Kudos to Manitoba’s Education Minister: Teachers should be able to penalize lateness

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

Manitoba teachers may soon have the option again of deducting marks for late assignments. Education minister Nancy Allan has acknowledged her department’s directive to school boards—the one that forbids teachers from using academic penalties to penalize lateness– is problematic.

“Right now we have a one-size-fits-all policy that I don’t believe is working,” said Allan in a recent interview.
That’s an understatement. It’s widely known that department policy has made it increasingly difficult for teachers to enforce deadlines. When students know they cannot be academically penalized for handing their assignments in late, many of them submit their assignments weeks past the deadline, if at all. Although teachers are encouraged to stress the importance of deadlines with their students, this policy prevents them from actually imposing any meaningful consequences.
It’s akin to a newspaper publisher telling an editor to ensure that journalists submit their news stories on time, yet informing her she cannot discipline employees who consistently submit their stories late. Of course, any newspaper that actually operated that way would quickly be out of business. That’s the difference between the real world and an education system removed from reality courtesy of education fads and political directives.
Manitoba is not the only province to have this type of policy. Ontario has similar assessment guidelines although that province does allow for the deduction of marks for lateness “as a last resort.” However, because Ontario strongly recommends school boards avoid penalizing lateness, their policy has become almost as rigid as Manitoba’s.
Last year, the Ottawa bargaining unit of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation conducted a survey of its membership to gauge the practical impact of these guidelines on schools. In total, 560 teachers responded to this survey, about a third of that bargaining unit’s membership.
Unsurprisingly, since the introduction of these no-late-penalty guidelines, 62 percent of teachers report a higher level of student absenteeism and skipped tests; a whopping 84 percent saw an increase in the number of late assignments. More than two-thirds of these teachers expressed dissatisfaction with the options available to them for dealing with late assignments.
One standard argument for current assessment policies is that they are backed up by solid research. “Overwhelming research shows that failing students or giving them zeros does not cause them to ‘learn their lesson’ and succeed in the long run,” stated Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s education minister until earlier this year.
However, we should take these “overwhelming research” claims with a grain of salt. The history of public schooling in North America is littered with failed reforms. They include open-area classrooms that looked great in the abstract but failed to work when implemented in classrooms with real students. In another contrast between the imagined and real world, the nature of research in the social sciences is considerably “softer” than in the physical sciences. We would be well-advised to be skeptical of claims about “proof” provided by such malleable research.
Another argument offered in support of the no-penalty approach is that penalizing for lateness or giving zeros unfairly distorts student grades since students should be assessed only on the specific learning outcomes identified in the curriculum. Once again, this argument sounds plausible in theory. It breaks down when implemented at the classroom level. Students don’t always fit into the neat little theories propounded by the education gurus. When they find out that there is no academic penalty for lateness or that their teacher cannot give them a zero, many take advantage of the system.
The practical results of assessment policies that restrict the ability of teachers to penalize tardiness or give zeros for incomplete work are clear to see. Schools that implement these policies find that more students hand in their work late, teacher workload and frustration increases, and opposition from parents and other concerned citizens mounts. If there is such an overwhelming body of research for the effectiveness of these practices, perhaps supporters of these policies could point us to some real-life schools where they have actually been successfully implemented.
Although Manitoba’s education minister has not given a firm commitment to change course from its current assessment directive, the fact that this is being reconsidered is a positive step. Let’s hope this reversal is the first step in the return of common sense to our public schools.