****Addendum added at the end of the original post*****
In my thirteenth year of teaching, there is one thing that has NEVER changed about me: I hate late work. Before I go any further, let me share my definition of late work. In my mind, “late work” is any assignment or project for which a student was present in the classroom when assigned or worked on, and s/he just doesn’t do it. This would also apply to work that a student worked on in class, took home to complete, and did not complete as homework. And, of course, any pure homework assignment that is not completed for the next day’s class. Now that the definition is clear, let me continue. I ABHOR late work. I cannot stand spending part of my instruction time arguing with a student about an assignment that has already been completed that she wants me to accept and give her credit for. I also cannot stand spending planning and/or grading time on single copies of multiple pieces of work that I already scored days (or sometimes weeks) ago.
But in every district I have worked in, the Powers That Be have declared that late work WILL BE ACCEPTED. In one district, I was even required to give students full credit for “correct” work no matter when it was handed in, meaning that even if an assignment was weeks late, if the student did it correctly she could receive 100% of the points. In my present district, I am not allowed to give any student a score below a 60% regardless of what he scores. This is intended to mitigate the crippling impact a 34% average has on a student’s chances of passing the semester if they fail the quarter. While I understand the intention behind this reasoning, I do not agree. This is cheating. This is grade inflation at its most blatant. This is just plain WRONG.
What are we teaching our students?! They are NOT learning the basics of written and spoken communication, basic math and science skills to help them through life, or historical context to inform the future. I’ll tell you what we’re teaching them. We’re teaching them:
*deadlines don’t matter
*dedication to learning is optional
*responsibility is negotiable
*building complexity through linear progression of skills isn’t important
*personal interests & fun can be a higher priority than academic responsibilities with no consequences
*the grade is more important than learning the skill
More and more, I see administrators lowering expectations. And, in my 13-years-3-districts-5-principals experience, it is getting worse every year. Public education was designed to give all students a level playing field and the OPPORTUNITY for success. By allowing students to turn in work regardless of due dates, we are GUARANTEEING that every student will succeed in school even if she doesn’t have the skills to succeed in the real world. A student who is consistently late with assignments, half-asses the work, has an excuse for every missing or incomplete paper, and puts little to no effort into work that is completed, will NOT be successful in the real world. As an ad exec, if the presentation for the client isn’t complete the day of the meeting, you get fired. As a musician, if you don’t show up for the studio session, you lose the contract. As a professional athlete, if you skip practice, you don’t get to play and may even be dismissed from the team. It’s not just an academic expectation that work be completed fully and on time. This is a real world expectation and by allowing students to skirt this responsibility, we are NOT preparing them for reality.
How many students fail out of college during their freshman year for not going to class and not completing assignments? Did they just start this behavior? No-for most, it is a learned pattern of behavior from middle school and high school. I don’t see this happening in elementary school. If my 3rd grader doesn’t finish her morning work, she stays in at recess until she gets it done. If she doesn’t finish her math worksheet, she has to bring it home. When does this stop being the norm? When are we going to say enough is enough and hold students accountable in the classroom? This culture of shirking responsibility has bled into the national education culture as well. Think about it: who is called to account if a student doesn’t pass a state test? Is it the student? Is he asked why he didn’t master the concepts? Is he asked why he slept through the 2nd half of the test? Is he made to document the amount of time he spent preparing for the exam? No. The school is deemed inadequate, the student is promoted, and, in some cases, even given the opportunity to change schools.
I contend that the root of these issues is fear. Fear of parents’ gossip-mongering and litigation. That’s it. We are not afraid of failing students – look at all the students who do fail every year. What is different about these students? Usually, their parents aren’t involved with the child or with the school. Their parents don’t threaten to pull PTA support or accuse the school of inequitable treatment based on race, gender, or ability. Sometimes, these parents simply accept the fact that their student didn’t put in the work to pass rather than assuming it is someone else’s fault.
As a profession, educators are demonized as the root of the failing American education system but is anyone paying attention to the students? The students have to be held accountable for putting in the effort to earn the grade. Yes, public schools and parents are doing students a disservice, but ONLY by allowing them to skate past requirements without consequences instead of teaching them the hard lessons while they are children. We need to prepare them to be hard-working, dedicated adults who follow through on their commitments. We need to hold their feet to the fire and REQUIRE they meet our expectations on time and in full. We need to stop being afraid and start teaching students bravery and dedication by example. We need to TEACH.
******You folks have all gotten me thinking which, of course, is the best way to tackle this issue. In thinking about this even more analytically, I believe my real frustration is that it’s hard for me to know what my students are learning and internalizing when I don’t get many assignments from them. It’s difficult to have a conversation with a student about his understanding of a concept when I have no evidence either way. I teach in a high poverty school with a diverse demographic. Many students are only in school because they have to be. I probably have 75% of my students who complete the majority of the work and we have worthwhile conversations about their learning. It’s the other 25% who desperately need this dialogue but who refuse to take part that are so frustrating. The late work frustrates me because I don’t truly believe they are learning anything when they complete 3 weeks worth of work in 2 days at the end of the quarter so that they will pass. Perhaps outlawing late work isn’t the best answer but if they know they can’t do it later, that might make more of them do it now.
I’m frustrated with the assumption that because I want my students to meet my due dates, that indicates that I am not a thoughtful, engaging, or caring teacher. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and knowing more about their learning than just what’s on the papers I score or comment on. I do take time to assess their learning and not just grade worksheets. I conference with them about their writing and we write back and forth to one another in dialectic journals about the reading. The implication in many of your comments is that my teaching must be uninteresting and not engaging if so many students are not completing the work, but how many teachers can say they have 100% of their students engaged and 100% of their students completing all assignments? Not many.
I so appreciate the comments and dialogue that has begun around this issue. I’m really glad that we can have differing opinions and continue to move the conversation toward what is best for the students.*****