What’s "Fair"?

In a recent discussion with another teacher, I asserted that homework should be evaluated, but that evaluation, whether in the form of a letter or a percentage, should not be included in a report card grade if the purpose of the homework was to reinforce classroom learning (as in “formative assessment”).

Then the teacher asked what they should do if the student decided that, because the homework mark didn’t “count,” he or she would not turn in their homework.

In the case above, most teachers would try to control the errant student with punitive grading: a zero, perhaps, for non-performance, and then averaging the zero along with the letter or percentage items that determine the report card grade. The teacher I was speaking with thought that zero was the only option.

I said, “No, it’s not the only option. Stick with the principle of not adding homework evaluation to report card grades (summative evaluation).”

He said, “Then I should just let them skip homework.”

“No,” I said, “let’s back up a second.”

I asked if we could agree that homework should be thoughtfully assigned by the teacher, and the purpose of the homework should be to reinforce knowledge or skills taught in the classroom, and not assigned without consideration of the fact that students actually have a life in addition to school.

Yes, we could agree on quality homework.

Next, I asked if he would want to pursue every student who didn’t do any homework assignment. He said he would, because otherwise it wasn’t fair to the other students.

“Suppose,” I asked, “that the student in question has an A in the class and doesn’t need to do the homework?”

“Well,” he said, “it just wouldn’t be fair to the other students if I let that one go.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, it just wouldn’t,” he said.

“Can we talk about ‘Fair’?” I asked. “There’s two ways of looking at ‘Fair.'”

“Okay,” he said.

“First,” I said, “‘Fair’ has nothing to do with anything. With regard to that particular student’s achievement, it’s all between the state standards, that student, and you. Other students don’t figure into the equation. Remember, we’re criterion-referenced, not norm-referenced, right?”


“Second, and this is the way I prefer to think of it, ‘Fairness is not treating all students the same. Fairness is meeting each student at their level of need.’ So we consider each student, each case, one at a time, isolated from all the others.”

“Besides,” I said, “most well performing students are doing their homework anyway, and if they miss an assignment, there’s usually a pretty good reason. You’re a teacher, not a cop, so let it go.”

“If you’re concerned about the student who chooses to ignore homework because they may fail or perform poorly in the course without the practice, then you need to find a way to support them, and that takes some investigation into the reasons they are not doing the homework, as well as an enlightened administration that will provide before and after school, and lunch-time opportunities for students to have homework supervision and help.”

“Okay,” he said, “I get it. I’m a teacher not a cop. And I’m concerned with the value of what the homework produces for the student, not the process of making sure every kid does it or else. Homework is generally formative assessment, for practice, so it doesn’t go into the report card grade. If a student who doesn’t need the practice misses a homework assignment, I don’t need to sweat it, but if a student who needs the practice misses, I find a way to help him or her get it done.”

“Right,” I said. “And besides, in all the years that I’ve observed those homework policies, I’ve never seen kids try to take advantage of me. The ones who will do it on their own, do it. If it’s late, there’s usually a good reason and it comes in later. If they’re not going to do it, you have an opportunity to support them. And I’ve never seen that mythical stack of late papers on my desk at the end of a marking period.”

Never. Honest.


11 thoughts on “What’s "Fair"?

  1. My office mate talks all the time about the stacks of homework he grades—like it’s some badge of honor. He thinks that if he doesn’t assign it even a pittance of value in the gradebook, kids won’t do it.

    I’m with you—let it slide unless you really think there’s a reason to pull the kid aside and/or call the parent. If the student knows the material, s/he doesn’t have to do the homework—they just have to show me they know it.

  2. 10-4 on that score, SG.

    The irony seems to be that many teachers forget what you just mentioned — “show me.” A short conversation, i.e., “oral interview” serves well as a valid assessment.

  3. I think it’s a great idea. If the students know if they have a certain grade then they won’t have to complete it then maybe that would be cause for motivating the students that aren’t very motivated. Bring your grade up, get out of homework.

  4. Thanks for that post.

    I hate homework. Hate creating it, hate assigning it, hate collecting it, hate grading it. I’m in elementary school, so most of the parents are doing it anyway. I definitely subscribe to your philosophy of homework though. There’s usually a lot more going on when it’s not getting done.

  5. T-N-T, What if the homework is helping the student get the good grade? I’m not sure I’d want to advertise it that way…it’s more of an individual judgment on your part relative to that student’s current achievement level.

    Mimi, except for the infrequent project or performance (I had the speech standard to contend with), I gave very little homework in social studies. The math and LA folks gave enough for all of us! (And that’s where students need the most practice.)

    We did the greatest part of our processing and formative assessment in the classroom where I could function as a resource for students having difficulty.

  6. Frankly, I’m not a firm believer in homework either. Just like dy/dan, I don’t like homework because only the kids who don’t need the math homework are the ones who do it, the ones who need it sometimes sometimes do it, and the ones who always need it almost never do it. it’s amazing. I do it because it’s “school policy”, but i dread it really. good post.

  7. Jose, you right on the mark. I’m sure there’s a study out there that validates our observations!

    Schools do need to get on board with homework support for those kids who need it but, for whatever reason, won’t or don’t do it. Departments can band together, but a single teacher by themselves is fighting a battle against the clock.

  8. But couldn’t you also pose the question that if the student were doing the homework and being rewarded with the grade then they would be passing tests and therefore already have the good grade. Doesn’t one tie into the other? (does that make sense?)

    Good grades on tests can normally be linked to doing homework (personal experience), so those that are already doing well will continue to do well.

    did I ramble too much?

  9. TNT, you’re on the right track, but I need to make clear that homework is formative assessment, unless it’s a product/performance summative assessment, or a take-home pencil and paper test.

    A teacher needs to keep track of and evaluate homework to support a report card grade, but should not add homework grades into the report card grade. Homework evaluations support your professional judgment about report card grades. Homework doesn’t influence, but only sheds light on report card grades.

    I would not suggest holding the promise of “no homework” out to students if they perform well in class.

    If you expect all the students to do their homework all the time, and deal with the exceptions case by case, supporting kids who have a hard time doing it, you’ll be in great shape.

    Frankly, I’m in favor of skills homework, like LA, math, and SS skills. Not so much SS content.

  10. I do almost exclusively in class work, and have found that my learners fit into several categories: those who will do it no matter what, even if they don’t need the practice, those who will only do it if they get points for it, and those who won’t do it even if they need to. Sometimes I feel caught between the proverbial rock and hard place; some students may not require that much practice, but until I score their tests, I don’t know which ones they are or were! Many of them THINK they know exactly what to do, or just don’t feel like putting out the effort, then they tank on the test. What should the role of participation be in a World Language class? Obviously, we have to get them to talk, somehow.

  11. I cringe every time I read when teachers at my school take off ten points for every day an assignment or project is late, or, give a zero or partial credit when an assignment is late or not turned in. These are such counter-intuitive actions. Thank you for explaining why.

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