‘No excuses’ for teachers, but plenty for kids

‘No Excuses’ Is Not Just for Teachers, writes Laura Klein, who teaches at a Bronx middle school, in the New York Times‘ SchoolBook. “By allowing ourselves no excuses, and doing whatever it takes to make students successful, we often find ourselves accepting excuses from them.”

Students don’t complete an assignment, and we give them a second chance. A parent comes to school, upset to hear that his or her child is failing math, and we say, time and again, “they can make up the work.” A test is failed and we provide a chance to retake it, or do test corrections for extra credit.

Teachers want to be understanding and supportive, Klein writes. But it’s easy to turn into an enabler.

“Being a jerk is not a disability,” one teacher said to me about a boy who was cursing, bullying and harassing students during class. He was a special education student, and often this status was used as an excuse for his behavior. But what type of future are we setting him up for if we allow him to act in a way that will not be accepted once the training wheels of middle school have been removed?

Children need to experience and overcome failure on the path to success, Klein writes. They need to learn what lines can’t be crossed.

Hube of The Colossus of Rhodey recommended this.

Speaking of lines that shouldn’t be crossed, check out this post on the mother-daughter pair protesting because the yearbook staff rejected the girl’s sexpot photo.


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  1. Doesn’t that create a Catch 22 under present “quality” measurement standards: If a teacher in fact holds her students responsible, such that her students get lower grades, the teacher risks being classified as inadequate.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Went around with a teacher on the subject of make-up work some time back. The kid was going to Europe (!) during the school year for a couple of weeks. The teacher talked about taking work along to help making it up because he couldn’t do well enough if he had it all to do when he returned.
    Explained her idea of how to do it. Parents said it wouldn’t work and waited for the teacher to come up with another idea. Bingo. Also Presto. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to come up with an idea that works and all the parents have to do is say it won’t work and…the teacher’s at fault.

    An excess of helpfulness might be enabling not doing the work. “Get it done. How you do it is your problem.” Imagine hearing that in jr. hi or even hs.

  3. Also, things like allowing students to miss deadlines or hand in late work doesn’t teach them anything very useful. (I am told that some school districts don’t even SET deadlines for work any more…which leads to problems when students move on to college and find that we profs EXPECT stuff turned in by a deadline). And I’m sure in the vast majority of workplaces, being told to have a report filed by Tuesday, or a white paper written by next month, or a presentation ready for a conference would not be met with an “oh, that’s okay, you can have more time” if the employee didn’t get it done…

    • It’s important to teach the value of planning and deadlines, but it has to be done carefully. If I tell my 8th grader, who is in charge of three siblings because her single mom works nights, that she fails because she didn’t meet a deadline, then I’ve failed her.

      I like to coach my students along the way about working efficiently and using class time wisely to complete all projects and activities within a reasonable, flexible time.

      Remember, the person who has to file that Tuesday report also has an 8-hour work day, in which to complete it. My student has 46 minutes per day.

  4. tim-10-ber says:

    Too many schools (and therefore teachers) are to caught up in the fluffy stuff so the poor precious ego does not get bruised by not being held accountable…come on…kids know who is in charge be it at home or at school…hold the kids accountable, failure is an acceptable option, I promise…watch a kid learn to walk, play a sport, a musical instrument, etc. they learn by making major mistakes but with encouragement they learn from them…I don’t call this failure, but accountability and accepting the challenge of what it takes to succeed at the task at hand…these skills and qualities translate very well to the classroom, work environment and life in general…watching my 20 year son demonstrate this with the challenges he is currently facing…

  5. At my school, the “makeup” work for daily, homework, quizzes, and tests is so confusing I’ve made them into charts and posted them on the bulletin board.

    Oddly enough, few students except my grade-driven Pre-AP kids use them, even though on-level students have 3 days to complete daily work they simply chose not to do during class.

