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Perspective | On our best days, we don’t serve all of our students well: ‘Educational debt’ and COVID-19

Editor’s note: The following is an audio recording and transcript of remarks given by State Board of Education member James Ford during the Board’s meeting last week. A policy to modify student grading requirements due to COVID-19, which ultimately passed, was being discussed.

I’m certain I’ll probably be in the minority here, that I won’t be able to approve this particular policy, but I did want to take a couple moments to offer some comments and qualify my position.

I recently read an article in The Washington Post about how COVID-19 has laid bare the inequities of the public education system. And it used the framing of the renowned education researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings, who instead of talking about achievement gaps, she coined the phrase “the education debt” that speaks to how society owes students from historically marginalized groups because they’ve been left behind as a result of, you know, historical, economic, political, policy decisions.

It’s important to acknowledge that on our best day in North Carolina, our public schools don’t serve all of our students well. And I think we all can acknowledge that and recognize that. What the virus has done though — in the midst of this global emergency, in the way that has disrupted our education — it’s not only exposed these inequities, but it’s exacerbated them.

In other words, those who are already disadvantaged by the former arrangement are even more so now. And we’ve done our best as a Board. I have no doubts we’ve tried to account for these inherent flaws in our system in such a strained environment. I don’t doubt that, I know that for a fact. We’ve had to respond really quickly and definitively in unprecedented times, in a dynamic environment. And this is uncharted territory.

It’s precisely because it’s uncharted, I can’t support the idea of either grades or GPAs for students at this moment in time. Whatever the functional utility of the grading system is, whatever it’s designed to tell us about the mastery of content, it’s been so compromised now that it invalidates the very meaning of it. What does it mean to score an A or a B in this atmosphere? What is the usefulness of that metric when we haven’t even completed the course content?

It’s hard for me to gather it. I know we have a system where students are justifiably extrinsically motivated by a grade or quality points as ways of gaining competitive advantage and demonstrating rigor and college entry, etc. But in a global pandemic, where all students do not even have access to an equitable learning environment, I cannot in good conscience give a supposed choice to receive a letter grade because due to circumstances beyond students’ control, it’s not a real choice at all.

The very spirit of equity demands that we run all of our decisions with a set of screens or questions. And some examples of that would be: Who most benefits from this proposal, and why? Who does not benefit, and why? And what might be the unintended consequences for marginalized groups?

When I do that, it’s clear to me that while it would certainly benefit students who are already positioned to perform well with the resources and opportunities for learning, those without the same level of access would be further disadvantaged.

And it may appear as if it’s a punishment or harm to those already enrolled in the courses — AP, IB, CCP — and who have done the work to get here for sure. But I submit there’s a difference between actual harm and just not being helped in a radically unstable environment.

So I’d further just like to challenge us to think altogether differently about the culture of grades in our and the system of infatuation with GPAs which has been facilitated throughout the years and throughout the decades. If ever there was a time to truly focus on intrinsic motivation of students, and on the mastery of content versus symbols of merit, it must be now.

I don’t think we’re going to be returning to any semblance of normal and the truth is, for most working adults, we don’t get grades anyway, we get performance evaluations. We talked about that as part of our conversation today, to analyze our development against a set of competencies.

So it’s obvious I have a bias here in that I don’t believe in the whole notion of grades to begin with. But I conclude by saying this. I realize in all likelihood, this measure is going to pass. And I don’t question the motivation of any of my colleagues here on the Board. I know we’re all trying to do the best we can given the circumstances, but and also to all those who have written in and communicated your thoughts, I appreciate you, that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do in this environment.

But I want to push us ideologically to disrupt what has heretofore been a really inherently inequitable system and begin to imagine something that’s different. That really reliably measures what students know and focuses on content mastery, because we do owe an educational debt. And so long as we continue to push down this path, it feels to me like we’re just running up the balance on the backs of those who are already on the margins. And I hope we can begin to center those students in the ways we make decisions going forward.

James Ford

Dr. James E. Ford is the executive director of CREED — the Center for Racial Equity in Education. Ford served on the N.C. State Board of Education from 2018-2023. He previously taught World History and Sociology at Garinger High School in Charlotte, and in 2014-15, he was the Burroughs Wellcome Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year.