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by Charlotte Danielson
Table of Contents
The policies and practices affecting students are those aspects of a school's operation that organize students' experiences within the institution. For younger students, these policies and practices also structure the parents' relationship with the school. In considering the school's policies and practices affecting students, educators should ask themselves such questions as “What is the school policy with respect to homework, or to absences?” “What happens when a student is sent to the principal's office?” “How are students treated in the lunchroom?”
The decisions that a school makes regarding established policies and practices affect students enormously. Teachers' instructional decisions influence students' feelings about (and success with) the curriculum, but the policies and practices in both classrooms and in the entire school provide the context for teacher-student interactions around instruction.
Decisions regarding policies and practices that affect students should draw from earlier discussions regarding what we want, believe, and know, and should respect the following key concepts.
Both the physical and psychological school environments must be safe for all students. Broken plumbing and falling ceilings, for example, must be fixed in a timely manner. Such problems don't only pose a physical danger; when gone untended, they send a powerful message to students that their well-being is not important. Policies and practices must show respect for students, who should feel safe at school and feel that it is theirs. Consistency and predictability are a part of safety; rules and procedures must be fairly and consistently applied, so that they are not regarded as capricious.
Students derive enormous satisfaction from tackling difficult tasks and succeeding on their own. If educators want students to experience the pride of success through hard work, they will establish practices that reward hard work rather than natural endowment or luck. In addition, homework and grading policies shouldn't handi-cap students who don't “get it” on the first attempt; such students should be given a second chance to succeed, and a third.
The goal of school policies and practices should be student mastery of the curriculum and development of their potential. There is no room in a school truly committed to student learning for policies that are punitive, turn students away, or undermine their confidence. If some students believe that they are forever relegated to a “low group”—that nothing they do will ever let them become leaders in student government, because they are somehow not regarded as part of the school's “elite”—they will turn their back on the benefits of school. If students regard challenging courses or membership in certain clubs as the province of only a select few, most will harbor no ambitions for such opportunities.
In many schools, particularly high schools, students feel that they are the least important people in the building: they are kept waiting by teachers or the principal, they are summoned to the office for mysterious reasons, and they feel that no one ever believes their side of the story. Taken together, the policies and practices in these schools do not produce an environment in which students feel respected as human beings and valued as full participants.
Opportunities for student leadership can help define the culture of a school. These must not be restricted to an elite—there must be broad opportunities for students to develop leadership skills, such as by helping establish the homework guidelines, serving as lab assistants in science, or lending a hand with younger students.
Decision making relates more to how policies and procedures are derived than to what they are. Students of all ages value the opportunity to shape the rules by which they live. When they help create the rules, students are more likely to understand the rationale behind them and will comply with them more willingly. In addition, the inclusion of student voices in the decision-making process provides educators with access to a valuable perspective. Rules and procedures are therefore likely to be stronger if students help create them than they would be if mandated by teachers and administrators alone.
Despite knowing the corrosive effects of competition, many educators continue, largely because of tradition, to create policies and practices that institutionalize competitiveness into the fabric of the school. Students should only compete against themselves in the classroom (e.g., by trying to “top” a previous essay).
Learning is an active process, in which students must be engaged as genuine participants. And student learning is not limited to the curriculum: students learn from homework and discipline policies as well. Consequently, aspects of a school's policies that have an effect on student learning should be designed with active learning in mind: for example, if educators want students to assume responsibility for their behavior, discipline policies should reflect a view of students as active decision makers.
A school's culture for learning is the implicit sense among students regarding what is valued in the school, and whether it is important to be a successful learner. In this context, I use the term “culture” in the anthropological sense, meaning the norms and values that prevail in a school setting. What is valued? What traits are honored? What are the relative values of athletic skill, academic success, and artistic talent? Many schools, and high schools especially, suffer from a student culture in which it is not “cool” to be smart, work hard, or earn high grades. Educators should bear the following issues in mind when considering their schools' cultures:
Schools have multiple policies and practices that affect students. Some of these have been deliberately set in place, and others have evolved with time. Educators are well advised to re-examine the accepted ways of doing things at their schools. These practices will be familiar to both students and faculty, and if they contribute to a school's focus on learning, they should be retained. Practices that do not support student learning should be revised to ensure that they do, difficult though it may be to disrupt the status quo.
