Separating Work Behaviors from Academics

I’m continuing to try to convince others that separating work behaviors from academic performance in grading is a professional action that all educators should embrace.  By doing so, we give parents a more complete picture of the individual strengths and weaknesses of their children. 

We all know that some kids struggle because they can’t master content and that some kids struggle because they haven’t mastered responsible behaviors—-but schools do a really poor job letting parents know exactly what their kids are good at. 

The biggest struggle that I often have is getting parents to understand the difference between work behaviors and academics—-and valuing the feedback that I give about work behaviors as just as important as the feedback that I give about academics.  “My mom doesn’t care about the work behaviors rubric, Mr. Ferriter,” one boy said.  “All she cares about is my grades.”

To tackle that challenge, I sent the following email to my parents on Friday.  Maybe it will help you to wrap your head around my grading beliefs.  Feel free to use the text if you have similar grading practices:


Dear Parents,

I hope this email finds you well and enjoying a string of remarkable weather!  I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had with the windows open and the radio on in the past week.  This is why I moved to North Carolina! 

Just a heads up:

Your students are bringing home a packet of progress reports today that will give you information about their current academic performance in each of their core classes.  It’s important to know that on our grade level, we work diligently to make sure that the number grades shared with parents represent academic ability only—so if you see an 87, that means your child has an above average level of mastery of grade level materials in our classrooms. 

We feel it’s important that the number grades you see represent academic ability only because then you as parents are given an accurate indicator of their knowledge and skill in each content area.  When grades are inflated because a child “works hard” or deflated because a child “misbehaves” or “fails to turn in assignments,” then parents never truly have a clear picture of what their children actually know. 

That being said, we also understand that work behaviors—-coming to school prepared, completing homework assignments on time, following directions, being motivated and excited, participating in classroom conversations—are absolutely essential to a student’s success.  In fact, in many ways, a student’s work behaviors is a more accurate indicator of how successful they will be in the future. 

We all have stories of the person who is brilliant but can’t ever get anything done, right?

We also know that work behaviors are still developing in middle grades children.  During the preteen years, students are going through remarkable cognitive changes.  The ability to plan a course of action isn’t fully developed yet.  The ability to think through the consequences of decisions and to control emotions is inconsistent as well.

Which means that we take the teaching of work behaviors seriously!  We’re constantly giving students feedback about the importance of being on task and of “producing.”  While we don’t take points off for assignments that are turned in late and while we allow students to do make up work on a regular basis, we are diligent about emphasizing to students that success depends on work behaviors. 

To that end, we’re also sending home a Work Behaviors Rubric again today.  This is the document that we use to give specific feedback to parents about their child’s strengths and weaknesses as a “producer.”  We feel strongly that it is as important for you to know which work behaviors they are struggling to master as it is for you to know which content they are struggling to master. 

What you will see on the Work Behaviors Rubric are several indicators that describe what a successful student should be able to do.  These indicators include things like participating in class, coming to school prepared, turning in work on time, completing work neatly and as required.  The rubric covers performance in LA and SS on one side and MA and SCI on the other. 

You will also see the score that your child has given to himself/herself in each category.  We walk students through a self reflection in class and ask them to evaluate their own performance in each category.  It’s just plain essential that they begin to recognize their own personal strengths and weaknesses. 

Finally, you will see the rating that Ms. Lightfoot and Ms. Niemann have given your child in each area.  Oftentimes, the ratings that are given by the teachers will mirror those given by your students.  Other times, the ratings given by the teacher will differ from those given by your students.  This will help you to get a better sense for the areas that your child needs to focus on in order to be successful in future grade levels—and provide you with a conversation starter that you can use when talking with your child.

Please know that in our opinion, these work records are remarkably important for you to look at and to take seriously.  Often, parents are more focused on the numeric grades that we give to students than they are on the individual behaviors that lead to those grades.  On our team, numeric averages are not largely affected by late or missing assignments, so they can be misleading.  They are designed only to give you feedback about the content knowledge of your kid!

The bigger concern for you should be the ratings that they are receiving on their work records—because those behaviors are what will result in success in future grade levels.

Please let me know if you have any questions about our grading system.  I know it’s non-traditional, but I also think it is far more professionally responsible because it gives you a clear picture of your child’s academic performance and detailed feedback about their strengths and weaknesses as students who produce!

Be well,

Bill Ferriter

9 thoughts on “Separating Work Behaviors from Academics

  1. Carly Albee

    Bill- I am seriously thinking about using your brilliant “Student Work Record” rubric. I have a quick detail question: What do you put in the teacher box…a check…a rainbow…a unicorn… or comments??? Okay, I realize that you would never put a unicorn in there.
    We have a narrative that we send out with each report card here at Buncombe County Early College. It is great, but needs improvement. I always like to hear from other teachers that are trying to separate behavior and achievement. It helps us refine the art of giving helpful feedback to students. An “A” doesn’t mean much…nor does an “F.” If our principals told us we were failing at teaching, but didn’t give us any idea what we needed improvement on…or even what we were succeeding in…we would be lost (probably depressed too). I think it is silly to think that our students (who don’t have the maturity and self-reflecting skills that we do) can figure out what they are doing wrong when an “F” shows up on their report card.

  2. groovymonkey

    Hi Bill,
    Is it possible to see what your work rubric looks like? Our school took the big plunge and got rid of number grades and letter grades but that doesn’t mean that teachers separated academic and behavioural/work skills on their report cards. We’re a work in progress!
    I would love to attach a work rubric to my reports as well.
    Thanks for the discourse!

  3. Kate

    Bill, I know from other things I’ve read on your blog that you are rather sick of this debate, but your concept is a new one for me that I think more teachers should discuss. I referred to this debate and to your blog directly in my latest posting on both my blog and the NCTE secondary page blog. Thanks for being willing to hang in there with the rest of us on this debate…

  4. jose

    My modus operandi is very similar to yours in that i try to give the parents hot and cold feedback about the child’s behaviors as well as their academic success. I honestly believe for my kids, it works best if their work behaviors and academic behaviors are put in together, so there is that extra incentive to do well on the grade that counts. Unfortunately, in the situations I’ve encountered, the parent doesn’t care how the student behaves if I tell him or her that the student is doing well, but if the behavior is included in the grade (if we’re looking at grades as an indicator of progress or digress in the class), then it’s an extra push for both parent and child to try and do their best to get those grades up.

  5. Kate

    Forgive me, but I’m a little confused. Do you report the numeric academic average based only on the work that has been turned in? For example, I’m an English instructor, and our department requires certain essays as Core Assignments. If students have A’s on two essays, but do not turn the other two essays in, their class average would be a C. With your grading system, would the student receive an A on the academic grading and then an unsatisfactory on the work rubric?

  6. Pat

    As a special ed teacher, I am very concerned about work behaviors because I want to teach my students skills that can carry over to different situations. I want them to learn content but I also want them to know what processes are important so that they can continue to learn effectively even if I am not with them.

  7. Bob Heiny

    Kudos for reporting this important distinction between process and product. Thurston, Terman, and others showed us how to report them separately in academics almost a hundred years ago. Most teachers followed their lead until the 1960s. It’s good to see you advocate for reporting these two parts separately.

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