Do y’all remember Blockbuster?

If you don’t then you are baby. Some days I regal my 10 year old with horror stories of life before the Internet. Back in those primitive days people would have to leave their home and go to a big warehouse with walls covered with Movies. The would have to rent DVDs (those shiny silver discs) and VHS tapes (what!?) for the night. Not only did the costumer pay for the night but if the movie was returned after 7pm the next day they were charged an additional late fee! What a racket!

Honestly, the late penalty for Blockbuster made sense from a business perspective. Blockbuster needed their inventory back in stock to be rented out again. The late fee was a penalty designed to motivate the customer to return the DVD back on time. I guess one could argue that the late penalty for school work serves the same purpose. The problem though is that a teacher doesn’t need the work back on the shelves to rent out again. Really, the only purpose I can think of for the classwork Late Fee is that the teacher would like to maintain their workflow; i.e. Papers in –> Papers graded –> Papers returned. While understand the need to motivate students to hand in work on a deadline the problem is the mechanism chosen for the motivation.

In most traditional classrooms a student’s grade is treated like “currency”. The teacher “pays” the students their “wage” for work satisfactorily completed. If the student is a productive student they earn their grade and go about their day. Teachers love to complain about grade grubbers seeking extra credit but when grades are currency that is like getting overtime; it’s just the way the course is designed. A Blockbuster employee finds no satisfaction in stocking shelves. The are ritually compliant in order to receive their paycheck. If grades are treated like currency then we will foster a classroom full of compliant automatons merely punching the clock to earn their wage. This is a problem but a bigger concern is that if that if grades are currency and the only thing of real value to the student then a teacher can begin to see grades as something other what they are supposed to be – an illustration of the student’s academic understanding.

Grades are supposed to be an indicator of the students academic ability. Behaviors should not be a part of the calculation and late submissions are a behavior just like bringing in a box of tissues or donating canned goods. None of these should be extra credit or a penalty because they are not communicating the teacher’s interpretation of the student’s understanding based on academic assessments! To go to the realm of the absurd – would you take points off on an algebra assignment if your students did not bring in your favorite box of Dark Chocolate Caramels with Sea Salt? Of course not! It does not indicate a level of understanding or ability in algebra. And yet students are consistently subjected to these penalties. In my school we are allowed to take 10 points per day off of an assignment and after 10 days we are allowed to refuse to accept it. Why? It’s just the way it’s always been done.

Let’s examine some common arguments for taking late penalties.

  • The ‘It will teach them Responsibility’ argument. This falls apart with just a cursory examination. If the penalty were truly effective then why do the same students consistently hand in work late? If they were being taught responsibility then we should see the behavior improve over time. We all know that doesn’t happen. It is much more likely that there are some circumstances that we are unaware of that are impacting their completion rates. The late penalty is an equity issue not a responsibility issue.
  • The ‘but it’s not fair to those that did it on timeArgument. Again, it’s an equity issue. But also, are you giving a bonus for early completion? If so, why? Does either getting done early or late change the student understanding in the end? Again let’s take this to the extreme. If a student hands the work in on time at 11:59pm does that change their understanding if it is submitted late at 12:01am? Nope. But technically I could remove 10 points off of the late submission if I wanted to.
  • The ‘in the real world…” Arguments. If this is your world view you stopped reading this after my wonderful Blockbuster analogy. In “the real world” context matters and analogies can be found for both sides. Is there grace in the real world? Yep. I forgot to pay my electric bill last month but the lights are still on. Are there strict deadlines? Of course. Can’t vote after November 3rd (Conspiracy Theories are forbidden in my space).

Here is what I’ve been thinking lately.

Late penalties are a Teacher’s Convenience Fee.

If a late penalty doesn’t have an academic purpose and if it doesn’t teach responsibility then the only logic reason for the ease the teacher’s workflow. The Late Penalty is misnamed – it is a Convenience Fee extracted from the student’s only valuable asset in the classroom. The teacher decides the value of their time and places a convenience fee on the student’s grade when the student fails to make the principle payment (on time submission). The fee is compounded over time and will eventually lead to zero wages for the work. Just like a worker missing a paycheck the student will suffer for a long time. Zeroes are a hell of a hole try dig out of.

In this analogy the teacher’s role is that of the heartless banker demanding collection on the outstanding debt (the late work). Not only is the student’s grade harmed but but so is the student-teacher relationship. Respect and relationships are a two way street and if the student is at fault so is the teacher. The worst part is that the late fee doesn’t consider the quality of the work! It doesn’t factor in how the data is skewed by the loss of motivation. It doesn’t consider the humanity of the student or the issues the may be facing outside of the classroom.

It’s just another bill hanging over the student’s head…

Weekly Reflection #6 - Finding a Plan for Late Work | Miss Donnelly's Daily  Apple
Kinda my point…