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Removing Consequences--A Mistake for Education

Snow Effects, Giverny by Claude Monet, 1893

Fairfax County Public Schools have my dander up and I don't even have children attending their schools anymore. However, I do have their graduates in my college classes and the school system just made my job harder. They have instituted a new grading system that removes the requirements and incentives to study for tests and turn in homework. You can read the report of the changes here and I encourage you to do so. However, let me summarize the key changes:

1. If a student makes less than 80% on an exam they must be given the opportunity to take the test again. Failure to offer every student the opportunity to retake a test in order to exceed the 80% threshold means that no student can be awarded a grade of more than 80% on the exam.

2. No student will be given a zero for missed homework until he has been given multiple opportunities to complete the assignment and failed to do so. (In other words, deadlines are really just suggested completion dates)

3. Homework for practice can account for no more than 10% of a student's grade. This is a problem for STEM teachers. You learn science, math, and engineering by doing practice problems. Lots and lots of practice problems. Now all those practice problems can only account for 10% of your grade. Do you really think students are going to do those practice problems for fun when they know they have no impact on their final grade? I can tell you from personal experience that I used to not include homework assignments as graded material. However, once the homework started counting for 20% of the final grade, students completed it and actually learned the material better. Their test scores improved. Without the carrot of a significant grade credit, the students were not going to complete the practice questions.

Some of you may ask what good could possibly come from such a system. The stated purpose of this change is to separate performance on academic material from behavior.  In other words, the student's grade should only reflect his mastery of the material with no influence from less than desirable behavior.

My first response tends toward the snarky as I wonder how cold I will have to keep my college classroom to prevent all these special snowflakes from melting. But this is a real mistake on the part of the public school administrators and will cause great harm to the students so this needs to be opposed with reason.

First of all, education is more than the mastery of facts. This change to the grading system is meant to prevent failure by students who are capable of learning the material but whose behavior negatively impacts their grade. Yet behavior that prevents failure should be part of the lessons being taught by our schools. Principles that will be ignored with this new grading system will leave students totally unprepared for college and for life in general. For example:

1. Actions have consequences. Every choice has consequences. If a student chooses to skip class, ignore homework, go to a party or play video games instead of studying he is making a free choice that will have a negative impact on his learning. How are students going to see this impact when we tell them they are "too precious to fail" and we will jump through all kinds of hoops to make sure they do not feel the sting of failure. How are students going to gain a sense of personal responsibility and be held accountable for their choices?

2. Time management matters. As students get into middle school and high school they need to start being responsible for how they spend their time. A daily planner needs to be part of their school supplies and they need to learn how to keep track of their schedules and anticipate their workload. By removing the penalties for late assignments we are telling them that their time is their own and the teachers will accommodate their preferences. So feel free to go to the football game instead of writing your paper. Feel free to party on a school night and skip the homework. There is no reason to study for the exam since you will get a second chance if you blow it the first time. In fact, you are better off not studying for the exam since you can take it, find out exactly what is on the exam, and then retake it with targeted studying aimed at only the material that will be tested. This is the ultimate teaching-to-the-test scenario.

3. There are those with more authority than you. This system severely undermines the authority of the teachers. They set the curriculum and the schedule but now students can ignore the schedule and complete work if and when they feel like it. Students need to learn that those in authority set the agenda and they need to follow it. If a student needs to deviate from the schedule, then it is up to him to present his case for this exception to the teacher and request, not demand, an accommodation. The teacher is free to grant or deny the request. We are doing our students no favors by allowing them to ignore the schedules set by teachers.

Each semester I give my "How to succeed in Anatomy & Physiology" spiel on the first day of class. I warn students of the pitfalls of waiting until the night before the exam to study. I can see that I will now have to include an explanation for the freshmen that college is not high school. There are no do-overs for exams. Due dates are firm deadlines. Failure is an option.


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