Tuesday, April 15, 2008

From Deadline to Lifeline

April 15 is a date of treble significance to me: The anniversary of the Titanic disaster, Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball, and of course, the significance it carries for everyone else in America: the deadline for filing tax returns.

I thought today might be an appropriate occasion to examine one more fundamental concept which I somehow left out of Toxic Truths, and which has also gotten hopelessly lost in the school system: the importance of the assignment deadline.

By now I've told the story several times of a student submitting a marginal essay a month past the due date, and three weeks after the "late deadline" (more on that shortly), and my supervisor not only forcing me to accept it but not allowing me to penalize it for being submitted so late. I've had many students and parents over the years complain about lateness penalties, and have had several supervisors either encourage or compel me to accept work weeks, even months, after it was supposed to have been done. And I have heard many times the same refrain from students, parents, and supervisors: "It doesn't matter when it gets done, as long as it gets done."

Excuse me?

If that is true, what is the point of having an assignment deadline in the first place? What is the point of having a course sequence, or syllabus? Do these people really believe that a due date is meant to be just a suggestion? That this is an appropriate lesson to teach kids?

As a general matter, when I give students a brief-term (or long-term) assignment such as a writing project, which they are to produce outside of class, the final product (and each intermediate product such as a draft or revision) will be due on a particular date. The idea is to provide a reasonable amount of time to complete the work but not so much time as to encourage procrastination and neglect. Naturally, many students will procrastinate and neglect to finish the work on time, thus missing the deadline. My policy is to allow several days after the due date to submit late work, subject to a penalty of one full letter grade (i.e., a B+ becomes a C+; students who submit work after their class period on the due date are penalized a minus-grade, i.e., a B+ becomes a B). The time to submit late work is limited, however; there is always a "late deadline" after which no work will be accepted under any circumstances. The late deadline is usually about a week after the due date. After that, it's a zero.

I always take great pains to inform and remind students of due dates and late deadlines, but three things always happen: (1.) They act surprised every time I mention it, as if they were hearing about the assignment for the first time; (2) they still hand in the work late; and (3.) they cannot understand why or accept that late work will be penalized and I will refuse to accept it after the late deadline.

Why should late work be penalized? The most oft-cited reason is that it would be unfair to those students who did hand in the work on time, but why is that? Because completing the work within the allotted time is part of the task, and part of the assessment. The quality of the final product is obviously the primary element, but the ability to perform and complete a task and manage one's time to meet a deadline is also an important skill which needs to be assessed, not to mention an indispensable professional and life skill. Students should all be held to the same objective standards. Students who have the skills, take the time and put forth the effort to meet the requirements should receive full credit; those who do less than that, should receive less than that.

Moreover, the timeliness of the work must be part of the criteria, because otherwise there is no point in setting a deadline; it would be, as mentioned above, merely a suggestion. We want to encourage students to hand in their work on time, and discourage them from handing it in late. If handing the work in late has the same outcome as handing it in on time, where is the incentive to hand it in on time?

There are several other reasons why late work should be penalized. For one thing, it can be terribly inconvenient for a teacher to be grading work which, in terms of the course sequence and syllabus, is long past its shelf life. Teachers set deadlines so they can plan and set aside time to mark and grade the work, as well as determine an appropriate occasion to return the graded work to the students and maintain course continuity. Having to keep track of and grade various past assignments along with current ones creates inefficiency. Grading work, particularly performance-based assessments, can be an arduous task; it is most efficient for a teacher to be grading the same assignment on the same rubric at the same time. It is unfair to the teacher to have to grade past assignments long after her attentions have shifted elsewhere.

Most importantly, the idea that deadlines are ineffectual and that "it doesn't matter when it gets done" flies in the face of how things work in the real world. There are inflexible deadlines and limited grace periods in just about every meaningful aspect of life, mostly involving financial or legal matters. Rent payments, mortgage payments, credit card payments, car payments, monthly bills, and of course taxes, all have to be paid by the due date. Penalties, late fees and interest are among the consequences for late payments; so are collection calls, repossession, foreclosure, and in extreme cases, criminal sanctions. Many other important matters, such as college and job applications, licensing and certifications, insurance contracts, court appearances, voter registration, and even insignificant things like sale offers and store return policies, have deadlines, time limits, expiration dates, etc. More importantly, banks, creditors, tax auditors, licensing agencies, etc., not to mention employers, are substantially less interested in why you missed the deadline, and substantially less forgiving in that regard, than teachers are.

