Mastery Grading and the Disappearing Deadline

“Some people when they have taken too much and have been driven beyond the point of endurance, simply crumble and give up. There are others, though they are not many, who will for some reason always be unconquerable. You meet them in time of war and also in time of peace. They have an indomitable spirit and nothing, neither pain nor torture nor threat of death, will cause them to give up.” Roald Dahl

Mastery Grading and the Disappearing Deadline

In the days, weeks, and months since this topic surfaced at our school site, I have thought it prudent to remain quiet as my voice is drowned by the well-meaning thoughtlessness of my administrators and colleagues. But to quote Audre Lorde, “What good is having a voice if you’re not going to us it.” In that spirit, I want to talk about mastery grading and why I believe it has morphed into something short-sighted and reckless.

You see, I believe one of the greatest gifts teachers have within their ability to give students is dignity. Dignity and purpose. Without these things, a human life becomes less than. Quality of life dips to potentially dangerous levels. Hopelessness and helplessness are kissing cousins to a life without dignity and purpose. That is a fact. Hopelessness as a result from lack of purpose soon becomes depression.

This, then, is what we can give our students during these unprecedented times. Purpose, and the dignity that follows in its wake. The way people carry on, you would think it’s easy to teach these so-called soft skills or that they were innate. Roald Dahl seems to suggest that for some they are instinctive. I think a more accurate characterization is that dignity is one of the hardest skills to acquire. Made harder now by the misguided policies of both in and out-of-class personnel. Our kids are not going to get the dignity that comes from living a purposeful life by making deadlines and accountability opaque or disappear altogether. Now more than ever, we need to teach and reward virtues like grit, nerve, zeal, pluck. Below is a list of virtues not being taught by making deadlines a floating thing, an inconsistent and unpredictable thing.

  • Perseverance
  • Promptness
  • Persistence
  • Self-possession
  • Self-respect
  • Adaptability
  • Patience
  • Courage
  • Push
  • Fidelity
  • Tact
  • Consistency  

These are the virtues in use when someone is living their best life. Contemplate with me as we explore the person vacant of these virtues. Imagine the negative impact on a person who knows nothing of the satisfaction of pushing through challenges and difficulties to accomplish a timely goal. It is bad enough that people of all ages have grown accustomed to using their cell phones as digital and virtual pacifiers rather than developing the coping skills necessary to deal with restlessness, boredom, or conflicts. Yet here we are placing more mines into this already populated field of vices. We are fostering a weak mindset rather than rewarding these individuals for developing a can-do attitude. And we hide all this behind the curtain of mastery grading.

Consider what our purpose in teaching is. Remember? The plan is to become obsolete. We are teaching students to act independently. If we are doing our jobs well, our kids will be sliding their chairs away from the table and excusing themselves from our tutelage. We need our kids to reach the point where they no longer need us. It is the way of things. Fisher and Fry talk of the gradual release of responsibility. But by removing accountability and creating shifting deadlines, we foster a laissez-faire attitude. What inexorably follows is a culture of excuse-making. 

By nurturing this atmosphere, we reward 

  • laziness, 
  • resignation, 
  • surrender, 
  • apathy, and 
  • stasis. 

In doing so, we allow the depression of environment to be our students’ guiding principle. In short, we are doing our students no favors.

I am not suggesting we all become hard-headed jackwagons, troglodyte idiots consumed with power, delusions of standing, sad little kings and queens ruling from sad little hills. No. No one is suggesting adopting an unreasonable and inflexible attitude. I am suggesting, however, that we not let our innate and substantial fountain of care and concern allow for the disappearance of deadlines and consequences. Deadline grace cannot become interminable, the stakes are too high.

Mastery grading does not mean deadlines are not important. Or at least it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, the push toward mastery grading has become synonymous with a forever roaming deadline. We already have school without deadlines: it is called continuation school. And while these types of schools are helpful for some, it is rare indeed that the world outside the culture of school will tolerate such disregard for meeting deadlines.

Yes, we are living through extraordinary times. But what time does your favorite Starbucks open? Or your bagel shop? Or the restaurant you love for happy hour? What if they could not or would not (for whatever reason) open when they say they would? What about the gas station or the grocery store? What about the electric company? What about all your utilities? Do you like them to work predictably? What time is your next flight? Do you enjoy having predictable hours of operation with which you can do this business of living? Of course, you do. And who doesn’t love the comforts of routine and predictability of supplies and services?

