The Late Work Game: teachers, do you want missing work, late work — or no work at all?

Welcome back to the late work game!

First semester is up and teachers and students across the country are recovering from that last minute freak out: get that missing work in!

Stressed kids near collapse trying to dig something out, anything to get the grades up. Desperate teachers giving up all pretense of syllabus rules and pushing, pulling, and excusing the kids across the finish line. Vice Principals peering over their shoulders, demanding mounds of paper work to justify failing this and that kid. Now into the new semester and it’s starting all over again.

Zero Tolerance (& no summer school)

There’s a simple solution: no late work. Period. But that means failing kids — and, unbelievable as it is, even with dumbed down expectations, kids still fail. Heh, why do it now when you can just show up for a few classes in the summer which has no homework, no real expectations of learning, and passing is guaranteed by showing up?

Solution: no late work, no grade adjustments, no excuses, and no summer school. Just do your work or repeat the year. Accountability would be complete for adminstrators, parents, and students alike.

And we’d have hell to pay for about five years while pushing 25 year olds through to graduation or herding 9th grade dropouts into tech school or to figure out life on their own. Sorry, that’s not happening, but if it did, it would raise accountability on teachers to fulfill their pieces more thoroughly and on time (more on that below).

It was that way when I grew up and there were regularly kids in class who were repeating the year. Sure there was a stigma, but at least some standards were being upheld. Somewhere down the line, summer school replaced repeating grades, which then replaced learning for kids who would have otherwise had to repeat. Here for a couple articles on it:

Even summer school isn’t enough, so now we have a latest escape for learning called “credit recovery,” in which students are given an extra class during the school year to make up a failed course.

My experience with that came when I was about to fail some 20% of my students in a semester course. The school demanded “a solution,” which was what I called, “period 9,” essentially a credit recovery after-school session. Most of the kids who showed up passed, but only because I was both their regular and “credit recovery” teacher, so the afternoon sessions reinforced the daily classroom lessons and gave opportunity for the kids to get work in they wouldn’t otherwise have completed.  My salary, though, stayed the same.

Stuck in the Middle Again

So we fudge it. We call summer school “enrichment.” We reduce expectations on independent work and call it “safety nets.”  We “invert” or  “flip” the classroom (see wiki article that offers no critical view of the practice) , in which independent work is performed in the classroom while instruction is to take place at home by Xbox,  I guess.

It all adds up to less responsibility by students and more dumbing down of expectations. Don’t believe me? We had a student in the A+ Club whose school provided 1.5 hr “pre-exam” periods every day before finals. Yes, it can get that bad.

Here’s an inventory of some current solutions employed by teachers and schools to get kids through, aka, why it’s such a mess:

  • “Credit Recovery” and summer school
    • This solution has the comparative benefit of at least failing kids during the school year.
    • But here’s the problem: summer school and credit recovery, like most in-school interventions, merely contain learning activities to the classroom, and thereby develop no academic ownership or real achievement.
  • Just don’t fail students
    • This is the most popular solution for teachers and school systems.  No Fs, not failure problems. So easy!
    • The most effective way to do this is either exempt missing work or score it as a high-F instead of a zero.
    • In many school systems nationwide all Fs are equal: whether it’s a zero or just under a D, it counts as 65% or whatever the D cut-off percentage
  • Reduce or nullify homework grades
    • Many public school systems require that teachers either do not count homework against the grade or cap it at 10% or some other arbitrary weight of the total grade.
    • Combine that policy with an F being 65%, all a student needs to pass to pass is 5 or 10 percent on the rest of the assessments, which are all performed in clas
  • No Homework
    • This is usually done at the teacher level. Why bother, they won’t do it, anyway… oh, that makes for a lot less to grade.
    • But somehow those same kids you’re accommodating with no independent work don’t do the classwork, either
  • Just pass ’em
    • Teachers do this all the time. And schools promote it by demanding justifications, paperwork, and bureaucratic mazes in order to file an F.
    • But then there’s the worst solution altogether, which does happen, as I’ve seen it myself and I hear it all too frequently: simply change the grades at the administrative level regardless of what the teacher reported. Yes I said it: that does happen.

Stuck: so what is a teacher to do?

It’s up to Individual teachers to resolve. Some give “missing work passes” to excuse a certain number of zeroes. Others will build “participation” or other fungible grades to build overall points in order to match a certain grade. Then there’s the old “extra credit,” especially in order to entice kids to do something else, like prepare a study guide for an exam.

These are hardly unreasonable solutions. Whereas some teachers will maintain a hard line that the “gradebook does it’s own math,” that’s not always fair to students. Point assignment to different assessments is no more arbitrary than extra credit or participation grades.

I ran a number of my own interventions, most of which were palliative and not preventative. In addition to the “9th period” I had to run one year, I tried a policy of partial credit for anything no matter how late, I tried negotiated exemptions, and I tried make-up points for incomplete work (just give me something!). I even tried running two grades for every assignment, one for timeliness, and another for content.

