3 Cans of Worms Standards-based Learning Opened Up in my Classroom

Can #2: Including Behavior in the Academic Grade vs. Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports

It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.” — Charles Darwin

I chose worms for as a metaphor for standards-based learning and grading because both have little “content” of their own. Worms don’t plant the seed; worms don’t thrust roots into soil; worms don’t burst into the open air flowering and bearing fruit.

What worms do is create the optimal conditions for all these things.

Worms break up hard-packed soil, creating space for germinating seeds and pathways for wandering roots, transforming hard-packed soil into rich humus, mixing the soil’s minerals for easy uptake. In destabilizing the soil’s status quo, worms set the stage for an explosion of growth.

In my first post, I explored how competency-based education flourishes in the rich, accommodating soil of standards-based learning and grading. In this post, I look at how positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) can thrive within this same fertile context.

Can #2: Including Behavior in the Academic Grade vs. Positive Behavior Interventions and Support

Although the academic grade’s explicit purpose is to convey a student’s academic performance, it is often repurposed as a way to promote desired non-academic behaviors.

Sometimes these purposes are achieved by assigning a percentage of the overall grade to participation, organization, neatness, preparedness, or other non-academic behavioral expectations.

Other times, these purposes are achieved by incorporating various penalties when work is late, incomplete, sloppy, or plagiarized. Late penalties are designed to induce punctuality. Zeroes are used for the same purpose, as well as to encourage academic integrity, since they are commonly given out for plagiarism or cheating.

Here are some representative examples of how late penalties show up in teacher syllabi:

  • Any work turned in late will be marked down 20% per day. After 2 days, the assignment will not be accepted without permission due to special circumstances.
  • No late work will be accepted outside of illness and family emergency. In these cases, the student will have the same amount of days to make up work, as he/she was absent.
  • Late assignments are accepted for partial credit. Missing assignments result in a zero. A habit of missing assignments can have a devastating effect on a student’s grade; therefore, keeping up with work is a key for success.

Here are some representative examples of how plagiarism and cheating show up in teacher syllabi:

  • Plagiarism, copying, cheating, or being an accessory to plagiarism, copying, or cheating will NOT be tolerated and a ZERO will be given to all parties with NO chance of make-up.
  • Cheating is any attempt to gain points other than by ones’ own efforts. 1st violation is failure of assignment(s) for both parties involved. 2nd violation is failure of marking period. 3rd violation is failure of the semester. This includes homework!
  • Plagiarizing will result in a failing grade for that assignment. Depending on the weight of the assignment it could result in failure of the marking period and/or semester. Repeated plagiarism will result in failing the semester.

The primary reason for using penalties is deterrence. Obviously, most teachers would like students to just demonstrate punctuality and academic integrity and be done with it, no penalty incurred. The severity of the punishment is designed to deter students from the undesirable behavior. A teacher can claim that it is well within students’ power to avoid the negative consequences altogether such that their grade remains an accurate record of academic achievement.

In addition, by employing behavioral penalties within the academic grade, many teachers believe that they are preparing students for the kinds of consequences they will encounter at the college level. Indeed, a quick survey of college policies reveal that they are even harsher than those employed at the secondary level.

So what is the problem with using the academic grade in this way?

First of all, let’s again point out the academic grade’s primary purpose as a means of communicating academic performance. Non-academic behavioral elements — positive or negative — muddy that communication.

A near consensus among experts on standards-based learning and grading is that non-academic behaviors should never be incorporated into the academic grade, explicitly or implicitly. The grade should reflect academic performance alone. That’s fine and good, but here’s where the can of worms opens up: how do you get kids to turn things in on time and not cheat? If there’s no penalty, what’s to prevent kids from taking the risk?

I’ve written about this can of worms before (“Make Them an Offer They Can’t Refuse” and “Redos and Retakes Done Right”), but I wanted to take a different angle this time.

A major reason why the academic grade should not be used to promote non-academic behavior is that it works against a critical philosophical and systemic reform that many schools have undertaken: Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS).

To describe the history and defining characteristics of PBIS would require a whole website (enjoy!). You probably know something about it already because, again, your school likely uses some form of it. Whereas Response to Invervention (RtI) addresses academic issues, such as students falling behind in literacy or numeracy, PBIS addresses social behavior, identifying and supporting kids who are struggling behaviorally. That would include behaviors that intersect with academic performance such as punctuality, academic integrity, and participation.

Some form of PBIS has been in the works since the 1980’s, when educators recognized a need for improved systems of behavioral intervention. Prior to that point, discipline was not very positive or supportive.

