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.


Frank said...

"It doesn't matter when it gets done, as long as it gets done."

I wonder if the supervisor would subscribe to the same philosophy with regard to report cards; attendance records; requisitions; and breathing???

Jay Braiman said...

Oh, of course not. The more permissive, forgiving and supportive supervisors become with respect to students, the more rigid and uncompromising they become with teachers. As the schools have evolved from institutions of learning to institutions of self-esteem and validation, school supervisors have evolved from being authority figures whom the students never want to be sent to see, to apologists to whom the students run to complain about their teachers and get things changed in their favor.

Supervisors at this point are practically required to become apologists for students, since they are the ones most directly in the line of fire from parents. Where every dispute begins and ends with the premise that all children are fabulous and blameless, and therefore must be resolved against the teacher, the supervisor like a political partisan is compelled to say and believe ridiculous, illogical things. "You must have made the work too hard, so he had to cheat." ... "You can't take points off for handing in an essay a month late, because we don't want her to feel bad."

Today's schools seem to want students to be free-thinking, autonomous, empowered and perpetually happy, while they seem to want teachers to be miserable, obedient, mindless automatons. It's brutal hypocrisy, and it's driving a lot of good teachers away.

Anonymous said...

Jay this article was very true and understandable. I don't write many assignments, but I understand the consequences one must face if their assignment is not on time. I would like to know what made you write this blog on April 15.

-Adam Schutzman

Jay Braiman said...

Because April 15 is the best-known deadline in American life. Whenever I hear student give excuses for handing in work late, I think about April 15. The IRS doesn't care if your printer ran out of ink.

rasta said...

The educational system needs some serious help!!!!!

F.X. said...

having posted as: "anonymous" & "frank", we now enter a third nom de plume(to protect the innocent???)...

"My printer ran out of ink" is my favorite.

quite simply; that may be the reason for the late assignment, but most certainly NOT the excuse for it...

jay, have missed your posts...

Jay Braiman said...

Thanks, Franks/FX/&c. Wish I had more readers/comments.

It's not a "reason;" it would have to be true first. It's the kind of thing a student will say because she thinks it will get her off the hook, because in her mind it would not be her "fault" if true, and she just assumes she'll be taken at her word. Believe me, if a student says this, it's probably a lie.

Studying for law school finals now; will write again soon. Next topic: Plagiarism.