This actually worked pretty well, but it did not resolve the fact that classroom learning was best performed with coincidental independent work. In other words, read the chapter so we can discuss it meaningfully in class tomorrow.

As my own dear World History teacher, Mr. Walsh, from back in the late ’70s at Walter Johnson High School told us whenever we showed up unprepared: “I CAN’T TEACH YOU IF YOU DON’T ALREADY KNOW IT!”  He was right: effective teaching requires student prior knowledge, much of which is best obtained through independent learning. (But that’s another blog post.)

Whatever the disconnect, it’s up to the teacher to make it work, because the school or your syllabus isn’t going to fix it for you.

Why kids don’t do their work: not relevant and not aware

Kids don’t do their work because it’s either irrelevant, they don’t understand it, or they don’t even know they’re supposed to do it. Sure, kids are expert at the convenient, self-imposed barrier and accompanying excuse (the teacher, too much going on, computer broken, etc.). But when kids are armed with both relevancy and awareness, those barriers drop away.

Relevancy: I did nothing in my classes that I did not tell the students why. They don’t have to like it, but they were always clear on why we were doing something, be it in class or out, be it a policy or routine — they always understood.

Awareness: combined with a sense of relevancy and it’s next step, purpose, if students are clear on what they need to be doing, they will choose to do it.

My own discovering journey here led to the formation of the A+ Club itself. I long had tried a thousand ways to engage students in independent work outside of my classroom, from running a class website and discussion board, to evening calls to students and parents for reminder and encouragement (my policy was: my phone is always on; if I don’t answer, I’m either eating dinner or sleeping; just call).

But what really clarified it for me was a lesson I discovered while on locker room duty at my school. I would watch kids staring at their lockers in the morning trying to figure out what they needed for their next few classes. It clarified for me the extent to which students compartmentalize their days.

Underperforming students are simply not thinking about your class until they walk in the room. Then they forget all about it at the exit bell. The A+ Club came of an after-school intervention I developed whereby underperforming students were required to see me every day in order to articulate two simple things:

  1. What was due today
  2. What’s due tomorrow.

Because this was happening after school, it broke through their compartmentalization, and the new awareness itself led to higher assignment completion. It worked so well, the kids themselves came to call our brief afternoon sessions, “The A+ Club.”

It’s the essential baseline of what we do with students at the A+ Club today: raise academic awareness through outside of school articulation of academic responsibilities. Only then can we develop problem solving strategies and positive goal setting.

Building Relevancy & Awareness – and Learning

1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them your expectations are going to be.
2. Tell them your expectations.
3. Tell them what you just told them your expectations are.

Then, as you repeat this process constantly, tell them along the way how they are doing in meeting your expectations.

Marketers understand what a good teacher knows innately: to get a message through, saying it once ain’t enough.  (Ahem, teachers, this is why “writing it on the board” doesn’t suffice.)

So, to repeat 🙂 :

  • Clarify Expectations
    • Repeat it
    • Tell them again
    • Tell parents
    • Tell them again
  • Build Relevancy
    • A core reason to do homework is for a grade.
      • It can’t hurt to remind students of this.
      • Grades are a baseline motivation for some but hardly all students, so it’s more effective to find a more intrinsic motivation than grades (your grades-motivated students will do the work anyway).
    • Fit every assignment into larger class expectations
      • In other works, make it “relevant”
      • Teachers must not give assignments that won’t be discussed the next day… it kills the relevancy of the assigned work and loses the opportunity to make it relevant
    • Every assignment, every assessment must align with your expectations — and be explicitly stated over and over again
      • Tell them that you’re going to tell why it’s relevant
      • Tell they why it’s relevant
      • Tell them what you just told them about why it’s relevant
  • Feedback
    • All the relevancy and awareness in the world will go to waste if you aren’t providing timely and directed feedback.
    • Feedback reinforces everything you are doing in the classroom.
    • Without it, you’ve lost the kids.
      • Assignments returned two weeks later go to waste.
      • Grades posted twice a quarter are just excusing themselves.

if I were back in the classroom, the one major thing I would do differently would be to commit to 100% graded work returned to students the next day.

It’s that important. Drop objections that you can’t hand it back while other students still haven’t done it. You’ll know if they’re cheating. The gains in directed, timely feedback will far outweigh any other possible issue. When you withhold grading, you are coddling the underperformers and teaching only to the motivated  students.


As my partner, Okera, a brilliant educator, says, “Why fight the late work battle?” You don’t have to. You don’t have to dumb down expectations. You don’t have to setup elaborate rewards and punishments over timeliness.

Stick to fundamental relevancy and awareness, and the learning will become a goal unto itself for the kids. And if you are providing strong and timely feedback, it will free you to teach for actual learning, for you will be clarifying and supporting today’s expectations before you have moved on to the next.

May you be free of the “late work game.”

– Michael