Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
Dear Ask a Teacher,
In 2020, my children’s high school switched to a policy of no penalty for late work and endless opportunities to retake tests. As a result, the only hard deadline is the end of each marking period. They said it was a way to “give grace” to students who were dealing with a lot during the chaotic early days of the pandemic. That I understand, even though it wasn’t good for my particular kids.
But now we’ve been back to a normal school schedule for almost 2 years, and the policies remain. At back-to-school night, I had a chance to ask the principal about it, and he said it was so that student grades reflected “mastery” instead of ability to learn on a specific schedule. (Reading between the lines, I get the impression that some of the teachers don’t care for these policies.) My youngest is a sophomore now and has not been doing well with this system. He doesn’t have any sense of urgency around schoolwork anymore. Shouldn’t you be studying more for that test? “If I do badly, I can just retake it.” What’s with all these zeroes in the grade book? “It’s okay, I can turn that stuff in late.”
But of course, it all just piles up for the end of the marking period when he turns in a bunch of half-assed work. His test grades usually don’t rise above mediocrity because in his head, he can always try again later. He did not have these habits at all in middle school before these policies were implemented, so I feel fairly confident that these habits are mostly a result of the policy changes. He’s not flunking anything, but he’s doing significantly worse than he used to—Bs, Cs, and Ds when he used to get As, Bs, and the odd C. How do I help my child succeed under these policies? I could just let him sink or swim on his own, but I don’t entirely blame him for struggling with this. I think I’d struggle in school and work too if most deadlines were just suggestions. I could set hard deadlines for all his assignments myself and impose consequences if he doesn’t meet them. But that feels like micro-managing, especially in high school when he should be getting more independent. Might that be a necessary evil? What do I do?
—Deadlines Can be Good
Dear Deadlines Can be Good,
As a teacher, I also find meaningless deadlines and endless retakes frustrating. I understand the idea behind “mastery”—of course I want my students to master the learning objectives, and if an assignment was important a week ago, it hasn’t lost its importance today. At the same time, I don’t think rushing through a pile of work and submitting it right before the end of the grading period is actual “mastery.” Students don’t learn much that way and having to grade a load of assignments at the last minute is stressful for teachers. I prefer a middle ground where we allow for late work with a grade penalty and offer retakes that max out at a C; this creates an incentive for students to meet deadlines and study for tests while providing opportunities for students to pass their classes.
However, the problem schools are dealing with right now is that many students are lacking the organizational and study skills needed to meet deadlines and prepare for assessments, not to mention significant learning gaps in the curriculum and mental health issues. Educators certainly don’t want to sit back and watch large numbers of students fail. Many schools are unsure of how to address this problem, or they lack the staff and resources to fully meet the needs of their students. We are not yet back to “normal.”
As far as your son goes, I don’t think micromanaging his schoolwork will benefit him in the long run. In my experience, most sophomores don’t respond well to this, and it may even backfire. I do think it’s fair to ask him how he feels about his grades. Does he believe he’s meeting his academic potential? Is it important to him to get A’s? How does he feel at the end of a grading period when he’s scrambling to get assignments turned in to his teachers? What are his goals for after high school, and what does he need to do now to meet them? What support would he like from you? These are not rhetorical questions; they are meant to help you learn more about his perspective and how to help him. Perhaps he will agree with you that he could be doing better academically, but you may hear something else. High school is harder than middle school, for a number of reasons. The lack of deadlines and retake opportunities may not actually be the source of the drop in his grades. Or, you may find that he doesn’t value high grades the way you do; I know that’s difficult to hear, but it’s a reality for many teenagers.
I know it’s hard for parents to watch their kids’ lackluster performance. (And if your child starts failing a class, my advice would be slightly different. I hope that doesn’t happen, but if it does, write back.) For both your sake, I hope he can figure out a way to meet his full potential with minimal intervention from you.
—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)
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Dear Ask a Teacher,
I am concerned about my daughter’s reading progress and a little confused about her teacher’s response to it. She is in the fall of her second grade, and I just met with her teacher for the standard parent-teacher conference. Her teacher shared her test scores with me and explained that she is testing at a first-grade level. Her words per minute are below the minimum expected for the point in her education. I found this pretty troublesome once I understood what all the tests and scores meant. But her teacher sort of waved her hand and said some version of, “Well, kids bloom at different times.”
We’ve been reading to my daughter nightly since she was about 1 year old. She sees us reading for fun throughout the week. She attended daycares that regularly held early literacy activities and a preschool that formally taught kids pre-reading and reading skills as part of its curriculum. This is all to say, she has been well introduced to books and reading in preparation for school.
She started out strong in kindergarten and throughout first grade, but by spring of first grade her teacher said that spelling was a problem, and she moved to the reading group for kids who need to practice skills more slowly. I was concerned, asked what we could do at home to support her better, and made a plan to work on spelling.
Now here we are in the fall of second grade and it looks like her skills are still at the level of about a spring first grader. At 7 years old she is still confusing her Bs and Ds and often mixes up words like “on” and “no.” Her reading is usually slow, choppy, and she rarely pays attention to punctuation. She is a pretty motivated kid. Her teacher mentioned several times what a hard worker she is.
Overall, she is motivated, hardworking, seems to comprehend well, communicates well, and has a good vocabulary. Why is reading getting harder for her over time instead of easier? Furthermore, my daughter notices that something is wrong. She began crying at the dinner table about a month ago saying that other kids are reading harder books than her and she doesn’t know why she can’t read those yet. I feel awful for her.
