My recent post entitled “Am I Not Being Clear?” sparked more conversation than any other single piece that I posted here in several years.  The idea of grading reform and of motivating students without grades really struck a nerve with some.  When I challenged teachers who struggle to understand why I don’t include homework in my students’ grades to test it out themselves, I wrote,

“Based on my personal experience and anecdotal stories from colleagues,less than 15% of students fall into the third category [of students who only do homework when it affects their grades].”

In response, a regular Scripted Spontaneity reader and commenter (who uses the moniker “Last Teacher Standing”) challenged these numbers.  She conducted the experiment that I suggested and reported back with her results.  She wrote,

“This means that when it ‘counted’, 90% had their homework. When it didn’t ‘count’, 48% completed it.”

My first response was “Wow”.  Not only did she push back in that meaningful way that I so value in PLN, but she also found results that were starkly different from what I and others have seen.

As I imagine most people would feel, my first reaction was to defend myself.  I wanted to reply with a comment about how her results didn’t really change anything.  Or, that it was a fluke that wouldn’t hold up to further observation.  I wanted to prove that she was wrong and I was right.

Thankfully, my better judgment took over, and I look closely at her data.  I started to think about the differences between my classroom and hers.  I reflected on the conclusions and explanations that one could draw from a side-by-side comparison of these two groups of students (hers and mine).  Here’s what I came up with:

  • Students differ considerably in their performance between classes, teachers, schools, states, and countries*.  The results of one group (or even several groups) should never be assumed to represent any significantly larger group.  This is the arrogance of statistical sampling, and I fell prey to it more readily than I should have.
  • The motivation that grades provide for some students to complete their homework is a false one.  Extrinsic motivation is short-lived (according to Dan Pink, it only lasts as long as the reward is there).  If we truly value a strong work ethic and believe that our students need to learn to work hard because it will reap rewards later in life, than we must find other, more authentic ways to reinforce this skill.
  • The disfunction in ubiquitous ABCDF grading systems is profound.  We have so completely obscured the true meaning of a letter grade (at the end of a term) that it is nearly impossible to know from this one measure whether a student has learned the state-mandated curriculum.  It’s not just that teachers include other information in that grade; it’s that parents often expect it to include theses “extras”.  They expect that an A represents how hard their child worked that marking period, how well she behaved, how much homework she completed, how well she studied, how polite she was to the teacher, and–oh, yeah–how much she learned.  It’s a system that feeds back into itself over and over again.  Teachers say that they need to grade homework so that parents will see zeroes and make the children do the work.  Parents say that they make their children do the work because the teacher gave their child a zero.
  • Many teachers, through their classroom procedures and policies, create a culture of high expectations that results in extremely high rates of homework completion.  While you could argue that this positive outcome comes at a cost in terms of conflating work behaviors with content mastery, there is no debating its effectiveness in many cases.

So, what’s the solution?  Clearly, some teachers can’t (and shouldn’t!) just go cold turkey and stop including homework in students’ average.  Reporting systems must first be in place, along with rewards and consequences at the outset, to provide information about homework (and classwork/participation/behavior) habits to parents and students in meaningful and informative ways before removing the grade-based motivation.  We must make this transition, however, if a letter is ever going to be a meaningful measure of student curriculum mastery

That’s the message I took away from Last Teacher Standing’s data.  If the number of students who are only motivated by grades (directly or through their parents) is even higher than I thought than the problem is even more serious.  We must find a different way to get those grade-motivated students (15% or 42%) to do their practice work, because someday in their lives these students won’t be earning a grade for completing their TPS Reports:




*Note: I happen to know that Last Teacher Standing‘s students and my own are very similar, so this point is less relevant to this situation.

4 thoughts on “Grading Homework: More Food for Thought

  1. I also said in my first comment, before even doing the experiment, “I have concerns about not counting the students’ effort that goes into homework as part of the grade that are not related to using the homework grade as a motivator.” …and I meant it. Barbara Coloroso says, and I’m paraphrasing her, that if a child has to take your class, it’s a requirement, than it’s your job to make it so that each child can succeed. Not will, that is his or her choice. It needs to be in his or her hands.
    If I have a low reader, they already have a high-stakes standardized test that indicates so. If I don’t count any of their journey, any of their effort, to me, it’s like deciding to give A’s to the students who are great reading test takers – who have superior standardized test scores from the previous grade.
    I believe students should see failure as a lack of effort, not as a lack of ability. How do I achieve them valuing their own effort if I do not account for it myself?
    I count homework as 10% of their grade, with well over twenty assignments in the 45 day quarter. This means that in reality, one homework assignment will hardly impact his/her grade either way. However, excellence is what one repeatedly does. I am honestly okay with a low reader or second language learner, who will never test well in the nuances of metaphors or allusion in my curriculum, getting a C instead of a D because s/he faithfully did every type of language arts practice I asked all quarter. There’s value in that. Students LEARN from that. And it should be measured and counted.
    The ‘problem’, as you see it, must be indeed worse than you realized. Students’ comments included, “Then, can I burn it?” and the like. Later, when I explained it, “Yeah, he’s just wrong.” I think you have your last analogy backwards. It’s not that they won’t get a grade for the TPS reports later in life. Their reactions’ were like that of the adults if you told them that they were to do the TPS reports…but without a paycheck. You know, just to demonstrate they were learning how.


    1. Isn’t the point that we should be employing other motivators for students to complete their work (like public recognition, prizes, and entertainment) so that marks on their record only represent what they’ve learned?

      The fact that some students only work for grades doesn’t justify the practice. It’s more of a symptom of the problem.


      1. Cindy,

        But can’t homework reflect things they’ve learned? In my class, those two things aren’t opposed to each other. They aren’t in conflict.
        And, isn’t it also problem to teach them to work for public recognition, prizes, and entertainment? Is that the right life message?


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