In Defense of Due Dates & Deadlines

Key of KnowledgeThere is a good case to be made that part of our job as educators is to prepare students for the 'real world' - whatever that is. We could thus argue that deadlines and responsibility are valid goals of public education. In the ‘real world’, you’re expected to do stuff when it needs to get done. Rolling in at 3 p.m. with “hey, here are those burgers you asked for during the lunch rush” isn’t going to cut it, nor will you get paid half if you simply don’t make them at all.

Unfortunately, we can just as vigorously argue that in many cases, not getting something done on time at work doesn’t mean you don’t still have to do it – you’re just in hot water while you do.

Either way, I'm not personally organized enough to make that case. Anyone who's ever had to get paperwork from me knows what a challenge that can be - despite my best intentions.

The thing is, there are many less noble, smaller scale reasons for due dates and deadlines and policies regarding late work. Not surprisingly, many of them come down to the realities of teaching public school rather than the sorts of grander ideals we usually proffer when challenged.

Most of you are familiar with 'economies of scale'.  We teach kids in large batches mostly because we can't afford to do it in small, or individually.

I do my best to come up with lessons that have a reasonable chance of reaching a majority of my 151 students while allowing some wiggle room in terms of quality and individual strengths and such. I'm not complaining - I love my job - but this is enough to keep me pretty busy most days and for several hours on the weekend.

Children Are The FutureAnd no matter how modern or flipped or inquiry-based I may try to be, there are still things that require grading. I hate grading, but there's a limit to how much I can job out to students and still be able to sleep at night. There are things they can learn from peer evaluation, but half-a-class spent announcing that #1 is A, #2 is C, etc., is an embarrassing waste of limited time. Besides, most of what I'm grading isn't multiple choice.

So when I hear repeatedly from otherwise respected voices that it really shouldn't matter WHEN students do the assigned reading, master the required skill, absorb the expected content, as long as they GET it some day in their own special time and way - my shoulders tighten and my stomach hurts. I appreciate the theory, but education reformers and ideologists aren't known for being bound by the same reality as the rest of us.

If reforms were horses, then students would ride... and teachers would walk behind them in the parade.

It's time and energy-intensive to grade 150 of anything - paraphrases, thesis sentences, artsy fartsy projects, whatever. It's FAR more time and energy-intensive when the stack you're grading is a mix of everything you've done so far that semester - some clearly marked and easy to evaluate, some requiring you revisit the rubric you used or the instructions you gave. Some things you're not actually sure what they are - so you read over them a few times trying to connect them with something you assigned in the past six months.

Yes, I know the answers to the quiz - but I don't memorize the letters. Of course I can just read each question and its possible responses - but it takes much, much longer. And the writing... sometimes the priority is content, sometimes the priority is the formulation, sometimes something else.  I'm so glad you finally turned this in, but I don't have instant recall of every discussion in every class at every step as we worked through the process, or what priorities I may have suggested you personally focus on three weeks ago when you first asked to redo this particular prompt.

Overworked TeacherYeah, yeah - poor overworked teacher. But this isn't about me missing my tee time after school. What it means instead is that when I am working, at my desk or at home, I'm spending far more time and energy trying to figure out why little Johnny has handed in a page of Level Questions over some - well, over SOMETHING, I'm not sure WHAT - and whether or not they correspond to anything he's missing in the gradebook - than I'm spending coming up with better ways to teach Johnny's 150 peers the next unit. Flexible deadlines and nurturing late work policies mean I spend more time grading than preparing, or teaching, or collaborating, or whatever.

And there are other ways to assess - I'm not trying to run us all to the other extreme. Just trying to tie a little string to the kite of late work reform.

Expecting students to more or less keep up is not just about my personal space-time continuum. Remember how bookwork and lectures are the devil and all learning should be in groups, because collaboration is the new god? It's difficult to really 'collaborate' if not everyone has done the required preparation - read the same chapters or worked through the same prompts or tried the same individual activities to get them to the point they have anything useful to say to or gain from one another. 

It's not about all having the same abilities or all achieving at the same level - it's actually even better if they bring DIFFERENT things to the group. But do we seriously want all group work to be the two prepared kids once again dragging everyone else through the basics just because 2/3 of the group didn't feel inspired to learn at their own pace and in their own special way that week?

STTNG Face Palm Group WorkHow many angry lil' Republicans are created this way - barely into high school and already learning that the harder they work, the more they are expected to drag along those who can't or won't, often at the expense of their own progress? At least under the old framework the best and brightest were merely ignored and marginalized under the assumption they’d still pass state tests and stay out of discipline trouble - under this new approach we can actively punish them for being responsible!

Which, I suppose, IS part preparing them for 'the real world’, now that I think of it.

I don't know how to make good use of class time without the expectation students will arrive prepared. I don't know how to have a class discussion, build a logical curriculum sequence, structure activities, select reading, or even insert movies if I'm supposed to be OK with half the class working at whatever lil' pace their specialness allows. I'm hardly inflexible - no two years play out in quite the same way or at the same pace - but I am bewildered by the suggestion that I should deliberately hold off on judging little Barclay until the last week of May when suddenly I simply must give him a grade indicating what he's done or learned that year.

I appreciate the suggestion we could stand to be more accommodating of students' various needs. I realize the assumption behind much reform is that I’m an inflexible fascist who enjoys crushing the young no matter how intensely they strive for success. That is, after all, the primary reason to teach – along with my desire to maintain low standards and have no personal accountability, of course.

I respectfully suggest, however, that we're not doing them any great favors by teaching them that the most important question they can pose along their learning journey is "when are the retakes?"

Related Post: He Tests... He Scores!


I have a pile of late work shoved in a corner somewhere. My pet peeve? When students turning in REALLY late work want it scored NOW---RIGHT NOW. I just smile and tell them that's an unrealistic expectation.

Oh goodness. Yes, precisely that!

"How many angry lil' Republicans are created this way" made me laugh out loud. :D

I feel the same about group work... I think I'm going to nix it altogether. I'm also going to find a way to include this entire blog post into my parent letter next year. LOL


I agree because I know you teach HS. My 9 yr old has had 4 days of HW everyday since kindergarten, that I hate. I personally believe that middle school should be the starting point for homework and enforced more in HS. But I could also argue that school is their " jobs" and after 7-8 hours at work no one wants to do more work at home (unless you are a teacher). If I don't turn my grade in on time, I don't get docked 25% of my pay but my own kids get docked 25% of their grade if they turn work in a day late.

That's a really good point. If I were to redo this post, I'd probably include some grade level distinctions. 

I'm the first to criticize teacher chats that fling about overly-generalized policies and motivational nonsense based on very specific ages, demographics, and other factors that simply don't exist everywhere. Thanks for pointing out that doing the same thing from the other side doesn't fly either!

As it's already been pointed, deadlines move in the real world with varying degrees of consequence. Equally true, deadlines do have consequences of some kind in most structures. We also know that standardized approaches fail students and that completely individualized approaches fail to scale in schools. What I still don't understand is why both sides continually frame the conversation in a binary juxtaposition. The current school and measurement structure is why most individualized approaches can't scale and why most ed reform movements fall back on standardized approaches that continue to fail parts of the student body no matter how tweaked the approach is. Accepting the system as is parallels the "can't see the water" analogy with fish. We must be cognizant of the water, and do our best to "just keep swimming" (cheesy, I know) without vilifying either side and making enemies of each other.


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