Stop Giving Me These Kids

As the school year opened, our principal asked us to consider a hypothetical kid who bungled her way through a composition class only to ace the final exam – an essay final which assessed every skill from the year. He asked us to indicate what grade we’d give her with a show of hands.

Mine was the only hand for “A,” which, whatever, I suppose I should admit my biases more often. One teacher indicated an “F” and the rest spread themselves out pretty uniformly across the other passing grades. My philosophy is that it doesn’t matter how hard you try, it matters what you can doIt is also my duty to establish a class where how hard you try correlates directly to what you can do. and it doesn’t matter when in the semester you prove what you can do.

I can accept conflicting opinions on this to an extent, especially when the consequences only involve my principal’s hypothetical unicorn-student, but I get really, really bothered when you assign real, flesh-and-blood students to my remedial algebra class who, by all anecdotal accounts, know algebra backward, forward, left, and right, who scored proficient or higher on their state assessments, but who didn’t feel like completing your tear-out cookie-cutter homework assignments.

For which you failed them and assigned them to my remedial class, where they are now bored, unchallenged, and where – believe me – they really resent you.

What is your homework worth?

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I totally agree with you but it’s all a matter of control–“everyone must do it my way”. I tell teachers all the time “it’s not your job to teach the curriculum; it’s your job to make sure the kid knows the curriculum”. It mostly falls on deaf ears.

  2. amen.

    for homework tonight I sent my grade 10 math students to tim horton’s because we need 291 x-large tim horton cups – that was the most some of my kids projected were needed to measure up to me. (Canadian version of the styrofoam cup challenge) They don’t trust math yet, so they need to see if for themselves.
    Do they really need to practice how to solve for x or do they need to solve for the unkowns in real life. I vote for the latter.

  3. So what are you doing? Can you give them the comprehensive set of Algebra assessments, have them be done in October, and then let them start on Geometry in the corner, finishing it in summer school next year?

  4. As someone who did math up until about the third quarter of calc almost reflexively, I love you.

    Nothing makes an easy class more miserable than not being able to fly through the work. I second H’s idea. Maybe not cut and dry Geometry, but definitely something extra. I’ve had teachers give me logic problems to mull over, so even if I wasn’t doing the homework, they knew I was passively putting a few cycles into math every night because I’d come back the next day and had made progress on the problem. I enjoyed that more than anything else.

  5. Just as information. In the Swedish school system it is very clear that what matter for you grade is the skills and understanding you can show at the end of the course. Doing all the assignments, perfect attendants, etc will not give you a passing grade unless you have learned what you are supposed to. You can get the highest grade if you haven’t done anything all year as long as you manage to show that you know the material at the end of the course.

    To tell you the truth, the US system with percentage on every thing is very strange in my eyes. I was exchange student in Louisiana along time ago and we got points on how well we took notes, what is the point of taking notes if it doesn’t help you learn? Why should I take notes if I already know what is being taught that day?

  6. I agree that the student should be praised for demonstrating and applying the skills that were taught throughout the year. Although I might be a little skeptical as to how authentic her paper really was. I would have to talk to this student and do a little oral examination to futher evaluate. However, I don’t believe homework should be weighed so heavily.

  7. Ditto on the earlier amen!

    While I do believe that the process of learning is important, I don;t believe that the process should be graded. Assessed, yes. Measured, yes. Feedback given, yes.

    But a grade given? No. Provide opportunities for making mistakes along the way and learning from those mistakes. THEN provide an opportunity for the student to prove that learning.

    Curious how your principal responded to both your opinion and to that of the teacher who gave the “F.”


  8. What’s even worse is now that student will probably hate math. If the student isn’t challenged and inspired to learn then what good is school. Thanks for speaking up for all the students like that hypothedical one who need somebody to be an advocate for them.

  9. Does anyone’s district mandate the value of the exams? I’ve worked in a place that did, and I’m not sure about in my current location.

    Many teachers will cite that lack of work ethic is deserving of failing the class, but personally I think these teachers are just miffed the students learned the material without needing the teacher. The irony: The same teachers decrying the lack of independent thinking among the “good” students.

  10. In your scenario, unicorn kid needs a teacher who is willing to throw out the playbook and do better by her.

    But in the larger question of how we decide who gets what grade, is there an assumption in your reasoning that students will voluntarily participate in activities that aren’t reinforcing?

    In a perfect world, I would put together a series of academic experiences, whereby a sincere child endeavoring to master mathematical content would succeed by cheerfully and voluntarily participating. The child would then submit to a fair assessment of her understanding of these concepts, and be rewarded with a grade that reflects her learning.

    In my world, I am compelled to attach point values to these experiences that are not intended to be assessments, to compell an effort. As a result, her assessment grade is skewed by all these other grades that I had to give to get her to learn and practice some new material. If I have done my job, I have designed these learning experiences such that completing them will result in good test grades, and there won’t be a conflict.

    Maybe I’m just a hopeless cluebag, but I don’t have a way to motivate kids to work at something that doesn’t “count”. Even my most fun, rewarding, awesome activities don’t escape the dreaded “Is this going to count?!” I learned early on that a “No” to that question guarantees a roomful of out-to-lunch, disengaged teenagers for the next hour.

    I also get several kids a year that don’t do well on written tests even when they understand concepts. Whether due to a learning disability, anxiety, or something else, it seems more fair and reasonable to give them other opportunities to earn points and get a decent grade than basing it solely on written tests.

