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What’s the role of deadlines in schools?

 With graduation just two weeks away, my students have entered a stressful period that is filled with deadlines.

For example: The last day to turn in their senior project was yesterday. The last day to turn in their community service hours is this Friday. And there’s more.

Today, I’ve been thinking about the nature of deadlines and their place in schools.

Some people think that deadlines are the way of the world, that deadlines are equal to rigor and high standards, that there should be severe punishment if students don’t meet deadlines, and that there shouldn’t be extensions granted.

Other people think that the world has different kinds of deadlines, that some are soft and some are hard, that students should learn from missing deadlines but not be punished severely, and that deadlines are unfair and amount to perpetuating a discriminatory system that excludes.

The first group seems unfeeling and machine-like. The second group seems caring and thoughtful.

As an teacher, I locate myself squarely in the first group.

If I’m clearly communicating an assignment’s expectations, and if I’m helping my students meet those expectations, and then they don’t, then they haven’t met the standard. It’s not my fault, and it’s not their fault; it just means that they didn’t meet the expectation, and therefore shouldn’t receive the credit.

Now I concede that some students have emergencies and special circumstances. But accommodations and communication must happen before the deadline, not afterward. As a teacher, I have no problem in most cases to grant an extension if there is a solid justification. But I don’t like solving a problem for a student after a deadline has passed.

On the other hand, we know that there is sometimes arbitrary power behind deadlines. After all, why is something due on one day and not on another? If a student isn’t ready on the deadline, should we cast him out? Many proponents of standard-based grading oppose deadlines and believe that giving zeroes to students is tantamount to pushing them out of school. Their reasoning goes that schools perpetuate racist patterns by creating unfair hoops for students.

I hear that argument and am amenable to change my ideas about deadlines. However, I haven’t yet found a better way. My experience has been that building flexibility into due dates leads students to do less work. Maybe my approach is rigid, but it’s clear and it gets most kids to move.

There has to be a better way — maybe somewhere in the middle. But whatever that approach is, it must be well thought out. Sure, perhaps deadlines aren’t the answer. But neither is the absence of deadlines.

What do you think? 


  1. Dave Keller

    I try to make the connection between making a deadline and having character. People who do what they say they will do have character. Meeting a deadline is doing what you say you will do. Unless a student comes to me before a deadline, I assume they are agreeing to the deadline (the problem is in the assumption – we all know what happens when you assume). When a student comes before a deadline to ask for an extension I am much happier than when they come after a deadline. For me the issue is about talking the talk and walking the walk. I call it character. My students don’t really buy the connection to character so if anyone has a better way of selling the importance of making deadlines, I’m all ears.

  2. Mark Isero

    Dave, I appreciate your connection between integrity and meeting deadlines. But because we make the assignments, our students don’t see the deadlines as an agreement.

    You’re getting me to think about the importance of taking a few steps back. Why are you coming to school? What are we doing here? Are we really on the same page?

Please share your brilliant insights!