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Wednesday, 5 September 2012

No Zero Policy Deserves A Zero

The recent  newspaper report of the teacher in Edmonton, Lynden Dorval, suspended by his school board for assigning zeroes for assignments that were never completed, is a classic example of education theory clashing with class room reality.  Popular education theory today requires that the public school system assume responsibility for student success.  Under this theory, student failure is the system’s failure, teachers must find ways to “empower” students to achieve something, and courses are never failed; they are merely Incomplete.  Thus achievement is postponed, put off, placed in the to do column until some unspecified date. Students are empowered to defer responsibility for completing their work on time or at all. 
            While school counsellors and administrators continually talk to students about the consequences of bad choices, the Ministry and school boards have continually postponed or eliminated the negative consequences of bad choices.   Schools in B.C. for years have been forbidden to put failing grades on report cards, replacing the “F” with an “I” for Incomplete.  The concept of failing was considered too harmful to student self-esteem to be countenanced. Ross Sheppard High School and other schools in the Edmonton school district have expanded the definition of what is harmful to include zeroes for work that was never completed.
The policy is a distortion of a basically sound concept: Academic grades should be determined solely on the quality of the students’ work, not other factors.  This grew out of the practice many teachers had of docking marks for assignments that were handed in late, for students who arrived late to class or missed planned tests or quizzes without a note from home excusing them, etc. Reduction of students’ marks was a form of punishment designed to alter their behaviour and was a misuse of the grading system. However, awarding zeroes for assignments not done is not a punishment of student behaviour. These are marks based on the students’ work, or in this case, the absence of it, just as students who leave questions blank on tests are given zeroes for those blanks.
The apologists for the No Zero policy excuse the students who fail to hand in assignments by saying that there are factors in their lives that prevent them from doing the work, and that giving them a zero is penalizing or punishing them for those contributing factors.  The apologists conveniently fail to appreciate that those zeroes are in fact in keeping with their own definition of what a grade should be: an appraisal solely of a student’s work. A failing grade indicates that the work failed to meet the required standard for completion.  Not doing it at all falls within the definition of not meeting the required standard.  Grades are not measurements of potential, student ability, effort, personality, character or anything other than the work itself.  When no work is done, a zero is the only accurate numerical indicator.
Teachers of high school academic courses already provide extra help when asked, accept late papers, allow students to rewrite assignments, provide alternate assignments for those with academic challenges, and offer unprecedented numbers of options for special projects and term papers.  Schools offer English and Math courses with differing levels of difficulty, and a variety of Science courses and alternate electives.  As well, the academic requirements for graduation from high school have never been easier. An unintended by-product of all this is that the responsibility for student success has been shifted more and more away from the student and placed on the school system and on teachers. By prohibiting the use of the zero to indicate that no work at all has been done, the system has finally assumed total responsibility for that success.  The system now refuses to admit that students are capable of doing nothing, but instead will find some way for those students do something.  The nature, importance, seriousness of the work they end up doing, its quantity and quality, its relevance and significance may be questionable, but they will find a way to replace that zero with a real number.  Many high school students will applaud this final surrender of their responsibility.  Unfortunately, it is a corruption of educational theory that will provide only the illusion of success and confirm in the minds of the public that public education has lost its way. 
The No Zero policy truly deserves a zero.

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