Thoughts While Drowning

While I am drowning under piles of paper, I’d like to direct you to an article our principal emailed to us today.

Here is the link:

And the citation:

“Eliminating the D” by Tracey Severns in Principal, March/April 2012 (Vol. 91, #4, p. 44-45),

Now our principal has not fully endorsed the ideas expressed in this article, but he thought they would give us all some things to think about.

I think he is right, and I am very glad he sent it. In fact, although I support most of what the article is claiming, I am now re-thinking some ideas I had previously taken for granted.

But since, while drowning, one has little time to come up with more than desperate fleeting thoughts, I’ll give you my unformed impressions of key parts of the article:

I LOVED this:

My first challenge was to dispel the notion that students had the “right to fail.” Previously, teachers believed that it was their job to teach and the students’ responsibility to learn. This belief needed to be replaced by an uncompromising commitment to student success. (Sevens)

I could relate to this. Any teacher can:

My research suggested that students seemed to fail due to one or a combination of three factors— attitude (students who were able but not willing), ability (students who were willing but unable), and attendance (students who didn’t come to school). We created a plan specifically designed to address each contributing factor and communicated it to parents, students, and teachers by posting it on the website and distributing it to all constituencies. (Ibid)

I wasn’t so sure about this one:

[…] all students have an opportunity to submit missed homework assignments the next day for partial credit and receive up to three days to retake a failed assessment for a maximum score of 70 percent. Teachers initially did not like this idea, but they came to see the benefit of providing students with multiple opportunities to learn and to demonstrate their achievement. They accepted the philosophy that because we want students to learn and the assignments are worthy, then we shouldn’t accept zeros or walk away from students who didn’t learn. (Ibid, emphasis added)

So you have to create even more assessments than usual? Like, at least twice as many so that the kids who fail the first one can take the second one?

Because taking the SAME English test after failing it the first time would not really demonstrate any real learning. It would only demonstrate that the kid is smart enough to ask his friend for the answers.

Moreover, it’s unclear to me whether or not the article is advocating that “zeros” be never given (read: earned) on an assignment that is not an assessment. What does it mean that “we never accept zeros”? Surely, they ought not to be ‘acceptable’ to the students or the teacher in the ethical sense, but sometimes students really do earn them. As in, that is the only just grade to give.

So, at this school, do students have until the end of the semester? So teachers have to accept work that was due back in August in November and December and grade it then? Uh… no way.

Recently, a parent of one of my students became enraged when she realized that her son had earned a zero because I do not accept late minor homework assignments (like, the little 10 point ones I give almost every day). “My son is not a zero!”

No, but a late minor homework assignment is, as I made abundantly clear in the beginning of the year on page two of the syllabus.

Well, anyway. Please read the whole article and tell me what you think. I’m running out of air and I need to save it for grading papers.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts While Drowning

  1. I’ll be contrarian.

    Of course, I’ve never set up grading systems for high school classes, but it seems to me there’s something a bit silly and arbitrary about “good work = 90 points, mediocre work = 70 points, no work = 0 points”. Mediocre work *might* mean “tried their best and their best wasn’t that great”; it’s perhaps more likely that it means “didn’t try their best because they didn’t care about the assignment, but didn’t want to fail because they know passing is important.” I’m skeptical that such a student learns anything more than one who submits no work. I’m convinced that there’s *no way* what he learns is 2/3rds more like what the student who does “good work” learns. I’d be a lot more comfortable with a system where no work = 50 points (or, which is equivalent, where we subtracted 50 from all grades, so A=40-50, B=30-40, etc).

    The worry here is that students would have less incentive to do their work. Well, maybe. It might be that the point of giving out zeroes for no/late work isn’t to better teach them the material, but to inculcate a stronger work ethic. But the current system penalizes smart&absentminded students (incidentally, usually boys) in a way that doesn’t really contribute to their education. The current system also, as you noted, saves teachers time and effort. This is a valid concern; the ideal educational system might well be 1-on-1 tutoring, but that’s not really an option. But I don’t think the zero credit policy should be justified on pedagogical grounds when it’s really about doing what’s practical.

