Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Second Chances and Extra Credit

In both of my kids' schools, teachers make an effort to allow extra credit and retakes so kids can build back up from a disappointing grade. This sounds like a good idea in theory, but in practice, it doesn't work out, at least for my kids.

Last year, Older Daughter had a science teacher at Friends Omphalos who was proud of all the opportunities he gives his students to amass extra credit.  For Older Daughter, it just looked like more work when she was already overwhelmed by the workload.  She isn't that motivated by grades and credit in any case.  She never did any extra credit work, much to the teacher's surprise.

Younger Daughter had a geography test at the beginning of this year (3d grade) that she flunked.  Looking at it, I was actually surprised that she had the patience to complete the test -- it was quite long.  You could see that at a certain point she just gave up and started writing anything at all so she could say it was done.  Surely she doesn't actually believe that the direction between North and West is called "eastSouth"?

The teacher tried to give YD a chance to re-take the test, on the grounds that it would boost her confidence to do better, but YD refused.  She also refused to study geography more at home.  She'd rather just forget it ever happened.


  1. There has never been extra credit options in my daughter's education but she did have "challenge" questions on her work sheets. She's the kind of kid that doesn't bother with those; that's just more work. Our children are similar, FedUpMom.

    The elementary grades at our school do not test (much) or give grades but they do start this horrible practice in the middle school classes. The teachers say, "the kids like it" and say they must do it to prepare the kids for high school. They do balance the grades with lots of commentary and discussion about progress but in the end, what does the kid cling to? The grade. So all the nice work the school did in elementary to downplay competition, to shy away from reward systems...it all goes out the window. The message is..."The real world is about pleasing someone to get approval and to learn to think just like the teacher."
    How limiting?

  2. They must do it to prepare for high school! If you open your window, you'll hear me screaming, all the way from Canada. Of all the lame excuses ...

    Older Daughter had a lousy 5th grade year "to prepare her for middle school", and a lousy 8th grade year, "to prepare her for high school." So far, 9th grade has been easier, and with less pressure.

  3. I rarely did those extra credit projects. They were usually even more work than a regular project, for a trivial amount of extra credit, in subjects where I struggled and already felt frustrated with the workload. For example, in high school chemistry we could stay for two hours after school for extra help and get a 2/2 added into our average. Homework assignments were worth 20 points, so you'd have to stay after school for a total of 20 hours to earn what amounted to an extra perfect score on homework. I couldn't understand the way the teacher explained things in class, so I didn't see how this would help me. But when my mom called her to discuss my mediocre grade, she always pointed to the fact that I wasn't staying after for help and therefore wasn't really working towards improving my grade. Never mind that I regularly put an hour a night into the homework for this one class.

    On the other hand, my best friend was a straight A student and everything came easy to her. She almost always did extra credit projects because she took pride in having a 105 average instead of a 100.

  4. I was the same as your friend Megan when I went to school (in the cave, with my slate board).

    No teacher ever explained to me that 105 didn't really mean that I was smarter....that all I was learning was really bad compulsive behaviour. I was just annoying to all those kids who would never get 80's let alone 100's. The pride is empty. And instead of learning how to socialize...I stayed home and studied. Dull dull dull.

    Oh and FedupMom, I heard ya yelling. What my posts lack are the rising crescendos of my frustrated voice as I write. The last words can usually be imagined as high pitched screaming, accompanied by a side order of incredulity. Or depression, as the case may be.

  5. It's the same story when you have an IEP for learning disabilities. The accommodation for my son's slow processing was to have extra time for tests. It really was necessary for him even to pass them, but he nearly had a breakdown when I told him we were asking for that. The last thing he wanted was to have to spend MORE time taking tests than the other kids did.

  6. All I can say is your kids are dang smart. We never liked all that extra credit either. It just felt like more pressure and more work. Like there wasn't enough already.

  7. Friends whose kids get extra days to turn in assignments ultimately wind up just feeling more burdened. What these kids need is not more time to procrastinate but simply less (none?) work after a long day at school.

  8. In my daughter's junior high, between all the opportunities for extra credit, and all the points awarded just for compliance (turning in homework on time, getting parents' signature on everything, etc.), it's hard to see how the final grades are at all reflection of the kids' abilities in the subject matter. Why have grades at all, if they just measure effort and compliance?

  9. That's the thing, Chris. It stops being evaluative in any meaningful way. And it keeps the constant focus on the grade and not on the material.

  10. Hmm, my experience has been different. Usually the extra credit assignments that I see haven't been much work (about what you deem reasonable for 1-2 points) and are truly optional--if you don't need the points, don't bother.

    I love the teachers that give second chances on tests. To me, they have the right attitude - more concerned about the student actually learning the material than teaching a lesson that, tough, you blew your one chance.

  11. @Matthew, yes, the opportunity to re-take a test might put the focus back on learning, which would be a good thing. Somehow it isn't working that way for us.

    @Chris, sometimes I think that compliance is the only subject our schools actually teach.

    @Rosemary, you can't win. On the one hand, more time on tests makes it possible for some kids to get through. On the other hand, all of our kids are spending too much time taking tests already.

    Actually, that was my feeling about the geography test. It was just too long for 3d grade. It was too long for my language-delayed Younger Daughter, and it would have been too long for my highly-verbal Older Daughter too. But I have a sinking feeling that one of the goals was "to get the kids used to taking long tests."

    @HWB, absolutely right about the focus. School is all about maximizing points, instead of learning.

  12. Off topic, sort of but the CBC here in Canada is doing a piece on homework this morning...Harris Cooper was even a part of it. Go to cbc.ca and radio, and lok for a show called The Current....the impetus for the show was the French declaration banning homework last week.

