The Responsibility Paradox

Why do we love Wiley Coyote? Is it because he never learns from his mistakes? Doesn’t look ahead to analyze the consequences of his actions? Reminds us of ourselves?

Whenever I speak about standards-based grading, grading linked to standards, grading for learning,or just plain sound grading practices, inevitably a teacher with years of experience in the classroom will confront me with the “responsibility” challenge.

The spirit of Wiley Coyote lives on.

I teach that formative assessment (practice) should not figure into a final grade. I teach that giving zeros for late or missing work is a fruitless effort to stimulate academic achievement, and is also bad statistical math, not to mention confounding the meaning of the final grade. I teach that grades should report only academic achievement or lack thereof, and should not be used to punish or manipulate students (because there is absolutely no research to indicate that such manipulation is effective in raising individual achievement scores).

But regardless of how effectively I make my points — never mind how many studies I cite — a strong voice of experience can often be heard, apparently oblivious to the comedy of the challenge. The voice says, “But I have to teach them ‘responsibility.’ The real world holds them accountable, and I have to teach them responsibility!”

And each of these teachers who think they know better than the researchers and teacher practitioners of “grading for learning” need to confront what I call “The Responsibility Paradox.”

To put this post in perspective, let’s consider the mission of a teacher — the heart of a teacher’s prime function: excellent instruction. I’ve had a long time to think this over, and this is what I would argue is the essence of instruction:

“Facilitate learning as measured by assessments linked to state or provincial, and district standards.”

The Responsibility Paradox states that “Teachers who try to hold students accountable by teaching ‘responsibility’ through punitive grading are themselves irresponsible because they neglect their mission as teachers, which is to facilitate learning; introduce foreign elements into the final grade that distort the picture of achievement; damage student beliefs about self-efficacy; and essentially create an anti-learning experience for the student.

Let’s be more specific:

Teachers who add zeros and/or dock grades for a variety of behavior-related offenses (like being “late” with “work”)…

…ignore the math of statistics.

…close the door on learning.

…ignore the potential damage to student/teacher classroom relationships.

…disregard the effects on student motivation.

…set poor example to students and peers by ignoring assessment, grading, and reporting research.

… refuse to learn about grading alternatives that may increase student success.

…and completely forget that “responsibility” is not in their state or provincial, and district academic standards.

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15 thoughts on “The Responsibility Paradox

  1. It’s all too common, unfortunately, for people to focus either on the “outlier” situations (“What if…”) or trot out the “real world” argument (which includes the notion of responsibility).

    Teachers sometimes forget that they make hundreds of professional judgments each day—why would the “What if…”s about grading be any different?

    The older I get, the more I realize the whole “responsibility” argument is pointless. There are plenty of teachers who tell kids that there are no second chances in the real world or hazarding guesses about how an employer will or won’t react to similar behavior as displayed in the classroom. The more I look around, however, the more I see that there are always opportunities. It seems like the more responsible message to have kids leave the school doors with is that your very best is expected…and if you don’t give it, then you will need to work with others to improve.

    Have a wonderful week!

  2. This was a great post, and I say this because it made me rethink what a few of my policies were. I’ll give more thoughts later, but again, good, good.

  3. SG, I’m with you on the basic message. When grading becomes transparent, we can concentrate on improvement and excellence.

    Jose, thanks for your confidence. This is a great conversation and I will explain my assertions in future posts. Meanwhile, I commend you for stepping into the flow of ideas. It involves risk and requires a strong self-image. Of course, I know you qualify! 🙂

    Hugh aka Repairman

  4. Grading is still something about which I haven’t completely made up my mind. I agree with the fact that a grade should be nothing else but a way to measure the quality of a student’s work and the knowledge he/she acquired. On the other hand, I do think that a grade can be a push for students to get to work. Thus, it is also a psychological motivation to get to work. I will talk more about this today when I post about the project I made for my ‘class from hell’.

  5. Great post! Grades should be indicative of the skills a student masters and not assignments a student does/does not complete.

    Just last week I asked teachers “What if your pay check reflected how many times you were late for work, late turning in a lesson plan, or just honestly forgot to do something that was required by the district? How many of you would be able to pay your light bill?”

  6. FT, I’m heading off to read your post shortly. Meanwhile, you have a point about grades motivating students, but the research indicates few students being motivated, and only by good grades. There’s just no evidence at all that backs the notion of motivating a student with punishing grades. That would make life too easy, wouldn’t it? 😉

    Lisa, thanks for stopping by. You are very much on the “grading for learning” wavelength! I love your analogy. Mind if I use it in December?

  7. I identify with Frumteacher’s comment. In all my college courses, 10% of the grade is given for in-class assignments and homework. This work is not evaluated according to the quality of the work or the learning that is demonstrated, because the work is meant to be a part of the learning process, not an assessment of it. Each task is given a point or no point, based simply on whether it is thoughtful and complete.

    When students ask me about this, I ask them, “Would you do all of this work if you weren’t being graded on it in some way?” They almost always admit that they wouldn’t, at least not all the time. I then tell them, “If you don’t do this work, you won’t learn what you need to learn. When you come to the major assignments, you will not have the necessary knowledge to complete them. I am therefore trying to help you learn by giving you an incentive to complete this work and thus enable your learning.”