The major policies and practices affecting students are described below.
Most schools establish their attendance policies on the assumption that the students can't learn unless they are in school. The goal of such policies is to ensure that students attend school as much as possible. Of course, no school wants to encourage students who are sick to attend school, lest they infect others. Unfortunately, students will occasionally be sick without even knowing it, thereby infecting other students before being sent home. (Many elementary teachers have had the experience of chicken pox working its way through their class for most of an entire school year.)
In general, attendance policies should do the following:
Discipline policies are the rules regarding student conduct, both within classrooms and in the school as a whole. These include rules about running in the halls, disrespectful language, willful disregard of teacher requests, and, for older students, public displays of affection. Discipline policies might also include student conduct on the bus and playground, or in the cafeteria.
In a sincere attempt to enhance the quality of their school environment, educators in some schools have instituted harsh zero-tolerance policies for students. In some cases, such as weapons possession, a zero-tolerance approach is certainly justified. However, it is important that educators not confuse being tough with being businesslike.
Educators must appreciate the relationship between instruction and student conduct. When students are engaged in meaningful work and experience learning success, they are not much inclined to disrupt a class. But if students are bored, or if they believe that they are about to be embarrassed or humiliated, they may actually prefer being sent to the office to staying in class. A solution, then, for some student infractions may be to make learning experiences more engaging, so that students can be challenged as well as successful.
Successful standards of conduct will reflect certain characteristics:
Teachers assign homework to students mainly to extend learning time. Students are in school for six hours or so each day; if they complete assignments at home, they can be actively engaged in learning for considerably longer than that.
A school's approach to homework depends on the age of the students. Although it is unreasonable to expect young children to spend long hours doing assignments, a well-conceived homework policy helps students assume more responsibility for their own learning and allows students to continue learning beyond the school day.
As educators determine their school's approach to homework, the following guidelines may be helpful:
Of all the policies and practices affecting students, the school's approach to grading has the greatest potential to affect students' futures, both within the school and beyond it. Furthermore, a school's grading policy will often have a lot of “baggage” associated with it, as it is an aspect of school life about which everyone—teachers, students, and parents—feels strongly.
Almost no one believes that conventional approaches to grading are beneficial. There is no consensus as to what grades mean; some teachers appear to believe that their grade distributions reflect their own teaching abilities or the complexity of the content more than they do student achievement; others maintain that their harsh grading policy reflects their own high standards. Teachers also tend to disagree on the quality of student work: given the same student essay, some teachers would award it an A while others would give it a C. Teachers, that is, tend to apply their own standards of quality to student work that are rarely communicated to either students or other teachers. Furthermore, many citizens, educators, and admissions directors in institutions of higher education think that the distribution of grades should follow the bell curve, believing that too many high grades is evidence of grade inflation.
Any discussion of grading policies must begin with their purposes, which include the following:
The following recommendations are based on the assumptions threaded throughout this book. Grading is a complex topic on which it is difficult to achieve consensus. The recommendations I offer here will, I hope, serve as a basis for structured conversation on the subject.
A grade for English on a report card should reflect how well the student has mastered the content of the English course; if teachers want to comment on participation, effort, or behavior in class, they may do so on the report card, but not as part of a grade. Students' effort, homework, behavior, and attendance are all important aspects of their work in school, and should be part of any comprehensive report to parents. However, when these are incorporated into the grading system, the grades become muddled and therefore meaningless.
In addition, an individual student's grades should be allocated independently of any other student. If all students master the curriculum at a high level, they should all receive As or Bs.
An A from Ms. Jones should mean the same as an A from Mr. Smith; grades should not reflect each teacher's idiosyncratic notions of what constitutes quality. Consistency within a school (or even a district), combined with the need for grades to reflect student learning in the curriculum, suggests that teachers have decided together what the curriculum is and how to assess it. It implies, in other words, the use of consistent assessments at the end of courses or semesters. (This issue is further addressed in Chapter 10: Assessment.)
