Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

COVID-19 Diaries: Give Them All A's

April 8, 2020

1000w Manuel Rustin students Covid19 collage

By Dr. Manuel Rustin (CA ’11)

This essay was originally published on Medium.com. It is shared here with the author’s permission.


Among the litany of concerns and uncertainties we face as educators during this time of crisis, what to do about students’ grades need not be one of them. Give them all A’s.

Flexible, humanizing distance learning should of course continue. I’m doing all that I can to make sure my history students are still building their historical thinking skills and mastering the content. But no matter how this distance learning experience turns out, every school that regularly assigns letter grades to students should give them A’s when this academic year closes. That’s what my students will get.

It took me awhile to get here and I thank fellow educator and history teacher extraordinaire Leo Glazé for helping me see the equity and efficacy in giving all of our students A’s. I knew when I began this sudden challenge of distance learning that it’d be impossible to grade my students fairly. How could I really know whether everyone had the tools, space, time, and clarity of mind to engage in my classwork during a global pandemic?

I couldn’t fathom letting a student’s B become a D because they had to take on new responsibilities to help their household survive the crisis and therefore couldn’t check Google Classroom and do my beautifully formatted hyperdoc.

Manuel Rustin email

Some say that although students shouldn’t be penalized for not engaging in distance learning, those who do engage should be able improve their grade. But this approach is inherently inequitable—Student X with the physically and economically healthy home can boost their grades while Student Y with the whole world on their shoulders can’t.

How about Pass/Fail? Or maybe a No Grade? I once argued for those solutions, but they too are insufficient. Only A’s will do.

Apple A4

Why existing grading policies are ineffectual

Millions of students have suddenly been thrust into a distance learning experience that schools never prepared them for.

I’ll be honest—in my sixteen years of teaching I never taught students how to join a Zoom call. Or how to develop a suitable routine for effectively engaging in a fully-online assignment from their bedroom. Or how to take everything they’re accustomed to doing in-person inside of my classroom and suddenly do it on their own at home in the middle of a semester.

It’s Teaching 101—you don’t grade students on something that you haven’t even taught them.

Millions of teachers have suddenly been thrust into distance teaching—something they’re neither fully trained in nor certified for.

I have three degrees, several certificates, and sixteen years of teaching experience under my belt. Missing from that is any robust training in teaching from my living room. I am not qualified and I’m not the only one. Can I learn to do this? Yes. Is it fair to learn on-the-spot and simultaneously assign grades to my students during the process? No.

Students were not prepped to take your class online.

Maybe you’ve been using Google Classroom all year. Maybe you’ve always had students submit their work electronically. But where in your syllabus did it say that students would take your course from home? As the school year progressed, what verbal instructions and indications did you give students about finishing your class without your immediate in-person presence and support? Right.

Technology will not save us

The digital divide is perhaps the most visible inequity in this distance learning experiment and we’d have a problem even if every student had an internet-connected device. I work in a district that started distributing Chromebooks to every student in 2018. Hotspots? We got ’em. Devices and internet are not our particular challenge. My pandemic-teaching experience, however, reminds me that not every student has the privilege of sitting with their device and spending effective time on it. So many have had to become sudden babysitters for siblings whose schools closed. So many have had to become the errand-runners for family members with compromised immune systems. So many have had to find ways to help supplement a family member’s lost income. As helpful as these devices are, they won’t save us from the challenges of distance learning.

Clear and present real-life danger

As I write this there have been 3,011 confirmed coronavirus cases and 54 deaths in my county alone. Not all of our students will get sick or will have a sick family member, but some will. We will lose students and we will lose colleagues. No one knows where this pandemic will take us. Some shops are boarding up to prepare for looting while some folks go to the beach. We’re all over the place right now. Millions are feeling uneasy, stressed, and anxious. Are you such a pedagogical genius that your grading system successfully accounts for all of this uncertainty with certainty?