Students have a million excuses why they don't (or in their minds, can't) submit work on time. "My printer ran out of ink" is my favorite. I used to warn students in advance to be on the lookout for a mysterious computer virus that somehow knows when my projects are due, and causes every printer in the city to run out of ink the night before. It is their responsibility, I tell them, to make sure well in advance that their printer has ink and is working. Printers in general are among the most reliable devices ever invented; they do not break down or fail to function nearly as often as students would have us believe. Complaints about the cost of ink also fall on deaf ears; owning a printer necessitates and requires the occasional purchase of ink and paper. And, if all else fails, there is always pen and paper.

(Not to go on and on about the whole printer-related-excuse farce, but the option to hand-write brings to mind another incredibly stupid decision that students often make. In the face of a printer failure, whether real or imagined, students will rarely even think of the hand-writing option, and those who do will decline to exercise it. Most of them simply operate on the assumption that the printer failure in and of itself will excuse the lateness or non-submission of the assignment. Others, when asked why they did not hand-write the assignment, reply, "I didn't think you'd accept it." This is a common excuse for not taking initiative under less-than-ideal circumstances. But think about it: If you have something to hand in, there is a chance that I will accept it. If you have nothing, then there is no chance I will accept it because there is nothing for me to accept. In other words, they'd rather hand in nothing and have no chance of a positive grade, than hand in something and have some chance. Is it laziness, entitlement or stupidity that causes kids to make this wholly irrational choice?)

Of course, I am willing to make exceptions and forego the lateness penalty in exceptional cases. Sometimes a student simply cannot meet the deadline, and I have no difficulty with that idea. However, in my class the student bears the burden of proof that the late submission was not the result of his own negligence; that he truly could not submit the work on time because of circumstances beyond his control which were impossible to anticipate or overcome. Similarly, if a student is absent from class on the day of an exam, she bears the burden of proving that she was absent by necessity, not by choice or negligence. I believe students should bear this burden. Anything less would give them a perverse incentive; i.e., they'd be more inclined to find or create an excuse than to do the work and meet the deadline, or come to class on the exam date. Students should be allowed some latitude, but there have to be reasonable limitations and, more importantly, it should not be automatic. Students would be wise to take the advice I always give them: Never assume that an excuse will be accepted.

They would also be wise to understand that yes, it does matter when the work gets done.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Same Old Story.

Teacher tells student to "sit down and behave herself."

Student violently attacks teacher as other students cheer, record incident on cell phone camera and post on MySpace.

Principal blames teacher.

Video here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Gee, I wonder why.

From the April 4 New York Times:
About a third of the nation’s eighth-grade students, and roughly a quarter of its high school seniors, are proficient writers, according to nationwide test results released Thursday. . . The results were released at the Library of Congress in Washington. The host, James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, drew laughs when he expressed concern about "the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought — the sentence," as young Americans do most of their writing in disjointed prose composed in Internet chat rooms or in cellphone text messages. "The sentence is the biggest casualty," Mr. Billington said.

"American students’ writing skills are deteriorating," said Will Fitzhugh, founder of The Concord Review, a journal that features history research papers written by high school students. . . “The only way to assess the kind of writing that students will have to do in college,” he said, “is to have them write a term paper, and then have somebody sit down and grade it. And nobody wants to do that, because it’s too costly.”
More here. And somehow they're all getting straight-A's...

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Great Failure

"The persistent weakness of American liberalism is its fixation with rights and procedures at any cost to efficiency and common sense." - Jonathan Chait, The New Republic

This is not a political blog, and I don't like to think of education as a political issue because, as any of the two or three people who have read this blog can attest, I don't think politics or politicians can fix it. In fact, I don't think it has anything to do with which political party is in power, or whose candidates we vote for, and nothing written here should be construed to advocate the support or denouncement of one party or the other. But when I read this quotation in TNR I immediately thought of the schools. Replace the phrase "American liberalism" with "American public education" and the statement would still hold true.

I really believe that public secondary education, as I have described it throughout this blog, is the great failure of modern American liberalism. I discussed this idea in some detail in an earlier post: Conservative Pedagogy, Liberal Assessment. Subjective standards, entitlement grading, the ceding of teacher authority and expertise to parents, the bending-over-backward to absolve students of the consequences of their poor choices, the emphasis on self-esteem over actual learning, the suffocating limitations on permissible school-based discipline; these are all the product of abstract liberal ideas and ideals.

