Justice and Forgiveness in the context of academic second chances

I suspect all high school teachers have had a student like Chris who consistently puts in perceivably minimal effort and then experiences a crisis late in the semester.  The crisis is followed by an assessment average that makes passing by traditional means mathematically impossible.  There are generally two ways a teacher can respond.  The first way is straight-forward, consistent, and clear:  the student fails.  The other response is to weigh the circumstances, often requiring hours of planning, communication, and follow-up.

In cases of a medical emergency, there are usually policies that determine the course of action.  If the student does not understand enough to survive at the next level, then passing could be a set-up for failure that could only be remedied by going backwards…and who does that?  In other cases, justice become much more challenging.  There are no simple averaging formulas, cut scores, or curves.  There may be logistical answers (e.g. no time fix it), but usually there are complicated options.   Weighing the options becomes a huge ethical challenge when the teacher becomes the judge.

I am addressing the needs of a student, here, who knows enough or could learn enough in the final weeks to survive in a next-level class.  Failing is fair when the numbers are too low and all rules are applied uniformly.  However, in the big scheme of things, rules are rarely entirely consistent.  Exceptions abound.  On one hand it may be time for a student to encounter the logical consequences of minimalism.  Eventually they are going to run into a situation where they underestimate the minimum.  On the other hand, failing a gateway course like Algebra can be psychologically and academically crippling for an immature student who is accustomed to skating by; and the odds of success in college are abysmal for one who is behind in math.

Administrators can be very helpful by making expectations clear.  Exactly what issues do we weigh?  Which issues weigh more heavily?  Mission statements are generally vague. Surely teaching all students does not mean making sure they all pass.  “Working together with parents” does not mean acceding to all demands.  High expectations do not need to conflict with a culture that supports second chances, but where those two goals conflict needs to be communicated in such a way that teachers have an understanding of precedence.  My understanding has been built through observations of administrator nods and frowns.  I would have preferred a thoughtful narrative or at least a discussion along with a teacher handbook that somehow relays these ideas:

a)  Students need to grow in their understanding of academic consequences. A failing semester grade can be a productive learning experience.  It may convey the message that the class is not so important as to create years-long devastating effects but will need to be remedied before graduation.  This message is true for most subjects; but in a subject like math, falling behind a year is quite serious and is related to much lower rates of success in college (Boylan, 2011).

b)  Routinely instituting a remedial program for students three weeks before the end of a semester when they have not been motivated to pursue learning the rest of the year has the potential for demotivating in the long-term. Reason suggests students would notice they can get through most classes by putting forth effort the last three weeks.

c)  Depending upon the circumstances, remediating academic crisis can build confidence or discourage consistent academic effort.

Recommendations should include guidelines that support the school’s goals and climate:

a)  For core classes, the first time a student receives a D or an F on a major assessment, parents should be notified by individual email.  The second time a student fails a major assessment, parents should be contacted by phone.  If attempts to contact a parent are unsuccessful, then the guidance department and an administrator should be electronically notified.

b)  If a student experiences a crisis that will likely end in failure that may have been avoided with previous levels of effort, the likelihood and value of learning to routinely persevere at higher levels should be weighed against the long-term effect failing the class would have. If the value of saving the grade is higher than the potential for stimulating higher effort, a clear, written plan of action should be presented to the parents.  This plan needs to include firm deadlines for work completion that will allow sufficient time for fair grading.

I suspect that if more parents were fully aware of the long-term consequences of failing core classes, there would be much more push from their end.  I can often figure out what a family’s standard for grades is by the student’s response to assignments and assessments.  Those standards are based on what parents believe. Effective parents can provide  incentives for motivation that teachers cannot.   If we teachers know these things but do not clearly communicate them in a way that students and their families can fully wrap their minds around, then it makes sense we receive a percentage of blame.   If we teachers are ultimately the ones to judge the crisis that merits a second chance, knowing we have done all we can to prevent it will help us determine the most equitable and beneficial decision.

Boylan, H. R. (2011). Improving Success in Developmental Mathematics: An Interview with Paul Nolting. Journal Of Developmental Education, 34(3), 20-27.

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