Based in Long Beach, California, "Teach Me Mr. West" is a blog by Jason West. His posts explore the rewards and challenges of being a highly effective 21st century educator.

Two Thousand and Late-Teen

Two Thousand and Late-Teen

Admin are telling me that I need to adjust my teaching practices because so many of my students are failing my class. The problem isn’t my teaching practices, it’s the fact that the kids don’t turn anything in on time!” She said with a great sigh.

Yeah,” I replied, “kids not turning in work can be really frustrating. How many kids do you have in your class?

Thirty.” She said.

And how many are turning in their work on time?” I asked.

I have, literally, one student who turns her work in on time!

I pulled this from a conversation I had with a colleague the other day. Our school administrators have established that “working to improve our current D & F rates” (meaning, lowering how many Ds and Fs our students are receiving) is our school-wide goal this year.

Not everyone is pleased with this goal.

Many of my colleagues feel that they are being forced to inflate student grades, rather than hold their students accountable for their poor life choices—like we’ve somehow turned ourselves in the University of North Carolina athletics program.

In addition to the “how can you grade something if it’s not done” argument that I covered last week, teachers are struggling with how to grade something if it is turned in late. Actually, that’s not entirely true because teachers aren’t struggling with how to grade late work, they are struggling with the ramifications of how they grade late work.

Allow me to proffer a theory that you may or may not agree with:

Late work does not (and should not) reflect academic deficiencies; rather, it does (and should) reflect behavioral deficiencies.

Before you go grabbing your pitchforks and torches to have me hanged in the town square, let me illustrate my point with a couple of hypothetical scenarios:

Scene A...

A freshman student arrives 10 minutes late to his first class of the day. The student sheepishly sits in his seat and the teacher approaches him.

You’re late, Billy.”

I know, Mr. West, and I’m really sorry. My mom couldn’t find her car keys this morning, and then traffic was really bad.”

That’s fine. Just know that you won’t be able to earn anything higher than a B on any of the in-class assignments we do in class today. Late is late. You need to understand that, when you are late in the real world, there are consequences to that.”

Scene B...

A freshman student arrives 10 minutes late (again) to his class after lunch. This student has a habit of coming 10 minutes late to class. The student sits in his seat and the teacher approaches him.

You’re late, Billy.”

I know, Mr. West.”

You can’t keep coming in late to class like this. Please get here on time.”


Oh, and because you were late to class, you won’t be able to earn anything higher than a B on any of the in-class assignments we do in class this afternoon. Late is late. You need to understand that, when you are late in the real world, there are consequences to that.

So what is the problem, here? Well, in scene A, the parent was having a rough morning and the student was late as a result. In this case, the lateness was the fault of the parent, yet the teacher punished the student. And, you may not know this, but if we punished every kid for the failings of their parents, we’d have less Pulitzer winners, Nobel laureates, and Oscar-winning actresses.

In scene B, however, the student clearly had a behavioral issue and was defiantly and habitually coming late to class. Yet still, the teacher chose give out an academic consequence, rather than a behavioral consequence. How many times would the teacher have to lower a grade as a consequence before the student learned the value of coming in to class on time? Certainly more than once or twice, right? At that point, would the lowered grade truly reflect the student’s academic abilities? Of course not.

If you substitute being late to class with turning in an assignment after the due date—whether the child’s home life has limited his ability to get an assignment done on time or whether the student was openly defiant of a due date—the behavior is immaterial to the academic grade. After all, academic grades should only reflect academic abilities, not how compliant a child is.

Now here is where you may ask with great annoyance in your tone, “Okay, West…tell us what you think the answer is...” Okay…I will tell you exactly what I think on this issue:

I’m not entirely sure.

Aha! I did it again! I zagged when you thought I’d zig! The truth is that I really think behavioral issues should be met with behavioral consequences. While I don’t have empirical data on how effective this method is, I do have some anecdotal evidence on the matter. In fact, this year I eliminated the practice of lowering grades for late work altogether. Do you know what happened?

Absolutely nothing.

Students didn’t suddenly develop a bad habit of turning in work late, and the kids who typically turned in work late didn’t improve much with my behavioral consequences, either. It turns out that coming up with effective behavioral consequences is quite challenging—because the thing about behavioral consequences is that you cannot enforce them on your own (it takes a village, in some respects). One teacher can only call home or assign lunch detentions so often before it stops mattering to students. And if some combination of parents, fellow teachers, counselors, and admin aren’t on board with an alternative system for doling out behavioral consequences for late or absent work, then you are left with little firepower to battle the immense beast of student apathy.

I will say, though, that allowing students to turn in work late has allowed for two remarkable things to happen in my class:

1.       For better or worse, students are starting to care more about whether or not they understood something and did it well than whether or not they simply got it done on time (because they have started looking at their grades the way I have: as a means to gauge academic abilities only)

2.       I’m getting a lot more original work. Seriously, I’ve only had 2 examples of students copying one another on an assignment this year (and they happened all the way back in October). Need I remind you that I teach over 175 students (both freshman and seniors) and that we are currently in the month of March. Anybody who’s been in education long enough can tell you what a miracle that is. I can only come to the conclusion that so much original work would not be so widely produced if my students felt the threat of lowered grades for late work.

Yes, hard deadlines on assignments teach students important life skills like time management, responsibility, and organization. But they also teach kids that getting work in on time is more important than actually doing the work on their own and learning the material. And isn’t that the exact opposite of what we are trying to do as educators? Imagine if Michelangelo was given a two-year deadline to paint the Sistine Chapel instead of the open-ended deadline the church gave him. You know what we’d probably have? We’d end up with the “Creation of Adam” only half-complete with God extending his finger towards a pasted image of Adam Levine that Michelangelo found on Google, that’s what we’d have. Though, to be fair, if that’s what was actually up in the Sistine Chapel, I’d be writing this blog post from a plane that was Italy-bound. Love me some Adam Levine.

Unlike my policy on not giving nuclear zeros, I don’t know totally how to effectively implement my new policy on late work. Actually, that’s not entirely true…I know exactly how to effectively implement my new policy. What I don’t know is how to get others to buy in to this way of thinking. As with many things in education, if there is no buy-in, there is no lasting change. And, in the case of my fellow teacher, you’ll be left with sky-high D & F rates and 29 students who don’t turn anything in on time


Next week, the shocking conclusion to my five-part series on assessment reform! Until then…

Do you agree or disagree with my late work policy? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Thanks, Obama.

Thanks, Obama.

The Nuclear Zero

The Nuclear Zero