  6. As usual, lots of teachers confuse morality with ability. Who on earth cares if your kids don’t do their “daily work”, and why would you make it part of their grade?

    Grade their tests, give them a slight boost if they work hard, and stop demanding that your students jump through hoops for no other reason than to satisfy your ego.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      CAN I GET AN AMEN?!?!?!?!

      • Not from me, you can’t. If you think students absorb material by osmosis, without being taught to “eat the whale one bite at a time”, you’re mistaken here in the real world.

        • The students who pass the test have clearly absorbed the material. To lower their score from that point simply because you think they should have worked harder is moralistic. To give a student who worked harder but tested poorly a higher grade than a student who tested better, regardless of how the latter worked, is fraudulent.

          • We require homework, and grade it, because of the fact that there are many students who do need to do it in order to master the course material. Some think they already know all the material, but do not. Others know they don’t know it, but wouldn’t have the self-discipline to study on a day-by-day basis without the motivation of homework grades. Only a few will truly know the material w/o doing the homework. And we’re not going to up-end our grading system to suit those few. What we could do is offer pre-testing, with those who ace the pre-tests allowed to skip the homework and do something else..

          • EB, I like this idea.

          • Mark Roulo says:


            Do you give a higher grade to a kid who diligently turns in the homework and bombs the test compared to a kid who blows off the homework and aces the test? Similar grade? I grant that this is probably a rare situation, but how does the grading work out?

          • Well, in this hypothetical system the kid who proves that s/he already knows the material by passing a pre-test gets to blow off the regular homework and do something else. Although maye s/he is in the wrong class/course if s/he already knows the material. This, of course, doesn’t accout for the kid who comes in at the same level as the other students but is able to absorb and retain all the course content just by reading the textbook and/or listening in class.

            The student who faithfully does homework but bombs the tests is a difficult case. You don’t know that the homework was done by the student, or by the student alone. So maybe that student really doesn’t deserve to pass. But if that student alone completed the homework, and did it well, why can’t s/he pass the tests? I certainly have heard the complaint that a student “doesn’t test well,” and sympathise up to a point. But how else do you figure out if the student has learned?

            And I certainly don’t be lieve that students should be passed on to the next level just because they tried hard. That’s what has gotten us to the point where a HS diploma means very little.

          • Most grading programs use weighted variables that are set by district policy.

            For example: homework 20%
            assignments 30%
            tests 50%

            Final Exams are graded independently and makeup usually 15% of the final grade.

            So, theoretically, a student could blow off homework and get a B or an A; depending on the district policy.

            But high school teachers know, if they’re blowing off the homework, their test performance will suffer, as well.

          • Homogeneous grouping reduces the scenario of kids not needing to do the homework (all or part) in order to learn the material, but even then some kids need less practice. One of my sons often didn’t finish his AP calc BC homework and took a grading penalty, but he had a 5 on the AP exam.

            I’m adamantly opposed to grading on “effort” or weighting homework heavily; both are too easily misused. The same son had high As on all tests and quizzes in honors algebra II (and it really was honors, there was also the regular college prep) but received a B+ for the marking period because he hadn’t done all of the homework. All OK until we found that another student in his class had an A on her report card, despite having had only one C and the rest Ds and Fs on her tests and quizzes, because her homework was complete and correct. In my opinion, that is nothing less than fraud; dishonest and totally unacceptable.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      And, if a course is challenging enough, students will NEED to do the assigned work to pass the tests anyway. (I.e., upper level high school math students who don’t do a single problem set all semester usually fail anyway. BUT it’s not the act of turning in the homework that helps them learn the material, it’s the act of DOING the homework…..)

      On the other hand, forcing a student who’s already mastered the material to do worksheet after worksheet just teaches the (untrue) lesson that “practice is worthless.”

      • There is very little research to support that homework is connected in any way to achievement. Even Duke’s Harris Cooper, who has studied homework for four decades, now says even though he favors homework, he finds little if any connection to actual learning.