    I could theoretically let a summative assessment grade override earlier grades, but I am certain that the kids would catch on, and that would be the end of them making any effort until the test rolled along. Their faith in their own abilities to be successful without doing any work is mind-boggling.

    I hope that it’s not all me, but an antiquated schooling structure of 1 teacher vs 100+ kids, where we, by necessity of time and attention constraints, subsitute authentic assessment and relationships with the shortcut of grades.

    If I’m missing some insider secret to motivate 15 year olds to do some algebra without holding their grade over their head like a horrible mean ogre that I would rather not be, please, enlighten me, I’d love to hear it. Nobody ever taught me how.

  11. @H: Pardon my overstatement. These students know way too much algebra to spend the next two years learning it from scratch. They should be in standard one-year Algebra.

    @Glenn: He didn’t respond. It wasn’t the right moment to assert a philosophy. His point was that we are flung all across the page with this one.

    @Ben: I think your second paragraph isn’t far from the truth. I have heard of districts on the East Coast that summarily exclude homework from grading. Like, zero percent. If your game is to pile on homework and then pile on the motivation by piling on the grade, you’re totally hosed under those constraints.

    @Kate, I sympathize. Engaging material helps but more importantly is the culture you establish that you are here to work, and work very hard, for the entire period, plus a few more minutes back at home. For the first few weeks when a student slacks I’ll act all dumbfounded and ask, “Oh. So you don’t want credit for that, then?” but they get with the culture pretty fast.

  12. Wait, a composition class?

    If there’s four big essays in a semester and skips all of them but the final essay, should they really get an A?

    This is a different situation from mathematics, where all the knowledge can be neatly encapsulated by a single test.

  13. The scenario assumes that the final essay assessed the unicorn’s student’s competence perfectly and across all standards.

    And I realize you can’t outfit a DeLorean to travel back in time, but you still have to assume the premise.

  14. Tangent to the conversation going on, sorry I didn’t to the comments sooner.

    While I don’t have the kids who know the material and just shouldn’t be here, I’m still struggling to avoid fallout from the homework monster.

    Teachers are being told we have to assign homework this year. Most haven’t in the past, so students are not in the habit of doing anything. We’ve also got a new program (sicker cousin to your tardy policy) where students who don’t do their homework have 2 hours of detention that day.

    I do not want to become that teacher. Assigning detention first thing in the class period kills the mood for class. They don’t want to do anything. And then struggle more next time. (But we’re unorganized enough that they haven’t had to go to detention yet, so I haven’t been able to pull them out for special tutoring.)

    No solutions here. I want the work to be meaningful. I don’t want to incorporate homework into the grade. But mostly, I don’t want to punish everyone over and over again.

  15. Sarah, could you do the homework collection at the end of class somehow then? (Still not exactly solving your problems, I know.)

    (I give 15% credit for homework, as per our department policy. I’m ok with it. It is high enough to get the want-points effect but not so large as to be overwhelming the grade.)

  16. -Dan- Another AMEN! We have one teacher who insists on placing students based on their grades in her classes. Biggest problem: She takes off points if their heading starts too far away from the right-hand edge of the paper, if they clearly combine steps, if they don’t arrange their paper in two columns, etc. Don’t get me wrong, work habits are important, but we should be giving a separate grade for work habits. An academic grade should only measure the student’s academic performance. (I’m still a fence sitter regarding the scenario you gave. I’m not sure the entire grade should be based on one assessment, but I am in favor of basing a grade solely upon assessments.)

    -Ben- I work in a district that mandates grade category weights. In 6-8 Math and Lang. Arts, we are 10% HW, 40% CW and 50% Tests/Quizzes. At first, many of the teachers balked, believing that students would NEVER do homework if they knew it was only worth 10% of the grade. (6 years later, I still have kids that point out on the first day of school that it is possible to earn an A without EVER completing homework. I use that to discuss the difference between possible and probable.) Really, it depends on the teacher. I have no problem getting students to complete HW because I put at least one problem from HW on each test and quiz. Students know that it is in their best interest to complete the assignments and pay attention while we correct the work. They ask good questions and actually study from their work and notes. (And yes…these are sixth graders.) By the end of first quarter, I have 95-98% turn-in rates and students are surprised by how well they’re doing on tests.

  17. Jason, it really is a kill the mood policy. We have to sign every student’s yellow card at the beginning of class. They get a “Yes” if a) they’re on time and b) have their homework. Miss one of those and you get a “No.”

    A single “No” through the 7 periods of the day means detention. And if I assign 10 “No”s during the day, I have to stay after too.

    I’m hoping that if I have homework assigned two class periods before it’s due, it might help. The dreaded finish the steps you’ve been working on in class sure hasn’t been perfect. (For one, I want them to actually do the work in class…)

  18. Sarah,
    Is there any joy in your school? Do kids like going there?
    How punitive.
    Somebody needs to read The Homework Myth by Kohn.

    (and adopt Gary Stager’s approach to grading – it’s either an A or an incomplete).

  19. KarenJan, there are moments, sometimes days. Here joy is found on an individual level and killed at a group level. The trick is to find as many ways to create it as possible.

    Thanks for highlighting Gary’s strategy. I’ll see how I can bring it in. (Though an incomplete would probably still mean a “No.” Way to boost morale.)