    But every point made in the few minutes I could listen was well worn, same old stuff. Harris Cooper is big time in favour of homework and the 10 minute rule which he took no credit for...I didn't think he was so pro, but he is.

  13. So Harris Cooper's big claim to fame is homework is unnecessary in elementary but do it anyway? Okay, we've heard that one ad nauseum. And the ten minute rule is just too Messy Middle. How do you gauge ten minutes? Do the teachers sit down and do the projects first to ascertain how long it's going to take? I want the discussion to shift to what's going on in the classroom and not in the living room.

    I admire the work Challenge Success has been doing, Denise Pope heavily featured in Race to Nowhere. They've come out with a white paper on homework. As much as I respect their work, and I've only glanced at the paper so far, I read their updates on Facebook, it appears much of the reform still centers around parents finding ways to talk to educators about homework. Again, the focus is on what the PARENT is doing, not the teacher. I cringe when I recall the amount of time my husband and I spent talking to the schools about homework. Don't you see what's wrong with this picture?

    My daughter is a classic in depth learner. She always needed harder not more and consistently got the opposite. Once she was deeply engrossed in a challenging creative assignment and I couldn't get her to stop and come to an event with me. Now I can live with that! If she's in flow, enjoys it, I see the wheels in her brain humming, that's music to my ears. It called to mind words I'd read by the founder of Education Week. He decried the current state of homework. He said it would be better if our children got one assignment they could sink their teeth into than a little bit of a lot.

    I am sure some parents would howl over that. What about the child who isn't interested in that particular assignment or can't or won't sink her teeth into it? What about just leaving the kids alone so they could use their afternoons however they wish, delving into whatever captures their fancy. If left to her own devices, my daughter would have spent her afternoon learning anyway, most kids have an insatiable curiosity, if we only trust them enough to leave them alone. But the WORST kind of homework for my child was always the "a little bit of a lot" model. It just stressed her out and never gave her time to penetrate a subject to her satisfaction. What really was the point? What did she really learn from that mountain of work?

  14. This isn't directly related to the post, but my son came home with a flier for the Scholastic book fair. It says

    Parents: Did you know? A home library can
    Improve a child's vocabulary and overall reading
    Help children do better in math, science, and social
    Increase a student's ability to perform better on
    standardized tests
    Increase the likelihood a child will go to college

    Not ONE WORD about reading for pleasure or information, although given the quality of the offerings from Scholastic, they may be right not to mention that.

  15. PsychMom, to continue on the Harris Cooper theme; the problem with dear Cooper is that those of us in the Stop Homework camp kept citing him, he was an ally. But he muddies the waters. And folks like Alfie Kohn and Sara Bennett, I believe, are distancing themselves now from his research because he appears contradictory and allows detractors to seize on what might appear to be a pro-homework message.

    If Cooper keeps banging the 10 minutes per grade law, we're right back where we started from. Because no teacher my daughter ever had gave two wits about the ten minutes. We're talking 45 minutes in first grade. Wouldn't it be easier to simply declare a no homework policy in favor of reading, writing, playing, whatever the child wants? Without having to show proof of any of it? Or voluntary homework, decided by the family? So you only give it to those who clamor for it?

  16. Cynthia, I also don't like the patronizing tone of that flier. It posits that as a parent I am such an idiot, it would never occur to me to create a home library, that I have no clue of the benefits of reading. And I wholeheartedly agree with you. To grow a passionate reader, you have to instill excitement and love. That's what we did. Worked for us.

  17. Yeah, weak correlations and negative correlations generally mean one would say, the jury is out, and H. Cooper did the meta analysis. Why he talks about homework now like it has a strong positive correlation with achievement and test scores baffles me...

    I had hoped the French story would help the issue get around to respect for children and families, but the news people seems to gravitate back to "THE HOMEWORK DEBATE". No wonder it never gets anywhere.

  18. I'm sorry I don't know how to provide direct links but the video below is one of Seth Godin's more recent. He wrote an e-book on the same lines as this talk and you can download it for free from his Squidoo page....I think you will like it.


  19. The more I think about extra credit and excess homework, the more I'm reminded of the book "Strengths Finder 2.0" and its corresponding test that we had to take at work. I don't agree with everything about the book or my test results, but the basic idea is that we should invest time into developing our strengths and interests, rather than weaknesses, because your strengths are where you're most likely to find career success and feel happy and fulfilled.

    I think all kids need to achieve at least basic knowledge in certain subjects or areas, but I think about all the kids in middle and high school who are struggling with material they will never use after graduation. Or the high-achieving student who is struggling with a massive homework load in a bunch of AP classes just to up her chances of getting into college or getting a scholarship. If we encouraged a student struggling with AP calculus to instead spend more time writing fiction, one of the student's hobbies, wouldn't that not only make the student happier but also help her develop a skill she might turn into a career? If she hates and has no natural ability for calculus, the odds of her eventually choosing a major or career that requires it are probably pretty slim; the odds that she will need writing skills are much higher. So why would so many teachers and parents encourage her to put a lot of time into calculus at the expense of writing, just for a good grade?

    Unfortunately the answer, at least here in Virginia, is likely to be, "Because otherwise she won't get into a state school, and we can't afford private/out of state" OR "that private/out of state college with the great creative writing program doesn't have a great reputation."

    Going back to the extra credit I didn't do for high school chemistry, one reason I didn't want to go to chemistry tutoring is because I already spent most afternoons after school working on the school's literary arts magazine. I majored in communications and do a lot of writing and editing in my current job. I think the literary arts magazine was a better use of my time.