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Fair and Unbalanced

A couple years ago, I gave a major assignment to all my music students. It was a culminating project--designed to incorporate bits and pieces of what we'd been learning all semester. On the due date, I had projects from about 93% of my students--all but 20-odd kids. Running down the list of these delinquents, they were pretty much the kids you'd expect to be tardy or negligent with assignments. Knowing that it would take at least two weeks to grade the projects and give written feedback, I publicly offered students who hadn't turned in their project amnesty. I said I would accept carefully done projects during the next week, with no reduction in credit.

All but two of the students turned projects in. The majority were somewhere between good and excellent in quality. I got two thank-you calls from parents, grateful for a second chance. I was careful to tell all the students that this was a one-time offer, that teachers had deadlines and homework policies for good reasons. I wasn't trying to sell out colleagues; I was simply interested in what would happen if I encouraged everyone to finish, without penalty.

My job is teaching students as much as I can about music. By making it worth their while to turn a project in, many kids chose to do just that--and deepened their music learning. For most of those kids, it was also the difference between a good final grade and a poor one. Students who fail to turn in a major assignment are often so deep in the hole, grade-wise, that they effectively stop producing in class.

I shared the story in an on-line teacher community. The reaction was surprisingly swift and virulent. Teachers thought the real lesson I was teaching was that kids could get away with not following the rules. Students need to have consequences for their actions, teachers said.

Some shared their own complex policies--30% credit here, 50% credit there, with/without doctors' excuses--as if I were a novice teacher who had been co-opted by crafty 12-year olds. What startled me most, however, was this repeated message: giving late assignments full credit is not fair to the kids who turned their work in on time.

Of all institutions on the planet--government, businesses, clubs and churches--schools are perhaps the "fairest" of them all. It is in school that we first learn to take turns, stand in line and share equally. We want that level playing field for all kids. Real life, of course, isn't fair at all.

Some kids are born with material things, others to parents who have love but not money. Some kids are talented athletes; others are always chosen last. Some go to Ivy League colleges on their parents' dime. Others make their own way, through hard work and persistence. Some start out so far behind the 8-ball that it's a miracle they survive, let alone succeed.

All our efforts to make school perfectly fair and neutral are doomed to fail. I don't buy the argument that we're preparing kids for "real life" when we dole out punishments and rewards. My experience with real life tells me that things are pretty random out there--some people get second, third and seventeenth chances to get things right and others are gone with the first mistake.

The more teachers know about their students, the better they can tailor instruction and support for students' unique needs, the further they can push them to reach their potential. Paying attention to individual kids is a better strategy than making an inflexible rule. Better, but vastly more difficult.

Offering some kids a second chance was not harmful to the students who had successfully completed the assignment on time. Granting an extension might increase the overall number of good grades, but would not decrease the achievement or recognition of those who turned their work in by the due date.

The negative reaction came from an artificial concept of success-- for some kids to shine, others must fail--and from a deep-rooted sense that school is always a competition, that letting some kids take an academic mulligan was cheating. There was also censure: admonishment for breaking ranks and re-thinking traditional teacher policies.

I thought of this when reading the recent story about Harvard dropping exams--a non-event that educational traditionalists seem to find appalling. Is the brouhaha about accurately measuring learning? Or is it about who's on top?

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