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Enhancing Student Achievement

by Charlotte Danielson

Table of Contents

Chapter 6. Policies and Practices Affecting Students

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.

Relationship to the Framework

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.

A Safe and Positive Environment

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.

A Culture of Hard Work

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.

A Success Orientation

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.

A Culture of Respect and Responsiveness to Clients

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.

Student Leadership and Decision Making

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.

Minimal Competition

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).

A Culture for Learning

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:

  • School cultures are slow to change. Some students, particularly those who have experienced little school success, build their reputations as class clowns. They project the image that school is dumb, and that only nerds play the game. Even when faculty makes a concerted effort to change this student culture and support a success orientation, the students themselves may be resistant to change. As a result, high-school teachers, particularly in required courses, may inherit students who have had a long history of failure and who are not prepared to risk their self-esteem and reputation with friends for the elusive goal of school success. A shift in school culture will take time.
  • Different spheres of student excellence merit recognition. Most high schools proudly display their athletic trophies, and student athletes are publicly recognized through school assemblies and the student newspaper. Likewise, students with leads in the school play may be acknowledged. But what about a gifted poet? Or the manager of the props for the school play? Or the author of an elegant solution to a mathematics problem? There are many areas of excellent student performance, and a school culture that recognizes only its celebrities can undermine the confidence of students whose talents lie else where.
  • A school culture that supports student learning should be promoted both within each classroom and in the school as a whole. This culture should be promoted in classrooms—where student creativity and commitment should be recognized on a daily basis—as well as throughout the school (e.g., through displays of student work, honor rolls, recognition assemblies, or weekly lunches with the principal).

Categories of Policies and Practices

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.

Attendance Policies

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:

  • Maximize time in school. Attendance and tardiness policies should be grounded in the expectation that school is not optional and that attendance is important. However, staff members must allow for illness and recognize mitigating circumstances. Schools should therefore probably not set an absolute limit to absences, but might require statements from parents or doctors explaining why the child has missed school.
  • Be flexible. Attendance and tardiness policies must allow for individual circumstances and for situations outside of a student's control, such as the need to care for younger siblings.
  • Offer opportunities for teaching. Students of all ages can benefit from learning how to improve attendance and punctuality. In most cases, this opportunity for teaching can be achieved in the classroom setting: students can share strategies for preparing their school materials in advance of when they must walk out the door, or for ensuring that they make the bus. However, some students—particularly older students who face challenges at home—may need individual coaching. A counselor or trusted teacher can be of real assistance in these cases.

Discipline Policies

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:

  • Respectful and appropriate. Discipline policies should reflect a school's belief that everyone in the school community—both adults and students—must be treated with respect (e.g., no bullying or impolite language). Consequences for student infractions should fit the situation, and should not be punitive; students should not be suspended for trivial infractions.
  • Public. Standards of student conduct should be well publicized and known to everyone: students, teachers, and parents. They need to be, and to be perceived to be, reasonable and transparent; any appearance of arbitrariness will undermine their credibility.
  • Consistent. Standards of student conduct should be consistent across a school, rather than dependent on the whim of each teacher. Individual teachers may have their own expectations, of course, but the same general rules should apply across an entire school.

Homework Policies

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:

  • Homework is important. If assigned, homework must be completed; it should not be optional, but rather integral to the instructional program. A school's homework policy should convey the importance the school attaches to homework and emphasize student commitment and responsibility for completing it.
  • Student must be able to complete assignments independently. As a general rule, students should be able to complete assignments without adult assistance at home. The reason for this is simple equity. Some parents are able to substantially assist their children by virtue of their own education: they can explain how to factor polynomials, for example, or provide feedback on writing. But because other parents are not able to offer this type of help, only some students will have the benefit of what amounts to a private tutor at home. It is essential that success in school not depend on the availability of parental assistance.
  • Assignments should be appropriate to completion at home. Some assignments are inappropriate for homework—such as those that represent new learning or learning that requires frequent explanations or intervention by a teacher. More suitable homework assignments are those that ask students to practice previously learned skills, write essays, or memorize vocabulary. Practice increases fluency and facility, and repetition can enhance student mastery of a concept.
  • Links between home and school should be pursued. Some assignments can integrate the home into the learning experience. After studying the Great Depression, for example, 11th grade history students might be asked to interview older relatives and neighbors regarding their experiences during the Depression and its aftermath. Or 3rd graders, after having learned to make bar graphs, can collect data regarding the different types of furniture in their homes and display the information in a bar chart; the next day, the classroom walls will be covered with charts of chairs, tables, beds, and televisions from which patterns may be observed and hypotheses generated.
  • Educators should help students deal with emergencies. When unforeseen events occur, students should not be unduly penalized. Some students, however, exhibit a pattern of suspicious “emergencies”—dogs, after all, can eat only so much paper. Teachers may need to help such students to develop a “plan B” that they can implement when emergencies arise.
  • Teachers should distinguish between completion and effort. Students sometimes get stuck in the course of doing their homework because they do not understand something critical. This may be due to poor instruction, lack of clarity about the assignment, or day dreaming on the part of the student during an explanation. But the result is that the home work is not complete. A reasonable and respectful policy will take these factors into account. In addition, teachers should ask students to document what they did before abandoning their homework: what approaches they tried, for example, or the names of students they phoned for help. Such a policy sends the message that perseverance and resourcefulness are important, so students should not give up at the first sign of trouble.
  • Teachers should coordinate major assignments. Students are quick to notice when major assignments from two different courses are due on the same day, and they are not completely open to their teachers' suggestions that a little advance planning would mitigate the conflict. If a school wants students to give energy to the work they do outside of school, it makes sense for teachers in different departments to share their schedules for major assignments with one another. Students should certainly be expected to complete small daily assignments in many subjects, but major assignments should be coordinated.
  • Teachers should help parents help their children. A school's staff should support a richer intellectual environment at home for students, independent of homework, by encouraging parental involvement. Educators should enlighten parents who don't recognize the educational value of regularly reading aloud to younger children, or of asking them to set the table or sort the laundry. Older children can be asked to read bus schedules or road maps on car trips, or to determine which brand of soap is the best bargain at the supermarket—skills that require higher-order thinking. And children of all ages benefit from conversation or keeping a journal. Educators should help parents to appreciate the value of these activities, so that they will encourage their children to take part in them.

Grading Policies

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:

  • Motivating students. Educators can use grades to motivate students to work hard, study, and learn the content of a course, especially in high school.
  • Communicating with students. Grades can help let students know what learning is important, as well as how well they are doing, in general.
  • Communicating with parents. Grades can help let parents know how well their children are progressing in school. Most parents are not interested in the details of their children's progress; they are primarily looking for reassurance that their children are “on track.”
  • Communicating with other teahers. In some schools, teachers use grades to let one another know how well students are performing. When students move from one school to another—from middle school to high school, for example—grades can be used to communicate between the two faculties.
  • Communicating with the outside world. Admissions directors at colleges, universities, and technical schools, as well as company personnel directors, look to school transcripts for clues about students. Educational institutions want to know whether students are sufficiently prepared for the rigors of higher education, whereas employers tend to care about factors such as punctuality, interpersonal skills, and initiative.

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.

Reflective of Student Learning in the Curriculum

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.

Consistency Within a School

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.)

Multiple Measures of Student Learning

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.

Grade Inflation

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

  • Grades reflect only the idiosyncratic judgments of individual teachers,
  • Students have no way to improve their performance,
  • Grades are handed out as rewards for compliance in class, or
  • Grades have little connection to student performance.

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.

Rubric for Policies and Practices Affecting Students




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 Policies

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.

Discipline 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

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.

Grading 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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