In The Little Prince, the fox teaches the prince about the importance of taming and predictability of habits; it is the bedrock principle upon which friendships are made. I would go so far as to say it is the bedrock principle in which civil society abides. In fact, in teacher training schools everywhere one of the primary characteristics for fostering student success is the establishment of predictable routines and deadlines. Students perform better in an environment they can count on and understand. Our current policy of floating deadlines rewards the opposite of desired student behavior.

In Hattie’s monumental study of the impacts on student learning, one high-ranking impact is “collective teacher efficacy” (CTE). Collective teacher efficacy is that glorious moment when teachers band together in their collective belief that they can positively effect student outcomes (CT3, June 2009). The current move toward floating and indeterminate deadlines for student work violates the spirit of at least four of the six “enabling conditions” (CT3) that make for effective school culture and student achievement.

Today the superintendent of the L.A.U.S.D. declared that deadlines for incomplete work are entirely at the discretion of the teacher. Within minutes, teachers were posting on our LMS, Schoology, and following it up with email threads that they will be extending the deadline for late work till the end of February. One person wrote they would be accepting work for the fall until June. Until June! One teacher even went so far as to state that it takes a “heartless teacher to not abide by this new grading policy” where an “F” is immediately rubber-stamped as an “I” or incomplete. The process that follows is as simple as it is counter-productive and stupid:

  1. Student with an “F” (0-59%) is to be given an incomplete.
  2. Teacher creates individualized assignments for each of the students that fall into that category.
  3. Student is informed of their grade status and told they have the next several weeks and/or months to complete the assignments and turn them in to the teacher who made them.
  4. The teacher who made the extra assignments is then to grade them and look for mastery.
  5. Teacher then (assuming the student has complied and shown mastery) records the grade and submits a new form to the counseling staff so the “incomplete” can be turned into a grade that reflects mastery, presumably a C or higher.

This morning I came into school and found an official “Incomplete Mark Form” in my mailbox.  By the end of the day my inbox had strident messages of self-righteous indignation in favor of giving the students all the time they needed. The emails, one in particular, went on to scold those unwilling to play along with this disappearing deadline ethos. I am responding to a) that messaging, and b) the general confusion of mastery grading and its hitchhiking friend, the disappearing deadline.

Let me address my first complaint.

Students do not even need to initiate this process. We do! You read that right. The semester can end, and the teacher must initiate an incomplete.  Once rubber stamped, the teacher will then create assignments for said student to complete after the semester has ended and new classes have begun. Think about the virtues being discouraged here: personal responsibility and accountability, self-respect, courage, ownership, pluck, or zeal. How is someone supposed to get through life with these virtues vacant from their life?

Here’s my second objection.

Students’ grace period is now extended several weeks (or months) into the new semester to turn in their last semester’s work for credit. For Credit. As in, full credit.

We are rewarding complacency. We are rewarding weakness and excuse-making and laziness. But worst of all we are rewarding the opposite of perseverance, grit, determination and all the dignity that accompanies these virtues.

I tell you, I am grateful that my students are not giving in to this all-too-real malaise and apathy. The malaise that has resulted from this global pandemic. Apathy that results from depression and resignation. The result of which has been a new routine of sedentary behavior and an inability to cope and create a new normal.  

Look, I get it. This pandemic has been hard on the psyche. Hard with a capital H! But when people are afraid to do the wrong thing, they end up doing nothing. Paralysis. We must rage against the dying of incentive. Always and loudly.  Now is the time to teach the values of buckling up the chin strap and heading into the fray, of persevering in the face of incredible challenges. We need to reward mastery, yes, but not at the expense of the various virtues I mentioned above. We can't go around castrating parts of our psyche just because they make us uncomfortable. Growth comes from discomfort. This is the way of things.

I am committed to giving and receiving grace, especially during these trying times. But there is a profound difference between giving grace and rewarding malaise, between congratulating earnestness and effort and allowing apathy and laziness. Let us please reject policies and behaviors that reward one at the expense of the other. And if not, then let us not be surprised as we see young people everywhere become human beings who have traded their incentive for a dole, and, as a result, spend their lives with a debilitating sense of entitlement.

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