Sometimes students deserve to get a zero

Originally published by the Calgary Herald, June 10, 2012 Original Link

How much should a pilot get paid if she never flies a plane? How about a doctor who never treats a patient? Or a car salesman who fails to sell a single car?

If you answered zero, you live in the real world.

Employees don’t get paid for doing nothing. It’s common sense.

However, many schools seem to have a different perspective. For example, many school administrators have introduced a grading-for-learning approach, part of which prohibits teachers from giving a mark of zero to students with incomplete assignments. Instead of a zero, teachers must assess students only on the work they actually submit.

In other words, students who don’t hand in many assignments can still pass their courses if they do well on the few assignments they do submit.

Lynden Dorval teaches high school physics at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School. With 35 years of experience, he recently refused to comply with the absurd grading policy that prohibited teachers from assigning zeros for incomplete work. He went on giving zeros despite several warnings from his principal. Eventually, he was suspended and could very well lose his job.

From a legalistic perspective, the school board has every right to discipline Dorval. According to Alberta’s School Act, school boards may suspend teachers who fail to follow a lawful directive from the board. While the assessment policy in question may be misguided, teachers are required to follow lawful directives from their employer.

Schools could not function if teachers disregarded any policy they disagreed with.

That being said, most people recognize there is something intuitively wrong with an assessment policy that prohibits teachers from assigning zeros for work that has not been done. The fact that many of Dorval’s colleagues and students are rallying behind him should also be a clear sign that something is seriously amiss. The superintendent and principal are defending a policy that may be lawful, but which most members of the public consider illegitimate and indefensible.

On June 1, Edmonton superintendent Edgar Schmidt published an open letter to defend the indefensible. In that letter, he defends the current policy of not giving zeros and tries to present it as a superior way of holding students accountable.

“Our approach to missed assignments is to work with each student to find out the reason they did not turn in an assignment. Once a teacher finds out the reason, they work with the student to come up with a solution to address the situation. They agree to a plan to turn in future assignments and the teacher holds the student accountable,” Schmidt said.

The explanation fails to address the fact that some high school students simply choose not to do their work. Dorval didn’t automatically assign zeros to students the moment an assignment didn’t come in. Rather, he worked with students and reminded them regularly of the importance of submitting their work. When that fails, however, there needs to be a tangible consequence for those students who choose not to submit assignments. The new assessment policy naively ignores the realities of human nature.

Ross Sheppard High in Edmonton is by no means the first to experiment with this failed approach. In fact, Manitoba and Ontario had provincial assessment policies that prohibited or strongly discouraged teachers from deducting marks from late assignments or assigning a mark of zero for incomplete work. However, strong opposition from the public in both instances led the governments to retreat from this policy.

It never had to be this way. Many aspects of the socalled grading-for-learning approach are positive and would likely have broad-based public support. For example, grading-for-learning encourages teachers to drop the common practice of basing individual student assessment on group assignments. It also makes a clearer distinction between assignments given for the purpose of preliminary feedback (formative assessment) and final marks (summative assessment). These are sensible reforms, but they have been overshadowed by the no-zeros policy.

School administrators have a choice. They can focus on common sense assessment reforms that would have broad-based public support, or they can stand behind a foolish no-zeros policy supported by a handful of education consultants.

Let’s hope common sense prevails. Teachers should be able to give zeros to students who choose not to submit their assignments.

Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a public high school teacher. He is co-author of the book, What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.