We ALL agree that student responsibility and citizenship is a good idea. Kids SHOULD have appropriate consequences for failure to do homework, complete projects, and doing badly on tests. The only question is how BEST to encourage responsibility and citizenship, and what the appropriate consequences should be.
This is very important-we are not starting with the perspective of “I’m right and the teachers are wrong.” We’re starting with the perspective that you, your staff, and I all love kids, care about them, and want them to grow up with a good sense of responsibility and citizenship.
Now that we are starting from common ground, let’s ask some questions:
- Are our present practices leading students to improve their rates of homework completion and classroom success? If so, then let’s just check the data: What was the percentage of failures five years ago? Three years ago? Last year? If our strategies are effective, I would expect that the failures–particularly failures due to the failure to complete homework–are declining significantly. But that’s not, in fact, what I see around the country. The typical grading practices–zeroes for missing work, refusing to take late work, refusing to allow students to resubmit work, use of the average–are not providing improved performance. In fact, teachers complain to me all the time that students are not completing work, that they are disengaged and non-responsive. In other words, if our goal is improved citizenship and responsibility, what we are doing now apparently is not working very well.
- What alternatives have we tried? In almost every school, I find wide variation in teacher grading practices. There are some teachers who, quietly and almost anonymously, have been experimenting with different practices. Before you consider anything I have to say, conduct a “treasure hunt” by analyzing those classes where failure rates have declined and achievement has improved. Look in different departments around the district where success is high (e.g., drivers education, music, computer programming). What do those areas have in common that we can learn from? One thing that I know is true in all three is that when you make a mistake, it doesn’t lead to failure, but rather to listening to teacher feedback, respecting teacher feedback, improving performance, and ultimately passing the assessment.
- What will be our criteria for decision? Can we at least agree that even if people are skeptical, we’ll let the evidence be our guide? I’ve worked in very remote parts of Africa where people did not believe that vaccinations were effective. They didn’t want to see my studies or hear a lecture on Western medicine. But they were willing to look at children who lived or avoided horrible life-long disabilities because they didn’t get polio (it’s still rampant in parts of the developing world). The evidence, not my beliefs or their beliefs, ultimately allowed for more vaccinations. So in our schools, can we agree that even if we’re not sure, we’ll at least try some experiments, and then let the evidence decide? I think that teachers are smart–they care about kids and love them. But they are skeptical because they don’t like to see another “hot idea” come and go. So, let’s take our time and try it out, but let’s also have the intellectual integrity to let the evidence and not personal feelings, decide.
- Can we agree on some fundamental boundaries? Even if we disagree on policy, can we agree on values such as fairness? Can we agree that grading practices should not be based upon subjective appraisals that can be influenced by gender, race, economic status, or parent activism? Can we agree that the central purpose of feedback, including grades, is the improvement of student achievement?
- What’s in it for the teachers? Can we agree that if we can improve policies that will reduce our failure rate, that we would have happier, more engaged, and better-behaved students? Can we agree that if we have fewer students repeating grades and courses, we’ll have fewer angry and bored students?
- What’s in it for the school and community? Can we agree that if we have fewer students repeating math and English, that ultimately we’ll have more opportunities for art, music, technology, service learning, and other things that both students and teachers find engaging and worthwhile?
Once we have settled these questions, let’s try some experiments. I’m not saying I have all the answers, but perhaps different teachers would try different things. Some might just eliminate the zero. Some might stop the average. Others might try a “menu” system such as I use, where the consequence for missing work or blowing a test is selecting other items from the menu. Others might experiment with rewards for work that is on time or early rather than punishment for work that is late.
In other words, I’m not asking you to use MY system, but rather that you use your good judgment and the thoughtful goodwill of your colleagues to: a) admit that what we are doing now could be improved, b) experiment with different ideas that improve achievement and reduce failures, and c) agree that the final school-wide decision will be based on evidence and not personal prejudices.