Try and imagine what might happen to a newspaper reporter who consistently fails to hand in stories before press time. Or a lawyer who hasn’t bothered to draft an opening statement for her trial that is set to begin in a few minutes. Or a cleric who doesn’t have his sermons ready by Sunday morning.
The answer is obvious. Each individual could expect to start looking for new employment in short order. In the workplace, punctuality matters and it is expected that work be completed on time. Most employers have little sympathy for employees who consistently fail to meet deadlines.
Now consider the same scenario with a high school student who chooses not to hand in an assignment by the scheduled due date.
Most people probably assume the teacher deducts a certain number of marks from this student’s grade. Since the deadline wasn’t met, students need to learn consequences exist for tardiness. After all, that’s how it works in the real world.
This is a straightforward answer based on common assumptions. It reflects the reality of most parents when they were in school. And it’s completely wrong. In many school divisions, the reality is teachers are no longer permitted to deduct any marks for late assignments and this change reflects the official position of the Manitoba government.
For example, the Department of Education’s recent document, Communicating Student Learning: Guidelines for Schools, states “grades should not be deflated by the use of penalties (e.g., for handing required assessment evidence in late or for cheating or plagiarizing).”
Those who do not work in the school system are probably more than a little surprised by this revelation. How can officials justify a policy that forbids teachers to deduct marks from students who hand work in late?
The apologists do so by pointing out that modern course curricula are organized according to something called “learning outcomes.” These outcomes are lists of skills that students are expected to demonstrate by the end of the course. Since the outcomes do not directly mention punctuality (so the argument goes), the grades students receive should not be skewed by deductions for tardiness.
Rather, they argue, teachers should use specific instructional procedures to encourage students to hand in their assignments on time, such as having better structured assignments and negotiating deadlines with the students. In this way, the assessment of student work focuses more specifically on the students’ academic achievement, rather than on their adherence to artificially created deadlines.
At first glance, this explanation sounds plausible. When actually implemented, however, this approach falls apart quickly.
The fact is that teachers work in the real world where abstract theories don’t always mesh with reality. The natural inclination of many students, and of many adults for that matter, is to procrastinate for as long as possible. To remove one of the most effective tools teachers have for dealing with tardiness makes it harder for teachers to enforce deadlines.
When students realize there is no academic penalty for handing in late assignments, increasing numbers of them do not submit their work on time. If they know there is no academic penalty, students rationalize there is no need for them to hurry up and complete their assignments in a timely fashion.
Without enforceable deadlines, many teachers find themselves forced to beg their students to submit overdue assignments before the school year ends. Some administrators try to address this problem by requiring students who are chronically delinquent in submitting assignments to spend time in study rooms or lunch-hour detentions. But these are band-aid solutions for a problem caused mostly by a misguided assessment policy.
Considering the large number of students who choose to procrastinate, the last thing they need is to hear is that their assignments can be submitted whenever they want. Instead, schools should prepare students for life in the actual world where missed deadlines means missed opportunities, including missed pay raises, foregone promotions or even dismissals. Schools shouldn’t incubate students in unreality and shelter them from the natural consequences of their actions.
While it may be true that an employee’s quality of work is not directly affected by when it is completed, deadlines matter. After all, the best written news story is of little use when a reporter hands it in one week after the story breaks in the competing news outlets.
Allowing teachers to use their discretion when giving academic penalties for late assignments makes sense. This may not fit neatly into the assessment theories promoted by the education gurus, but it would inject a little common sense into our school system.