“School Flogging” by George Cruikshank (1839)

PBIS usually involves three tiers of support comprising a “pyramid of interventions.” Tier 1 involves identifying, teaching, and modeling desired behaviors and rewarding students when they demonstrate them. In brief, the latter two tiers involve intervening with students who don’t respond to earlier supports. Tier 2 and 3 interventions range from altering aspects of the student’s environment to teaching the student new skills for dealing with situations that trigger the behavior. Interventions become increasingly individualized and significant as a student’s negative behaviors persist. All interventions are designed to be personalized, prevention oriented, and evidence based.

How does this all relate to the widespread practice of late penalties and zeroes? Let’s first consider one of the more controversial areas PBIS has tried to impact: suspensions and expulsions.

It is well known that these kinds of “exclusionary” interventions do not result in positive outcomes, academically or socially. Even when the school has rid itself of its “troublemakers,” paradoxically, climate does not improve. Instead, schools that regularly resort to suspension and expulsion tend to pay less attention to academic quality and school climate, perpetuating a vicious cycle that leads to even more problem behavior. At some point, suspension and expulsion may even become a reward, giving offending students a school-sanctioned vacation.

Although schools may not be able to eliminate suspensions and expulsions entirely, PBIS seeks to create a proactive system of interventions that render them less and less necessary. What can be said about these exclusionary interventions can be said of any solution that is not personalized, prevention oriented, or evidence based.

Penalties within the academic grade is one such “solution.”

One could argue that these policies can be personalized by appealing to the “illness or family emergency” clause, but in the end they are just policies developed with little reference to what will produce the best result for a given student. In PBIS, interventions and supports are developed collaboratively, ideally involving parents and other stakeholders with substantial investments in the student’s success. Many students come to view a zero or low grade in the same way they do a suspension: an opportunity to avoid further work. If the assessment is an important one, the most natural, humane, and logical consequence is to insist on supporting the student until they can successfully do it.

Similarly, one might say that this type of penalty is prevention oriented in that deterrents are, by definition, intended to prevent undesirable behavior. The question is whether this approach — like that of suspensions and expulsions — supports student academic or behavioral success. Perhaps it works for the majority. But for the populations who are most at risk for these kinds of punishments — students with unstable living situations, addictions, psychological problems — it likely only exacerbates an already overwhelming situation. Again, I don’t doubt that many teachers would be willing to personalize their policies for these students, but that assumes students would be willing to share that information in the face of punishment — as opposed to acting out in less productive ways.

Instead of late penalties and zeroes, what are some ways we can support students following through on their work and avoiding violations of academic integrity? How can we better teach, model, support, and report these behaviors that are essential for student success? Again, many of these supports may already be in place. Here are some other ideas for replacing penalties within the academic grade with more logical, effective alternatives.

Acknowledge positives outside the academic grade

Give students who maintain certain behavioral and academic standards the opportunity earn meaningful privileges. PLC juggernaut Adlai Stevenson High School in Illinois allows Juniors and Seniors to earn privileges like unscheduled time, extended lunch, and open campus. I personally like this support because it is less a reward than a recognition of reality: you are succeeding academically and behaviorally, so we think you probably can manage with less rigid schedule. If you don’t have school-wide support, could you somehow gamify these non-academic elements in your own classroom? Obviously, schools need to brainstorm age-appropriate options.

Address problem behavior with supports, not punishment

This sounds a lot nicer than it is. In the previous example from Adlai Stevenson, those same Juniors and Seniors lose their privileges when they experience behavioral or academic setbacks. Incidentally, this is one of the places where turning in work late or not at all can be addressed: you’re not carving out the time to finish your work, so we’re going to carve it out for you. I personally feel that after-school extracurriculars should be used in this same way: if you’re not keeping up with the curricular, you shouldn’t be taking on any extracurricular! Again, though, this is not a punishment. Although it might not be desirable for students, it is, first and foremost, intended to support them in their success. As soon as students demonstrate they no longer need the additional support, they regain whatever privileges they lost.

Individualize interventions

Without policies to police student behavior, what can you rely on? Well, the aforementioned school-wide systems are pretty robust substitutes. But those structures can take time and consensus to get up and running. Even with those systems in place, we have to own up to the fact that systems are too easy, too impersonal. A simple Incomplete Homework Form, turned in by anyone who hasn’t completed an assignment, can start the conversation on the right foot, setting the tone that we are on the same team.

Report non-academic behavior somewhere other than the grade

Another school-wide option is to send around behavioral report cards (hard copy or electronic) to teachers at different points throughout the year. In the school where I experienced this, teachers only needed to fill out a report card for a fraction of their students each time, with each student receiving 2–3 scores each time. These scores could be used in disaggregate form to inform targeted interventions or as a composite score to determine students’ eligibility for privileges.

If you like what you’ve read, please share and click the heart so more people get to see it. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

This post is also crossposted at my website.

Previous Post: Can #1: The Carnegie Credit vs. Competency-based Education

Next Post: Can #3: One Size Fits All vs. Choice and Voice