  7. This reminds me of Eclipse star, can’t remember her name (and too lazy to look it up) who chastised all teachers because some refused to get special packets of work together for her while she was off doing movie and TV shoots.

  8. Cranberry says:

    What do grades mean to students? Adults understand the significance, but do children? The elementary schools my children attended did not use grades until middle school. Prior to that, the report cards reflect the student’s perceived effort, and performance relative to the expectations for that grade.

    Our niece lives in Europe. As a teenager, she changed from one school to another. Through that process she learned that grades matter.

    Grades should be honest. Specifying the grades awarded ahead of time does the student no good. Our daughter became frustrated with the use of deceptive grades for special ed students. She noted that many special ed students worked really hard, and deserved their grades. For some others, though, the knowledge that they would receive a C (or B) no matter what they did gave them license to goof off.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      I don’t use grades with my second grader–what point do they have in a class of one? Instead we have “perfect” and “not perfect, go back and fix your mistakes.” However, in a school setting, where you can’t demand mastery before moving on, grades are useful for comparing students’ achievement to stated course goals….

  9. North of 49th says:

    My district grading policies call for only work done in school to be counted towards report card grades. How do we know who actually DID the homework? Projects are to be done in school, although some aspects of the work can be done at home — taking notes, or drawing illustrations, for instance. But the actual work counted towards the grade must be done at school.

    We have a separate section on the report card for “Learning SKills,” including initiative, punctuality, homework completion, independent work, and so on. These do not count towards promotion or GPA.

  10. I grant that this is probably a rare situation, but how does the grading work out?

    It’s not rare at all.

    We require homework, and grade it, because of the fact that there are many students who do need to do it in order to master the course material. Some think they already know all the material, but do not. Others know they don’t know it, but wouldn’t have the self-discipline to study on a day-by-day basis without the motivation of homework grades.

    This is the boilerplate.

    Reality: Do you have students whose higher math test grade is dragged down by their homework grade? Yes or no answer.

    I am absolutely certain the answer is yes, that you are giving students lower scores than their math test scores alone would warrant, simply because they aren’t doing their homework. Every teacher in the country who grades homework and counts it as a big part of the grade is pulling down some of their students’ scores.

    And enough of this “mastery” nonsense. If a kid can get a C on tests without doing homework, you don’t drag their grade down further just because you happen to think he should be doing the homework to get an A.

    • Yes, you do have a few whose grades are dragged down by their failure to do homework (or in-class assignments, for that matter). You have more who, if they do the homework, they then do better, or even a lot better, on the tests. So whose needs do you honor? that’s why I think that students who don’t need to do homework should either be in a tougher class, or they should be given something else to do in place of the homework. It’s not ideal; best case scenario for those few who can do fine w/o homework would be to leave them alone and not require homework to be graded. But that would be a big disservice to the many more who need the extra practice in order to master the material. And, I have to say, if any significant number of students are doing fine by just showing up in class and maybe reading the textbook, they’re not being given a very high quality educational experience.

    • Hear, hear! See my post above for examples. Luckily, his older brothers had a calc teacher who didn’t count homework. Either kids proved they knew the material on tests and quizzes or they didn’t.

      In ES and MS, “effort” (also making it pretty, artsy) and homework routinely drag down grades for lots of kids, disproportionately boys (and girls like mine). They also artificially inflate grades for lots of kids who really don’t have a solid grasp of the material.

      • I hate to sound derisive, but teachers who claim homework is necessary to help students do well on tests need to reconsider all of their methods. First, consider eliminating the test completely. It’s not necessary and, in most cases it’s an unfair way to evaluate learning. Homework only contributes to an already-bad classroom.

  11. Yes, you do have a few whose grades are dragged down by their failure to do homework (or in-class assignments, for that matter).

    Here is your rationale for grading homework:

    We require homework, and grade it, because of the fact that there are many students who do need to do it in order to master the course material.

