Written by Shannon Yang
The California Education Code and the district’s school board have established policies to ensure that students who are legitimately absent still have an equal opportunity to catch up on any missed work without major penalties. However, several teachers have put into place policies on late work and attendance that are inconsistent with the overall board policy.
Even when policies do comply with the law, teachers may still take advantage of loopholes and create policies harmful to students. When teachers take too many liberties with late homework and absence policies, the only result is harm to students because students learn less and their grade is unfairly impacted. For example, some teachers only allow a certain number of tardies and absences before threatening an extra assignment or loss of points, fail to recognize the excused status of absences or don’t officially write their policies in the course syllabus.
In its worst cases, these discrepancies can have negative effects on student well-being, course consistency and success. When students think of late work and absence policies, the value they should have in mind is learning. But policies like these turn out to be punitive and don’t allow kids to bounce back and keep learning. In fact, students are generally stressed out even more. People have legitimate reasons to miss school. Many of us go through family turbulence or chronic mental or physical illness at some point, and inconsistent policies cause stress from missing school on top of existing struggles.
The truth is that most Gunn students don’t scream, “Yay, I get to miss class!” in excitement, but rather think, “I can’t afford this blow to my grades,” or “I have to make up more work now.”
Absences are punishment enough in the first place: by missing school, students miss material that is taught during class and have to study independently without teacher guidance while making up homework and tests on their own time. Explicitly taking off points for an excused absence as a punitive measure just compounds the problem. Teachers should reward the responsibility of making up work, not punish absences which may not be in a student’s control.
Teachers with these inconsistent policies further detract from a positive academic culture at our school by creating a lack of flexibility when it comes to late work. As Gunn continues its partnership with Challenge Success, the school is looking for ways to shift focus off grades and more onto learning. This year, AP Environmental Science and AP Calculus AB have changed their policies to allow late work and retakes—because why should students be graded on their performance on a test on one specific day when they could be rewarded for learning it at their own pace? Cramming for a test or rushing through homework may be good for getting a good grade, but it’s not good for learning in the long term. In addition, a lack of flexibility in late work policies could increase cheating because students experience a lot of pressure, as one moment can determine their grade. According to the Challenge Success survey administered last spring, only 13 percent of Gunn students reported that they had not cheated in the last year. On a time crunch and fearing a bad grade, high-achieving students in particular tend to “in- appropriately collaborate.” Once the good grade is set, these students can plan to make up their actual learning afterward.
These inconsistent late work and absence policies are also harmful for consistency across courses. Last year’s Hanover Research study found a lot of variation across course syllabi, especially in the English and social studies departments. It’s easier for students to hold themselves to consistent policies. Having to follow multiple different policies at school is confusing and hard to keep up with. Inconsistencies contradict the expectations students have about consistency across the school. Students register for a class knowing what to expect: exactly how much homework there will be, what the policies will be like and what will be learned. Then they go into the class expecting that the teacher will not grade based on random criteria and will be like their other classes and classes they’ve taken before. But teachers taking liberties with these policies ruin the calibration of the class across the school or the district, and the course catalog becomes just a useless packet of paper.
To combat this problem, instructional supervisors and administrators should hold teachers more accountable and make sure that policies are consistent with other classes, compliant with the Ed Code and board policy and consistent with what is stated on the course syllabus.
Though the English department has created a department-wide late work policy to solve this problem, other departments still have a lot of work to do. While not perfect, the English department’s new policies as a whole grant a new consistency to the department that will ease student expectations while still upholding individual re- sponsibility. However, the limits on flexibility should be less clear cut. Rather than an automatic zero on an assignment after two weeks, things should be looked at on a case-by-case basis—just because the deadline has passed doesn’t mean it should be too late to fix damage. The same logic holds for extensions: in some cases, 24 hours is too much to ask, and sometimes it is unreasonable for students to get a parent to email a teacher during an emergency.
The whole school should be held more accountable for consistent—and legal—late work policies. The social studies department plans to assess the potential of a policy similar to that of the English department, and other departments should follow their example. Furthermore, departments and the administration should take more action to audit teachers’ policies and make sure they don’t differ from promises on the syllabus or break the Ed Code. This would create less stress and a more relaxing school climate, with less cheating and a larger focus on learning.