropping penalties for late homework and basing report card grades only on tests and not on other assignments. The changes are part of the standard-based education movement that is growing despite little control-group evidence that it improves learning.

The proponents of the movement say they want to bring more equity to schools so that students who don’t have much support at home are still judged by how much they have learned and not written off just because they failed to turn in some homework or did poorly on some assignments.

This is one of the most divisive issues in public schools today, yet it gets much less publicity than the political battles over what schools teach about race and gender. What to do about students who fail tests and don’t do their homework does not appear to interest the political consultants who write campaign fliers and organize school board campaigns.

The teacher who described the D.C. school he recently left said that when he asked administrators to remove students who were not supposed to be in his class, he was told: “Sorry, once they’re in here, I can’t kick them out.” He said he received similar reactions when he asked hard-working parents to help improve their children’s behavior. The parents told him that they couldn’t control their kids.

The return of students and teachers to school buildings has appeared to aggravate debates over how much emphasis educators should put on good behavior as part of the learning process. Perhaps it is better that this is not part of our political debates, since we will have to cooperate with each other if we are ever going to come up with solutions.