    1. Joseph, thanks for your comment! Yes, the grading system is arbitrary. Mediocre work = 70% doesn’t mean that student who earned that grade learns “2/3rds more like what the student who does “good work” learns”, we just for some reason decided that 60-70% means passing and 59% and below means failing etc. I don’t know if the numbers really are the issue, because we could make them whatever we want. After all, GPA is usually on a 4.0 scale, not a 100 point scale.

      This point you made gave me pause: “But I don’t think the zero credit policy should be justified on pedagogical grounds when it’s really about doing what’s practical.”

      You’re perfectly right in saying that. I made it clear in my post that the zero credit policy has a lot to do with practicality.

      Yet part of me also thinks it has SOMETHING to do with pedagogy. The buck has to stop somewhere. A no zero policy would essentially say to students that they can get away with turning in something at any point in time – that due dates do not, ultimately, matter. But they do matter. They are contracts – promises, even? – that ought to be kept. Especially the mutually negotiated due dates I try to work out with my struggling students, to give them extra time to do their best. But they break even these.

      Last year, I had a more generous policy of accepting late work but students could only earn up to 70% on it after a certain number of days – even if the work itself demonstrated higher (A, B) achievement. Yet the students almost always turned in work that would have earned less than a 70% anyway, even if they had turned it in on time.

      Obviously grades of any kind are extrinsic motivators and are limited. Learning for learning’s sake is the ideal – doing good work in a timely manner for its own sake is also the ideal.

  2. Maura, thank you for sharing and for widening this discussion. I personally hold the “failure is not an option” mentality because I KNOW that each and every one of my students is capable of fulfilling (and often exceeding) the expectations and standards that are set for them. For those who can go beyond, I push them to do so–to go beyond “acceptable” to their personal best, because they owe it to themselves to use their gifts and talents to the fullest. Not every students’ best will be an A (excellent) or even a B (above average), but not a single person’s “best” is an F…and if it is, that is a problem that would need to be addressed beyond the scope of my classroom.

    This being said, I tend to look at “failure is not an option” in terms of the “big picture” of a whole semester or year, not on each individual assignment. “Failure” in the sense of not mastering a skill on the first try or choosing to or forgetting to complete a minor assignment is a different kind of failure than the kind that earns an F for a whole semester or year. The first kind of failure I mentioned is formative and informative. It helps teachers and students alike to become aware of areas of weakness and then address them so that greater success can be had in the future. The second kind of failure is a result of not addressing or correcting the first. The second kind is the kind that I see as “not an option.”

    From this view, then, a zero credit policy on those small, day-to-day assignments is not just “doing what’s practical” for the teacher. It is also pedagogical; it teaches the importance of responsibility, and, if properly presented and explained, shows why you would give that assignment in that time frame to begin with. “You need to have read this and considered these questions in order to be prepared to participate in our class discussions and activities today.” “This must be turned in on Wednesday, so that I can give you feedback by Friday, so that you will be able to polish your presentation for Tuesday.” The number that you attach to that work is there as external motivation and reward, but the ultimate reason for completing the work is not to get the score–it is to learn and then to demonstrate understanding.

    To accept work that needed to be completed in August but is instead completed in an attempt to boost a grade in December sends the wrong message. The small assignments in August were formative, and were analyzed, graded, discussed, and perhaps even redone at that point to serve that formative purpose. Accepting them in December, when the summative assessment connected to those small assignments has already been completed, is basically saying that the value in that work was in the score, not in the learning experience that it aided.

    We can talk about grading systems that might be better, but while we have our current one in place, the best thing that we can do as educators is to use it in ways that supports not just WHAT we want our students to do but also WHY it’s important for them to do it. I know you do that in many ways with your students, Maura, and the policy that you have in place for those small assignments sounds like it supports and reinforces that. No one fails if they miss a few here or there, but they won’t truly be able to succeed if they make a habit of it, because the work has value far beyond the points assigned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s