"...fixation with rights and procedures..." Look at the scenario outlined in Hypothetical. The idea that a child's failing grade can and must be overturned because of a procedural dispute with a teacher is a perfect example of this. It presumes (wrongly, in my view) that a student has a right to a passing grade, and that right cannot be infringed without "due process." Parents today seem singularly obsessed with rights and procedures. Administrators are therefore required to share that obsession in their policies and directives to teachers. Again, as I pointed out previously, procedural formalities become more important than the student's performance; the grade can be based on the former as well as, or instead of, the latter. This of course creates inefficiency; the more different factors that can be used to determine a child's grade or passing/failing status, the more resources are expended upon those factors and, necessarily, diverted away from actual instruction and assessment. And it defies common sense, in that a child's grade should reflect her performance, and the teacher's assessment thereof, with respect to standards and expectations.

In our pre-Open School departmental conference last week, our principal emphasized the importance of procedure and "due process," and having evidence thereof, because as he put it, that's what parents always insist upon knowing and, inevitably, will try to challenge. I would wager that the majority of parent complaints and challenges with respect to student grades are procedural rather than substantive. In other words, a parent is far more likely to insist that a child's grade should be raised or overturned because the teacher supposedly neglected some arcane procedural step, rather than because the student's work was actually better than the teacher's evaluation and he had actually earned a higher grade.

Students have a right to competent instruction, they have a right to know what the rules, regulations, requirements, standards and expectations are, they have a right to have their legitimate questions answered, they have a right to receive extra academic help when they ask for it and it is available, they have a right to be treated fairly, equitably, reasonably and honestly by teachers and other school officials. They do NOT have a right to pass their classes and advance to the next grade, nor to receive high grades, nor to be praised for their performance regardless of whether it is praiseworthy. They have a right to the opportunity, not the outcome.

The presumption that a student must be given a passing grade based on alleged procedural inadequacies requires a presumption that the student would have passed had the procedures been followed; again, that the student is entitled to a passing grade. In other words, we are willing to presume, absent any evidence, that the student knows the material and can do the work. We are not, however, willing to presume that the teacher followed procedure and provided the student with all of what is listed in the above paragraph. The teacher must prove that she provided adequate information, instruction and notice, and must overcome the presumption that she did not, but the student does not need to prove that he has learned, or done, anything.

This defies common sense. The whole point of a student taking an exam or doing an assignment is for him to demonstrate what he has learned. The grotesque inversion of logic described above goes back to the idea of not trusting teachers and giving students the benefit of the doubt in disputes of this nature. All a student has to do is claim that he did not know about an assignment or did not know how to do it, and automatically it is presumed that he could have done it and would have done it had the teacher told him about it and explained it to him. The parent therefore demands that the child be given the grade that he would have gotten under those circumstances, and that imaginary outcome be substituted for what actually happened (or, in less extreme cases, that the student be given "another chance" to do the work). In the end, the child does not have to actually do the assignment, let alone do it well or demonstrate actual learning. The parent demands a passing grade, the system obliges, and the child learns nothing.

It has, in fact, become so easy for a student to evade responsibility for assignments by claiming ignorance that teachers are compelled to take extraordinary measures to make sure students know about assignments, test dates, and the like. A teacher is practically required to tell the students about it in class, write it on the board, give them a printed handout, put it on the internet, e-mail every student personally, call every parent personally, then directly ask each child individually if he knows about the assignment and intends to complete it, and keep doing all this every day until the assignment is due. Anything less, and a child can claim that she "didn't know" and the parent will demand restitution. Is this really an efficient or reasonable way for teachers to expend their time and resources?

Claiming ignorance and accusing the teacher of incompetence is certainly easier than actually studying, paying attention in class, asking meaningful questions, and completing assigned work. The trouble is that this is essentially what today's kids are being taught to do. Not only do they have no incentive to pay attention to instructions, keep track of assignments and seek help, they have an incentive to ignore instructions, disregard assignments and not know what is going on in class; they actively try to not know. In a way, they're trying to create plausible deniability for themselves, but it only becomes plausible when adults accept and enable it. We should not. Students must have a duty to know what their responsibilities are; to know what is expected of them, to know what assignments are and when they are due, to listen to and follow instructions, to know what is going on in each of their classes. Teachers should not have to bear the entire burden of maintaining students' awareness of assignments and requirements.

How can the school system function efficiently, let alone generate actual learning, when it gives kids all these perverse incentives? For how long will we be willing to cast reason and common sense out the window, making the educational process far more complicated and less efficient than it needs to be, just to make kids feel good about themselves, while producing a population filled with self-esteem and empowerment but bereft of knowledge and skills?

"The persistent weakness of American public education is its fixation with rights and procedures at any cost to efficiency and common sense."

Sounds about right.