    So this is apparently not true. You require and grade it for some other reason, but not because students who need to do it in order to master the course material. Some number of students (and I’ll bet it’s more than just a couple) can pass the class without doing the homework.

    Here’s a suggestion: graph test score averages to classwork averages in a scatterplot. While you will see a slightly upward trend, you will also see, very clearly, that lots of kids who don’t do homework have stronger test averages than lots of kids who do homework. This is always true. Therefore, while doing homework is mildly correlated with improved test performance, the graph shows very clearly that individual ability trumps effort.

    Yet you are grading effort.

    So whose needs do you honor?

    It’s not about honoring needs. It’s about being an honest grader who is not lying about student ability.

    You could very easily leave uncompleted homework assignments blank. Then the students who don’t do the homework aren’t penalized, while the students who do the homework get the grade boost.

    • Actually, its about being a teacher and giving students the tools and knowledge to be productive citizens.
      Study and homework benefit everyone in my class, there is no 100% tests-only student for me. Work needs to be done at home to succeed, and children, those pesky little things, don’t seem to be able to put down their Xbox controllers long enough to do that work unless I attach some value to it. For that matter, parents won’t make their sweet little children do homework unless there’s value attached too.

      • Like I said: try not to confuse morality with ability. Your notion of “productive citizen” is “doing what teacher tells you and following the rules”. That’s fine, but it’s a value judgment.

        Besides, all research on grading says that grading should not be confused with effort.

        • ‘ Your notion of “productive citizen” is “doing what teacher tells you and following the rules”’

          Actually, no. My idea of a productive citizen is one who has been successfully taught the content of a course of study and knows how to function in college or the workplace, hence, I will do whatever achieves that goal.
          Most students in MS and even HS have not internalized the motivation to do homework and study… they still have issues with delaying gratification. When the choice is to hang out with friends right then or to study for a test later that week, they’ll pick the friends. Throw in a grade penalty, and you’ll get many to pick the homework

    • I don’t know about high school and middle school so much, but there’s a very strong correlation between completion of homework and scores on exams in my (university-level, remedial math through calculus) classes. Of the students who have less than a 75% on homework (graded on completion), the number who pass the exams is under 5% (and most of those are Cs.)

      We still require the homework and give points to it. We’ve tried making homework worth 0 points and the exams worth more. The scores on exams went down significantly. The students actually begged to make the homework worth something so that they’d have more luck finding the motivation to do it.

      • Are all the classes you teach remedial? Or is the calc a regular college class for those not needing remediation? I would expect that students needing remediation would need to do the homework, because they need lots of practice or they would have mastered the material when it was originally presented. I would also expect that non-remedial kids taking calc for the first time would also need to do homework, at least 75% of the time, but the two groups are likely not the same. Even in HS, I don’t think there are many kids who can succeed without doing any homework; the issue seems to be whether they will be penalized for not doing all of it, even if they ace the tests.

        • Lightly Seasoned says:

          On vocab and grammar, I quiz weekly and make the homework/practice optional. The catch is that I only exempt the homework grade if they get 100% on the quizzes. Some students take me up on it — then revert to doing the homework when they figure out it is actually a quicker way to make sure they know the material. The rest of my homework is reading and essays, and I know they haven’t mastered that. In my building, the homework in math tends to become more optional as they get older. My daughter’s geometry teacher only checks the homework if they get less than 100% on the test.

  12. In my syllabus, I spell out that I will take two different averages.

    1. 100% tests
    2. 60% tests, 20% classwork, 20% homework.

    On their report card, students will receive whichever is higher for them.

    • Going to steal that one!

      • 60% tests is awfully low. If your student can raise his grade from a B- to an A through classwork and homework, then the weight is too much. No one should be able to homework their way to an A by more than a few points.

        I use 80% tests, 15% classwork, 5% homework and then take the higher.