Extra Credit: The Downfall of America?

I feel dizzy from the number of times I have flip-flopped on the topic of extra credit in schools.  As a middle school educator, I am flooded with requests from students, "Please, Mr. G.  Is there any way I can do extra credit?  Pleeeeeeease?"  Some years, heart strings were tugged in September, and my policy was made for me.  Other years, however, I stood strong and tall, feeling a bit like an ogre, saying "So sorry, I don't do extra credit," but unsure about the WHY behind this statement.  Once I thought long and hard about extra credit, and its potential damaging effect on my classroom, and exponentially my school, my state, and beyond, I decided that extra credit was a dirty little secret, and simply had to go.

Why?  Extra credit, sitting innocently enough by itself, doesn't sound so sinister, right?  I found that more often than not, extra credit was being requested by students who wanted to raise their grade.  What a fantastic situation: eager students who were requesting to learn more?  How could I go wrong!?  Often, I found, the extra credit I assigned was for the student to investigate, learn or understand more knowledge, and it often was extension material.  If I'm being totally honest with myself, more times than not, students were using Wikipedia to look up information that someone else had researched, wrote a few paragraphs, and hope that Mr. Guditus was feeling generous and hadn't forgotten his coffee that day (there was no rubric, of course).

After being totally honest (and vulnerable) with myself, I realized the purpose of extra credit was flawed: I was taking students who were struggling with mastery of a topic, and piled on what amounted to additional busy work, and raised their grade as a result.  WHAT?!  This couldn't be: I was a thoughtful teacher: how had I let myself get away with this?  Teachers are human, and I let emotions drive my decisions, not thinking about the students.  I had forgotten that kids don't always get to make the decisions in the classroom, and that as the teacher, it was my responsibility to determine mastery, and (here's the punchline) what to do when students do not master the material.  I think it was ignorant bliss.  I hadn't realized I had stumbled upon a big question: how do I handle students who struggle?  And seemingly, I wasn't.  Those who were motivated got a boost in their grade, but those who were embarrassed, unable or unwilling to approach me simply got diddly-squat.  This is unacceptable.

Now, here I was facing a bigger issue: how do ensure that students are learning?  It appeared that just giving additional research projects willy-nilly was not the solution.  Not to mention, what about those high-achieving students who had demonstrated mastery?  Extra credit may or may not have motivated them, but was it fair to only offer extra credit to struggling learners?  Would they stop when their grade reached a 100%?  Am I teaching them to be learners for the sake of learning?  I had opened Pandora's Box.  But I'm so glad I did.  Because ultimately, extra credit isn't about ensuring learning, it's about superficiality: raising grades to make students, parents and teachers feel good about themselves, without actually demonstrating mastery of the concepts from class.  Shouldn't a grade be a reflection of understanding of the curriculum?  It simply must be so.

My next year of teaching, I confidently listed "No extra credit is offered in my classroom" in my classroom policies, as well as "assessments under 70 are required to be retaken."  I expected the worst: posters, riots, protests.  Nothing.  After the first assessment, one reflection of student understanding of the material, I contacted students who had scored below a 70, letting them know they must have:
  • Parent signature.
  • After-school/before-school conference with me.
  • Written reflection of why you got the grade you did, and what you will do differently to prepare for the next assessment.
  • Personalized additional study work, due in one week (this looked differently, depending on the assessment and the preparation that was done or not done) to ensure missing concepts were covered
  • Retake the test or quiz, following this cycle, until a 70 or better was achieved.
In this fashion, I could confidently provide students an avenue to increase their understanding, learning and comprehension, of the material I/school/town/state decided was important.  Extension of high-achievers still happened, but I was able to inform students and parents that extension was for students who had mastered the material, not for those to wanted to improve their grade.  To do that, there was a process.

Light Bulb Clip ArtFastforward to this year: I'm an assistant principal, and in the last few weeks, as I've walked the classrooms of my middle school, I have found extra credit to be rampant.  I wonder: how often are students offered extension of curriculum, when they haven't yet mastered the fundamentals?  Is extra credit ruining our students by sending them the message that "more is better," and "complete what you want to complete, not what's important"?  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for student choice and constructivism in classrooms, but extra credit could potentially be damaging our nation.  Extra credit allows students to opt-out of the curriculum they need to master, in lieu of something else (which may or may not be important), but still go on record as having achieved the standard.  This allows us all to be living in a sea of smiles and happiness, but not in reality.  If students are struggling, we must take on the hard work to help them learn and find mastery, not allow them to work independently on material that is not essential.  If we do, our nation will wake up to find students who have become adults that lack essential knowledge and skills, but no one knew...all because of extra credit.  (That may be a bit dramatic, but you get my point, right?)  Extra credit has the potential to send students the message that more is better, and learning just for learning's sake isn't good enough (see Daniel Pink's book Drive for more about motivation).  Our nation simply can not be sustained on these values.  More is not better: creativity, drive for excellence, innovation - these are the values that will help our students be the best in the world.

Teaching is hard work.  As educators (and as an administrator), we must not allow ourselves to take the easy way out, but closely follow our students' mastery, and teach them that learning for learning's sake is important, and that understanding and success is not an option: it's mandatory, and the basis for ensuring that all our children learn.

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Fran Lo said…
I like the idea of giving kids a chance to redo the work and retake the assessment. I also like the idea of parent signature.

One approach I use (as an English teacher) is to offer one "extra credit" per quarter, but with a twist. Students have to write an essay about an article that I provide, and the grade on this replaces the lowest grade on an equivalent assignment (sometimes a zero because they blew off that assignment). This gives students the reading and writing practice they need. And because it isn't added on, but just replaces a bad grade, it won't help a grade-grubber much (you know, the kid who wants to turn a B into an A after being satisfied with good work but not great work all quarter).

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