While I was in graduate school, I taught a couple of basic newswriting classes. I enforced deadlines and had some other practices that my students did not love.
First, I did not accept late assignments. I was training future reporters, and in daily journalism, deadlines are important. So I wanted to reinforce that. If you didn’t turn in your homework when it was due, you got no credit for it.
Second, I gave my students a quiz at the very beginning of each class. The quiz took just a couple of minutes. If you came in 10 minutes late after I had taken up the quizzes, you were out of luck. My goal here was to not only make sure that students read the textbook, but also that they were in their seats at the start of class.
Both the homework deadline and the quizzes rewarded students who were punctual, attended class and did their reading, and penalized students who skipped class, didn’t get around to doing their homework, or who had tardiness issues.
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Oh, and one other thing. If a student handed in an assignment -- usually news stories -- and got a proper name or an important fact wrong, I gave them an F on that assignment.
My goal was to train students as much in the values of their chosen field as in the skills. Understand the importance of deadlines and pay attention to details and get them right. If you can’t get to class on time or if you can’t spell names right on a low-stress college homework assignment, you probably need to rethink your career choice.
Which brings me to Wake County’s consideration of a policy that would ban zeros. Students would not get zeros for being late or not doing assignments. They might get a 50.
School administrators say that a zero is too punitive.
As quoted in Keung Hui’s story, Superintendent Jim Merrill said: “The zero knocks kids out of the box. That is the dropout path.”
School board member Jim Martin, who is a university professor, countered that “Not giving a zero protects a slacker.”
Tom Benton, a board member who is a retired principal, agreed with the superintendent. “A power of zero in a 100-point scale is a killer. Our kids can’t recover from that.”
It’s probably not a good idea to rely exclusively on intuition here, but still . . . .
My intuition tells me that if you do not teach kids the importance of deadlines, you are setting them up for problems later on. Sooner or later, they are going to run into a situations in which there is no give.
Maybe in college; maybe in a job. Kids who grow up not respecting deadlines and the importance of getting things done on time may be more likely to flunk out of college or get fired.
That’s my intuition, anyway.
But maybe the ban-the-zero policy will result in fewer kids failing and dropping out. There’s a benefit in that. And maybe most kids will continue to do things the right way because they don’t want a 10, 20 or 30 percent penalty for being late. For motivated kids, getting a 50 is not a great result.
My concern is what’s driving this policy. Superintendents and principals worry a lot about the dropout rate, as I guess they should, and the ban-the-zero policy is aimed at keeping kids from giving up.
But while I think worrying about the dropout rate is important, it can’t be everything. If you reduce the rigor sufficiently, you can really lower the dropout rate.
But then the rubber meets the road. Our community colleges test students. Never mind that they are high school graduates. That cuts no ice with the community colleges, who have seen too many kids with diplomas from area school districts who can’t read or write well and don’t seem to have learned much in high school.
The tests are designed to see what level they are at in subjects like math and English.
And what happens a lot is that the high school graduates test so low that they have to take remedial courses.
So the high schools can focus all they want on strategies to get their graduation rates up, but if that means that their graduates aren’t ready for college-credit math, or flunk their classes at the community colleges because they can’t get assignments done on time, then what have we accomplished?
If I’m a school board member, what I really want to know is what is happening after the high school graduation, because that is the best measure, in my estimate, of a school district’s effectiveness.
Track the students for five years. See how many of them had to take remedial courses. See how many of them have graduated from two-year or four-year colleges, and how many started but didn’t finish. How many of them are employed, and in what kinds of jobs. In other words, how well have they been prepared.
The high school graduation rate is just one metric, and it is not that difficult to game this metric, even with the best of intentions.
If you want to look at one metric of how well kids are prepared, the UNC System has an interesting database broken down by school district and even by high school of freshmen performance. So I looked up Wake County, and found that in the fall semester of 2011, around 44 percent of the 3,454 freshmen in UNC system schools from Wake had a grade point average below 3.0. And those were probably among the top graduates of Wake County schools. Weren’t getting a B average.
Only about 45 percent returned for their sophomore years with a GPA above 2.0 and 30 credit hours. Meaning that a bunch of kids were dropping classes in their freshmen year. Maybe because they weren’t turning some assignments in on time.
So as the school board considers how tough to be on the kids in their district, they should keep in mind that eventually no one is going to cut Wake County graduates any slack.