Within the context of a consistent approach to curriculum and assessment, individual teachers need to consider many different indicators of student mastery of the curriculum when assigning grades. An end-of-course exam for Algebra I that is used consistently throughout the mathematics department may be a valuable benchmark of student work, but it should not be the only factor used to determine student grades in the course; teachers should consider quizzes, projects, and oral presentations as well. Learning, and the demonstration of that learning, is what's important—not student performance on a single high-stakes test.
Many observers have noted that grades “just aren't what they used to be.” Commentators have bemoaned the fact that, even in the most selective schools and colleges, it is common for a majority of students to receive As or Bs, thus rendering the grades effectively meaningless. Some argue that the professors who hand out such grades are under pressure from students to “doctor the books” and boost their chances at graduate school admission or good jobs. These complaints are worthy of serious attention when
If, however, grades actually reflect student understanding of the curriculum, then large numbers of high grades should be applauded rather than criticized, as this means simply that many students are mastering important concepts.
Complaints about grade inflation make sense only in the context of general confusion about the fundamental meaning of grades. If more students are earning higher grades, and if high grades represent high levels of achievement, then everyone should be cheering. On the other hand, if more and more students are getting A's but nobody knows what the grades actually mean, then the concerned voices have an important message.
The nature of students' experience in school is influenced not only by the quality of instruction, but also by the school's policies and practices. Students of all ages approach school with a positive spirit, and they expect to find success and fulfillment there, so the policies and practices affecting them must be clear, fair, and likely to contribute to student learning. Such policies can be firm, but they should also be just, and should respect student interests and motivations. Policies and practices affecting students are powerful levers that help set the tone and direct behavior in a school. The adults involved must ensure that the policies they put in place reinforce their goals for students, reflect their beliefs about students and their learning, and are supported by research findings.
A Culture for Learning
The school has no culture for learning, or a negative culture. Students appear satisfied to “just get by.”
Some of the school's practices reinforce the culture for learning; students have partially internalized this culture and some of them make a commitment to excellence.
School practices reinforce the culture for learning; students have internalized this culture and make a serious commitment to excellence.
Attendance and tardiness policies are rigid and punitive; no attention is paid to student learning or flexibility for individual situations. Students have had no opportunity to contribute to the development of the policies.
Attendance and tardiness policies are focused on maximizing attendance, but are only partially flexible for individual situations. Students have had some opportunity to contribute to the development of the policies.
Attendance and tardiness policies are focused on maximizing attendance and student learning, and are flexible and responsive to individual situations. Students have contributed to the development of the policies.
Standards of student conduct are arbitrary, and consequences for student infractions are punitive and harsh. Discipline policies are not well publicized and students have had no opportunity to contribute to their development.
Standards of student conduct and the consequences for student infractions are fairly reasonable. Discipline policies are publicly known and students have had some opportunity to contribute to their development.
Standards of student conduct are based on mutual respect, and consequences for student infractions are reasonable. Discipline policies are publicly known and students have contributed to their development.
Homework policies and practices are rigid and not designed to promote student learning. Consequences of incomplete homework are punitive. Students have had no opportunity to contribute to the development of the policies.
Homework policies and practices are moderately flexible and attempt to promote student learning. Consequences for incomplete homework are fairly reasonable. Students have had some opportunity to contribute to the development of the policies.
Homework policies and practices are flexible and designed to promote student learning. Consequences for incomplete homework are firm but respectful. Students have contributed to the development of the policies.
Student grades are awarded according to the bell curve; factors other than mastery of the curriculum, such as cooperation, are used to inflate poor grades; or grades are awarded to students based on the teachers' individual preferences and favoritism towards students.
Teachers decide grades according to a combination of factors that are poorly articulated and not well understood by students and parents. Grades reflect not only mastery of the curriculum, but also effort, amount of progress, and level of participation and cooperation.
Student grades reflect mastery of the curriculum, and do not reflect the standing of students relative to other students. Factors such as effort, amount of progress, and level of participation and cooperation are addressed separately on report cards.
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