Saturday, September 03, 2016

Inexcusable

I was reminded of something this week that's been bothering me for a while. My school takes attendance, of course, and then parents are required to excuse their student's absences. If a student misses class and isn't excused by their parent, their absence is marked as "unexcused." I imagine that's the way most schools do it, and I don't have a problem with that. We have a legal requirement to keep track of attendance and, more importantly, if a student starts to have unexcused absences it's often a signal that they need extra support (although excessive excused absences are also often a sign of that as well).

My concern, however, is how that translates to the teacher's grade book in some classrooms. Many teachers have classroom policies that allow for a certain number of days to make up work missed for an excused absence, and students are not allowed to make up work for an unexcused absence. That's never really made sense to me. From my perspective, an absence is an absence in terms of the learning that the student is missing. It doesn't matter whether it's excused or not, if the student isn't there, they are missing out. When a student is absent, I want them to do whatever they can to "make up" for that missed learning and, if that learning is being graded in some fashion, that should be represented in the grade book.

I've typically heard two main arguments for treating unexcused absences differently. The first is the "responsibility" argument (with it's silent cousin "punishment" tagging along). As I mentioned, I don't have a problem at all with the school noting that the absence is unexcused and perhaps checking in with the student to see if we can help. Similarly, I don't have a problem with the teacher noting that as well and having a conversation with the student. But that shouldn't impact their grade in the class. The transcript says "Algebra" (or whatever), not "responsible", or "good kid", or "complies with adult rules."

The second argument stems from the fact that, at the high school level at least, unexcused absences tend to be more prevalent on test days. Many teachers deduce that students are missing class either because they aren't prepared for the test, or because they think they might gain an advantage by taking the test later than the rest of the class. I don't doubt that that is often the case (although we shouldn't assume that), but again I don't see the justification for transferring that into the grade book. I think if anything it points out our skewed priorities when it comes to assessment. Implicit in this argument is that tests are somehow more important than learning, and that translates both into student behavior (skip the class because the stakes are higher) and teacher behavior (bring the hammer down, both to "teach the student a lesson" and to assert our authority).

I believe that as teachers we are capable of designing assessments that assess what the student currently knows, and that those assessments are equally valid if given on a different day. The student still has the responsibility to arrange that assessment time and then show up to take it. There may be some small inconvenience to the teacher because of this, but I worry about teachers who consider this inconvenience more important than assessing the student's learning and ultimately helping the student to learn. (And specifically at my school, we have a variable schedule that means that most students can find a way to come in and re-assess during a teacher's unscheduled hours, so it's not even a case of having to stay longer after school than normal - although I don't see that as a huge burden either if it's arranged in advance.)

I think this is another instance when many of us are equating compliance with learning, and assessment with accountability. They are not, and should not be, the same thing. That's not to say we ignore a student's behavior when we are concerned about how it might be impacting them, but it is to say that we don't hold their learning hostage to it. So if your policies currently penalize students for absences, and particularly penalize them extra for unexcused absences, I would ask you to reconsider those policies. I'd ask you to consider your ultimate goals for students and whether those policies actually help you achieve those goals, or whether they might actually undermine them. It's possible your policies are actually inexcusable.

7 comments:

  1. Shouldn't teaching be more about making sure students learn than what grades they get? For me that is my goal. Grades are just one of the things the system requires of me that (more often then than not) gets in the way of learning.

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    1. Yep. Too often I fear the assessment cart is driving the learning horse.

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  2. Today was my daughter's first day of 7th grade. In most (if not all) of her classes she received a handout introducing the class/teacher and explaining the rules and expectations. Each one I saw had a section on late work and how it would be penalized with various point deductions. I'm trying to figure out if there is a "graceful" way to share your post with her team of teachers.

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    1. Not that this probably helps, but a couple of other posts you could share as well . . . http://thefischbowl.blogspot.com/2015/07/my-new-late-work-policy.html and http://thefischbowl.blogspot.com/2016/03/deadlines-are-for-kids.html . Come to think of it, maybe not . . .

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  3. I love your sense of humor. However, in all seriousness, how do you start this discussion with your child's teachers? I am so afraid if I share a blog post like this, teachers will become defensive of their policies and dig their heels in. How do you open the dialog in a non-threatening way. I'll be honest and admit I am a former classroom teacher and I had those same old policies in my day. I like to think that if I went back into the classroom today it would be a much better place thanks to all I have learned from your blog and others (dy/dan, math=love, Pernille Ripp, Laura Randazzo, etc.). Fortunately, I have had time away from the classroom and the luxury of extra time to read these kinds of blogs. Not sure I could have found that extra time and enlightenment back when I was overwhelmed with juggling everything that comes with teaching. I think it is probably even worse now with all the added paperwork that comes from all the added testing and accountability. Any thoughts on how to share info with teachers and not make them feel like they are being judged unfairly?

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    1. Sorry for the delayed response, a bit busy the last couple of days.

      That's a tough question. I think it depends on whether you have an existing relationship with those teachers. If so, then it's easier to start the conversation in a way that doesn't make them defensive. For most folks who don't have that existing relationship, it's really difficult to have the conversation, because teachers tend to feel either attacked or that you (as a parent) don't know what it's like to deal with hundreds of students who don't do things on time (or skip school or . . . fill in the blank).

      Another approach that might work is if the school itself has any opportunities for wider discussions. Some schools have book clubs that parents (and some teachers and admin) participate in, or committees that are looking at bigger picture items. Those both might be opportunities to start a wider conversation that might be helpful in a way that doesn't put individual teachers on the spot.

      Having said all that, I have many of the same issues in my own building, where I do have those relationships. It's a mindset shift for a lot of folks to not equate questioning with flat-out criticism or judgment (and, honestly, there is some criticism and questioning their judgement involved, so they're not totally wrong.)

      I guess I'd just like us (schools, educators) to get to the point that questioning is seen as a good thing, that even though we may not always agree on what the end result should be, we can get better by asking the hard questions and discussing them. I think we too often avoid that because we don't like confrontation (guilty) and because we're afraid that if we start asking questions, we might never stop.

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  4. While I understand what you are saying, it seems you are underplaying the "responsibility" portion of the educational experience. School exists not only to teach algebra and English, but also to develop responsible, capable citizens...and responsible members of their community don't simply skip out on important days, which you are suggesting is just fine to do. There is also the issue that we all operate within organizations that are time bound. To follow your argument to its logical conclusion, if a student does not prepare for the final exam of the year...perhaps the only exam I give because I believe that studying/preparing for exams in my particular discipline is an important piece of being college ready, but I don't really like them...then that student should be allowed to take the exam later. When? The next day, when I'm contractually obligated to be at school? Before my grades are due? But, given the logic you present here, why should they be held to either of those timelines? I agree that teachers should make every effort to be able to judge what students know and understand that, in the big picture, every assessment is formative; at the same time, students who exhibit poor community behavior in the face of teachers who do their best to creative positive learning environments shouldn't just be given a pass.

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