    I guess my point is that sometimes grading which is not DIRECTLY based on demonstrated learning can still INDIRECTLY reflect whether the learning process is happening.

  8. One doesn’t have to dock students’ grades to teach responsibility. We do that by accepting no late assignments and only giving makeup tests in the most extreme (documented) circumstances. I feel much the same way about such grading practices as I do other subjective criteria, such as “participation,” “effort,” or “attitude.”

    Our grades are entirely performance based, but of course that means that a student who fails to turn in a project gets a zero. That isn’t bad stats. That reflects the performance of that student on that assignment.

  9. I agree with much of what you have written, but I wonder if your dismissal of being late with an assignment as being unimportant in evaluation is reasonable. Where, pray, would you draw the line? Are due dates meaningless? Or am I misreading you?

  10. Rick DuFour says (essentially), “The schools that are more than happy to say ‘We have to teach our kids responsibility!’ rather than owning more of the responsibility themselves are, uncoincidentally, the ones that are least likely to see improvements in student learning outcomes.”

    Lisa, I like your message to your staff!

  11. I’m intrigued by your points, and I would love it if you could point me to some more information on “grading alternatives that may increase student success.” But I can’t quite see how some of the logistics of what you’re saying play out in practice.

    What do I do about an assignment which is never turned in? Maybe it’s purely a behavioral issue, but neither has the student demonstrated the academic skills to me.

    What about an assignment which is turned in, but terribly late, right up against my grades being due, when I have a million other end-of-term things to grade and comments to write and so forth?

    How does this interact with the subject being taught? I teach Latin, and I’m told that the language-learning research indicates that 15 minutes a day of study is way better than two hours once a week. I want my students to feel like there are second chances and I respect *what* they learn more than *how fast*, but at the same time I want to incentivize them to work steadily, because they will learn the subject better that way. Also, subjects like math and language are cumulative. The student who doesn’t master, say, the first declension ending in a timely fashion is going to be completely lost when we get to adjective/noun agreement. The adjective/noun agreement work will either be terrible, or even more delayed (since the first declension must be mastered first). (By contrast, if I were teaching Roman history, a student who fell behind on the early Republic unit could dive right into the Principate, and not get any more behind.)

    How would you see these issues handled?

  12. Thanks for raising this issue. I look forward to further posts and discussions. I’ve found assessment for learning one of the biggest “AHA’s” in my educational career and teachers and schools that get this are great places for kids to learn. May your tribe increase.

  13. rightwingprof said exactly what I would have posted, only I would have added the reason why late work isn’t accepted. I’m a high school teacher (and a former college TA) and the number of students I’m responsible for is over 100. If I accepted late work and made exceptions for every student, quite frankly I’d be in over my head in trying to juggle everything but still keep to a very rigid schedule of submitting grades so that they can end up on report cards.

    It isn’t so much about teaching responsibility as expecting students to adhere to the same scheduling guidelines that a teacher has to adhere to.

    And I don’t know about other schools, but all of the schools I’ve ever worked in had paycheck-docking consequences if you showed up late to work. If you (the teacher) aren’t there, then the school needs to find someone to cover for you and your paycheck is docked the sub-fee.

    As for missing deadlines on things the district has required: again, there are consequences. If I don’t get my grades in, then none of the school’s report cards can go out. If I don’t get my end of year paper-work in, then I don’t get credit for that year of teaching. Etc.

    That said, the grades that are given (when work is submitted by the deadline) should reflect what a student knows about the topic in question. But if there is no proof of learning (no work submitted) what proof do we teachers have that the student has learned? Unfortunately, anecdotal won’t cut it because no one trusts teacher judgment that strongly.

  14. I agree with you! In my district, we were not allowed to give grades on behavior. I believe if I kept the kids engaged and learning, they would fulfill their responsibilities and usually I was not disappointed.

  15. I’m grateful for those of you who are in the groove with reporting learning as it really is, according to standards. My ibuprofen bill is substantially reduced! 🙂

    I thought all week about how to reply to rightwingprof, but I have decided that he or she apparently lives in a different world where “teachers” separate the weak from the strong by means of norm-referenced grading and other “prof” generated tactics that don’t (or soon won’t) fly in public K-12 education. So thanks for dropping in, rwp, but your world operates with a different set of rules, so refutation would be pointless. If you want to comment on our discussions in the future, consider the venue and become informed.

    BTW, rwp, using outliers, like zeros, IS bad math, i.e., bad statistical math. Check your textbook. Furthermore, a zero that represents an assignment not done is not qualitatively the same kind of value that would be assigned to an assignment that was completed in a timely fashion. In other words, it’s not a grade, so how can you crunch the zero with the other values to arrive at a grade? Let me tell you…you cannot.

    Infamousj, I can’t believe you are serious. I’m of the opinion that most of what you’re talking about isn’t even legal (docking your pay for lateness), and the rest of your assertions, like “…anecdotal won’t cut it because no one trusts teacher judgment that strongly…” are simply fiction. Try to learn something about the subjects you comment on.

    I know that sounds a little harsh, folks, but my other alternative is censorship, and that’s a last resort. I’m open to debate, but I can’t waste time with folks who aren’t interested in learning enough to engage.

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