All of these things are setting off alarm bells for me that she either has a learning disorder around reading or that whatever instruction she is getting needs to be reworked. I feel uncomfortable with just waiting this out until she “blooms” as her teacher suggested. I’m afraid if we let things linger she’ll fall farther behind and never catch up. I’ve asked her teacher for some reading materials to practice even more with her at home, but I’m guessing that more is needed than just this. Something feels off. What would you suggest to make sure my kid doesn’t continue to fall behind?
—Curiously Falling Behind
My primary concern for your daughter is the way she is feeling about herself as a reader. It’s very important for your daughter to feel good about herself as a reader, and I would hope that her teacher is addressing this situation and doing everything possible to boost your daughter’s confidence and help her understand that learning is sometimes hard.
Learning is also never a steady incline to greatness. There are often moments when your child will take one step backward in order to take two steps forward. Your child might be reading well, but then nonfiction is introduced to the curriculum, or your child is asked to infer for the first time or the pictures are taken away, and suddenly the job is harder. I have fifth graders who still confuse Bs and Ds.
Look at these reading scores as a report on a moment in your child’s life—a single data point. If the next two or three data points also indicate an ongoing or increasing struggle, more specific, targeted action may be required. Ideally, the teacher is formally and informally assessing your child regularly and is monitoring progress closely. You can even ask for some of the data from those interim assessments to keep an eye on how your child is doing.
The most important thing I see here is your child’s waning confidence and self-image. One of the common struggles for kids who find learning easy is those moments when they struggle for the first time. It can be exceptionally hard on kids, especially if they have attached significant portions of their egos to being “smart” or “gifted” or “a good learner.” It’s why teachers (and parents) should never tell a child that they are smart or clever or the like. Instead, we should be commenting on things that are within a child’s control and will be helpful when things get hard, like work ethic, persistence, collaboration, willingness to try new things, acceptance of mistakes as both inevitable and valuable, etc.
We don’t become confident by finding learning easy. We grow confidence by working through hard things and finding eventual, hard-earned success. Work to help your child understand this truth.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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Dear Ask a Teacher,
Our middle school just instituted a policy that any sixth grader who brings in their Chromebook with less than a 50 percent charge will get detention. It doesn’t matter if this happens regularly, or if they’re a first-time offender. This seems unnecessarily harsh, and it’s causing my daughter a lot of anxiety because she occasionally forgets to charge her Chromebook.
I also see a number of equity issues with this policy. We have no transportation options (not even public transportation) for kids who receive detention. As a family, we’re planning to buy a $60 portable charger to head off any issues, but obviously some won’t be able to do this.
I did speak with the principal before the written policy came out, and he assured me detention would be a last resort, but the written policy has no flexibility. Am I off base for thinking this policy is unreasonable?
Dear Charged Up,
First of all, every written policy has flexibility—I can’t tell you how many times I have ignored dress code non-compliance because I just don’t have the bandwidth to enforce it, for example. Teachers are exhausted. All the time. The teachers at your daughter’s school may or may not even notice whether a kid’s computer is charged because they’re responsible for eleventy-four other more important things.
Which leads me to my second point: I understand the impulse behind this policy, and I sympathize with the teachers. There are so very many roadblocks to learning that teachers have to clear every day—asking students to be responsible for one of them seems reasonable.
Middle school is a great time to practice responsibility, when the consequences are memorable but not painful. After all, if students don’t learn to charge their computers and implement other important structural habits now, when are they going to? For your daughter in particular, perhaps a sticky note on the bathroom mirror would remind her, or a notification on her phone. Or could you teach her habit-stacking, i.e., making “charge computer” part of her regular nighttime routine, right after “finish homework” and before “brush teeth”? These pre-high school years offer kids an opportunity to learn which structures work for them and which don’t.
That said, your concern about the policy is not in bad faith; there are equity issues at play here.
One way the school could address the transportation problem is instituting lunch detention, rather than after-school detention. Middle schoolers are generally very social beings and removing a time during the day when they can hang with their friends might actually be more effective than keeping them after school. Bring it up with the principal. If they stick with after-school detention, don’t worry—if a parent truly has no means to transport their kid after hours, it’s the administrator’s responsibility to get kids home. The principal might end up ferrying “delinquent” students in their own vehicle. Perhaps that will make them alter the policy.
—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)
Dear Ask a Teacher,
My child’s fourth-grade teacher wants my child to attend my “parent-teacher” conference with us. How do I raise my questions about my child that I would prefer not to have my child present for? She’s doing great generally, but I’d like to address my child’s overall confidence—is she participating? She can be a bit shy, so how is she doing socially, talking in class, how can I help her boost her confidence, etc. I don’t want my child to develop a complex about these things and would prefer not to involve her in them. Is it appropriate for me to email the teacher to say I’d like some time alone with her as well, after my child participates in the conference?
Yes, simply ask that you have a few minutes alone with the teacher at the end of the conference. I also have my students attend conferences because I’ve always thought it odd for me to tell a parent something about a student, only to have the parent relay that information to the child on the car ride home. Except in rare instances. I’d never say something to a parent that I couldn’t also say to the student.
I’ll add that confidence is something I actually talk about a lot in conferences. Your child is almost certainly aware of any struggles they have with confidence and shyness, and one of the best ways to overcome those struggles is to discuss how they might be impacting learning and their social life and strategize ways of making it better. The worst thing you can do is allow your child to feel alone in their struggle, so speaking about it openly and honestly can be enormously beneficial.
But if you’re not comfortable with this, asking for a few moments alone is perfectly fine. There are times when either I or a parent need a few moments alone to discuss something that we’d rather not have the child hear or ask a question that is beyond a child’s understanding or need to know, and in those cases, a few minutes at the end of a conference is no big deal.
I’m sure the teacher will understand and accommodate.
—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)
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