A Pass/Fail or No Grade is not enough

Trying to give individual letter grades during this period is clearly a losing game and it’s not enough to settle for a Pass/Fail or No Grade either. Such a system would only be fair if all schools agreed to it. A student at Independent High School who gets a B for history is advantaged over my student at Public High School who’s given a P. The only way that I myself can feel confident that my students won’t be academically disadvantaged as a result of this crisis is by me giving them all A’s.

And about that Pass/Fail: What in the world goes into a decision to fail a student right now?

“Manny had a 30% before school even closed!” So? Was it impossible for them to turn it around in March and achieve a passing grade by June? Are you that ineffective a teacher? If so, own it and state it publicly.

“But they didn’t do any of the distance-learning work!” Again, you can’t possibly know what a student’s pandemic experience is or will be. There’s a chance that an F is deserved. There’s also a chance that it’ll be a monumental slap in the face to them and their family who are battling odds too unimaginable to attend your little Google Meet appointment.

Giving every student an A neutralizes many complex inequities so that no student is harmed academically for being forced into this pandemic. It assures students that we see them, that we acknowledge they’ve experienced a school year unlike any school year in our lifetimes. And it’s just one semester—the system will not collapse because we gave everyone an A this one time.

If you’re concerned that grades and GPAs will be inflated and lose meaning, I remind you that grades are already inflated (and inequitably, I might add) and I ask—what meaning would a hugely inequitable and problematic pandemic semester of grades have, anyway?

As a nation we’ve offered trillions to Wall St. and $1,200 checks to individuals to help deal with this crisis. Are students not facing a crisis, too?

Give them their checks. And by checks, I mean A’s.

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Comments

  • Wow. I got linked to this article from my school's administration (I am a high school teacher), and it frightens me that they would even consider your ideas. We are going with the Pass/Incomplete idea. Here's a couple of thoughts:
    1. what message do we give students when we give automatic A's because of hard times? "When the going gets tough, you can sit back and relax?" The world will never be fair. Your logic is one of endless accommodation, which will lead inevitably to entitled, bratty snowflakes.
    2. Every great story is of someone overcoming obstacles. This is what brings meaning to life. Your idea is a sure recipe for depression and anxiety. There is already enough meaningless and aimlessness in people's newly isolated lives, you propose to make school meaningless to everyone. Your idea only benefits privileged children who have had a good experience with the school system, because they will continue to engage. Students who were disengaged from school will disengage further, thus damaging their ability to learn in the future.
    3. We are supporting businesses because they provide desired and necessary services that keep us out of the Stone Age. We are providing relief so they can serve us in the future. Providing relief on student's grades ensures that they will be less beneficial to society as a whole, which is the basic premise of the school system in the first place.
    4. This seems to be your message to students: "you have obstacles in life, but don't worry, someone else will solve your problems!" No one who was ever successful or satisfied with their life EVER had someone else overcome their obstacles for them. I feel sorry for the students in your district, and I hope one day you learn that you are causing damage to student's self esteem and happiness.

    Posted by Mike, 12/05/2020 10:21am (23 days ago)

  • After reading this article and thinking about what was said, I agree with the A to everyone. We don't know how hard this has been on anyone truly. Reach out, give a universe Hug to everyone. Way to go teachers and students.

    Posted by T. Byland, 30/04/2020 10:40am (35 days ago)

  • It is even more important during this time to collaborate with students, stay in touch, and keep the relationship strong. It is vital to ask them about their learning and help them to learn to share, and create if they can. Students have switched to a flipped classroom that is totally new, or somewhat new but still not what they have known, so keeping the trust, and collaboration strong with students during these times is vital to continue to help them grow in all areas emotionally and academically. Assessing the way we used to do can not happen at this time, we are preparing them to learn in new ways and need to allow them the opportunity to do so. Establishing confidence for our students at this time is vital.

