Extra Credit: The Artificial Sweetener That Kills Learning

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“I have a 140 in Social Studies right now,” he told me proudly.

“How?” I asked, bracing myself for the answer.

“Extra credit.” Of course. “I stayed after school to help the teacher clean desks.”

“That’s a lot of desks,” I sighed.

“Sure was. My arms are still sore from all that scrubbing.”

The problem was, he still didn’t know what social injustice was or how to write a coherent argument in order to advocate for those whose rights were being violated. Clean desks are great, but if we’re going to empower kids to become community leaders, we need to consider the unintended consequences of inviting kids to escape real learning by inflating their averages when they complete unrelated tasks.

“That extra credit isn’t really helping you,” I suggested.

“Sure is,” he grinned with pride, “I have an A. That’s pretty sweet.”

“Not really. All that extra-credit just sugar-coated your struggles. They didn’t disappear.”

“You’re a kill-joy, you know that?”

“So I’m told,” I grinned.

Here’s the thing: grades don’t do much to promote learning, but extra credit makes that rotten reality even worse. If we’re going to report on student performance, we need to communicate whether or not students are truly meeting standards. Don’t like the Common Core? This isn’t about that. It’s about making definitions of quality transparent. You can work with kids to create standards, but they have to be clear, common, and transparent, and when kids miss the mark, we can’t sugar-coat the truth. When they struggle, we need to help them. Extra credit isn’t intervention, and inflating averages while failing to intervene deludes kids into thinking that they’re done learning.

Rather than assigning extra (and often arbitrary) tasks in order to take the sting out of struggle, wouldn’t it make more sense to ditch grades and consequences, loosen up deadlines, and empower kids to continue trying until they improve?

But what about the kids who aren’t avoiding the challenge? What about the ones who are really trying? Don’t they deserve extra credit for their efforts?

Sure, they deserve it, but in the long run, this response hurts more than it helps. What kids deserve most is our support. We need to give them extra feedback and extra chances to revise their thinking and their work.

But what about the parents who are used to seeing those As?

Start sharing criteria-specific feedback with them instead. Use evidence (not numbers) to speak to your students’ strengths. Be sure that all of them, even your best students, are aware of their needs. Set goals with all of them. Make the parents aware that you aren’t concerned with grades, but with constant progress, regardless of how kids perform. Make this the center of your conversation.

Be courageous enough to open honest and evidence-based dialogue with kids and parents.

Encourage them to do the same.

Talk about what’s working for kids. Ask questions to find out more about what isn’t.

What you’ll learn will be of far more value than anything an extra credit task might reveal.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.

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