    Posted by Tamie Young, 24/04/2020 6:14am (41 days ago)

  • I've been a teacher for 20 years and spent the bulk of my career in a low-income district. 8 months ago, I would have hailed this idea as the only way forward. However, I have a 9th-grade daughter who through this quarantine, has diligently worked to master the material given to her by her teachers and has sought out additional learning opportunities. She also struggled the first semester of her freshman year. She ended the first semester with a 3.5 and cried for days about it. Finally, she sat down and developed a detailed plan to improve her study habits, and it was working--she had a 4.0. And, would have maintained that. She would have ended her first year of high school with a 3.75 while also taking two advanced courses.

    Let's be honest. If we give all students A's, then colleges and internships will essentially dismiss this semester when determining GPA. Students like my daughter who took a bit to acclimate to high school may be at a disadvantage.

    When we discuss equity, we also have to consider equal opportunity for high achievers. Sure my child is fairly privileged. Sure she's not unintelligent, but she's also not high-cap, but she works hard, very hard, and she should be rewarded for that.

    Posted by Vina Black, 23/04/2020 1:52pm (42 days ago)

  • My only concern is teaching students that grades are something the teacher gives, not something the student earns. However I can concede during a crisis that is not the most important thing. As a 2nd grade teacher I would prefer to just omit grades for the year.

    Posted by Derrick Lewis, 22/04/2020 1:48pm (43 days ago)

  • I was fully with you until this section:

    "And about that Pass/Fail: What in the world goes into a decision to fail a student right now?

    “Manny had a 30% before school even closed!” So? Was it impossible for them to turn it around in March and achieve a passing grade by June? Are you that ineffective a teacher? If so, own it and state it publicly."

    I am not ineffective or unsympathetic to the needs of my students but I have many who attend irregularly, who have responsibilities outside of school, and who for many reasons can't/don't put education above other concerns. I know my colleagues struggle with supporting students in passing and progressing when they face so much trauma and challenge in their lives.

    I will still agree with the argument that our students deserve As, but I can't abide the assumption that staff who have students failing are ineffective.

    Posted by Shannon Ergun, 21/04/2020 8:27pm (44 days ago)

  • It seems that many are thinking that awarding the grade A (for not knowing the content) as the path of least harm in this Covid 19 shutdown. I would argue that this remedy might do the most harm. This is especially true of foundation classes such as algebra. I believe we harm students by moving them onward into courses that require prior knowledge. It sets them up for struggles and failure at that next level. The harm of a "no credit" or "fail" or some other grade less than an A, only occurs if we don't provide "unpenalized" opportunities in the future to rectify that result. It might take more time in their educational career... but hey this was a strange and unusual year....extend the funding FTE for these students.. if necessary. Awarding A's for work not done, partially done etc... only puts a hidden deficit into their education.... and that to me seems like doing more harm.

    Posted by Steve Thibault, 21/04/2020 11:00am (44 days ago)

  • Absolutely brilliant, kind, and by far the best idea I have yet heard. These unprecedented times are calling for magnanimity. All A's are just what our students need from us. This communicates love and care more than any other grading structure on the table. Thank you for putting this out to the world!

    Posted by Anni Ponder, 21/04/2020 10:55am (44 days ago)

  • While I dont disagree with the argument and see the logic behind giving all students A's for this semester, I'm not sure I see why you dont just apply it to your classes in general. There are many situations for students that happen all the time.

    Posted by Joshua Oster, 21/04/2020 9:04am (44 days ago)

  • As a teacher, I agree with you my students and myself have not been trained on this "Distance Teaching". My students are having a very hard time sending me the work that I am supposed to grade.
    I am also supposed to be turning in my TPEP assignments to my principal, on top of doing assignments all week and videos in the target language (Spanish). Plus zoom and meet meeting once a week by dept. I have a lot of pain on my neck from being on the computer for hours. When do teachers get a break from grading?

    Posted by Maxine González-Kelly, 20/04/2020 11:48pm (45 days ago)

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