No Zero gets a zero

Yesterday in Edmonton it was revealed that a teacher at Ross Shepard High School had been suspended.  The reason for the suspension was insubordination by not following a school policy that had been established well over a year ago.  I don't want to spend much time talking about the suspension itself, because the suspension was warranted.  The school had a policy, the teacher repeatedly refused to comply with that policy.  If I were to do that at my workplace, I would suffer a similar result.  I do not question the suspension.  However, the suspension needs to be removed from the actual story and issue we need to talk about, so this is the only part of this post that I will mention the suspension.

The policy in question is what I will call the "No Zero Policy."  The concept of the policy is simple; students are not to be given zero percent on school work.  If an assignment is not completed or an exam missed, no mark will be assigned, and a note stating that the teacher was unable to mark the assignment is given.  The result of this is that the student's overall mark will be calculated only on work that is completed and handed in.  In the extreme case where the student simply hands in so few assignments that a reasonable average cannot be calculated, an "unable to assess" is placed on the report card.

I truly don't even know where to begin.  I've known about this policy for years, as it has been in place in many Jr. High schools for the better part of a decade, however I still cannot wrap my head around how it makes sense.  There are so many issues that can be raised that it is impossible to cover them all short of writing a novel, so I want to focus on just a few points.

We must teach responsibility and accountability


The first, and probably most obvious point, is that this policy completely erodes the attempt to teach young people a sense of responsibility and accountability. It teaches them that it is ok if they don't want to do an assignment because they think it is hard, or that they didn't feel like doing it.  There is no reason for the student to try to do the work.  This is especially true of an assignment or subject the student may struggle in.  Instead of at least attempting to learn the content, the student is given no incentive to do it.  If a student completes a difficult assignment and gets 50%, that could bring their average down, but if they don’t even attempt the assignment, there are no consequences, and their overall average is not affected.  That is not the message we should be sending.

Ultimately, this brings up a far bigger issue about responsibility and accountability.  One of the biggest complaints and criticisms of the younger generation of people aged 15-29 right now is that work ethic and responsibility is lacking and they have little drive to succeed in the workplace.  A no zero policy in schools only amplifies this.  If children are being taught that there are no consequences for not doing work, how does this set them up for post secondary school and eventually the workforce?  The simple answer is that it doesn't.  It teaches them that taking the path of least resistance is the best path.  When I'm at work, I am held accountable for what I do, and what I don't do.  If I don't complete a task I must be accountable for that.  That is a pretty basic thing.  A no zero policy does not teach that accountability.

Basically, if we want our youth to have a sense of responsibility and accountability, we have to teach it to them.  No Zero does not do that.  And if we don't do that, all we are doing is setting our children up to fail later in life.

No zero is not fair to all students


Another issue that is more immediate and more direct to the classrooms that have no zero in place, is fairness.  I touched on this a little bit already, but this is actually a big issue.  Let's say that you have two students, Student A and Student B.  A and B have similar abilities in a subject, say English.  Now, there comes two assignments with a topic that both students struggle with.  Student A completes the assignments to the best of their ability, and get a mark of 55% on one and 59% on another.  Student B thinks the assignment is too hard and does not hand in any work.  Assuming Student A and B have the same overall average before these assignments are done, and those averages are greater than 59%, Student A's average will go down because they at least attempted the assignment, and tried to do as well as possible on it.  Student B's average is not affected because instead of getting a zero, no mark is assigned.  Now, just to pick a number, let's say that over a full course term there are a total of 40 assignments and exams.  If Student A does all 40, and struggles at one or two, than those two will bring their average down.  If Student B only completes 38 that means that their average will only be calculated across 38 marks, and not the 40 that Student A has done, and the average for Student B will be higher than Student A.

I would honestly like to see someone successfully argue that this is a fair solution for Student A.  Because no one I have talked to so far can.  No Zero punishes the students who try harder than the students who do not try, and it creates an unbalanced system where children are evaluated on different amounts of work done.  How can Student A possibly feel like this is a good situation for them?  I would go so far as to say that this actually encourages Student A to not do the work.

I find it kind of funny, because part of the reason for a no zero policy is to not to punish the students who are having difficulty, or may need the additional help.  An unfortunate side effect is that it teaches the other students, who would otherwise put the effort in, that they don't have to.

Why no zero?


Now, I fully understand the reasons why the no zero policy exists.  It is to try to promote the students.  To keep them from seeing bad things on their report cards, and to try to eliminate negatives and make going to school a more positive thing.  The policy also exists to push kids through school, and to reduce the number of kids failing, since it is much harder to fail a course if you don't get zeros.

I'm going to focuse on that first point, because I don't necessarily disagree with it in principle.  I really do believe that schools should be a place where kids want to go, and that if they actually want to be there they are more likely to try harder, and succeed.  That is a very valid argument, and does have merit.  However I believe that, like anything, there has to be a balance.  If a student chooses not to do an assignment, they should not be rewarded for it.  It may encourage them to keep going to school and have a better time there, because there are no consequences to their actions, but that is not the correct message to send.  Students should be rewarded for the work they do, and not the work they don't do.  No zeros rewards students for not doing work, and punishes those who do.  The focus should be, in fact needs to be, on how to reward students who struggle for putting in 100% effort, even if it results in lower marks than anyone would like.  I'm not going to pretend to have the answer to that, but there has to be a better way.  I argue that it is better to try and not succeed, than to not try at all.  Our educators need to figure out that balance, because no zero is not the way.

Beyond no zero


I want to end this on a bit of a positive note, because I don't want to sound like I think this should be a hard line.  Giving a student a zero should never be the first choice.  I don't know if anyone really wants that.  This should not be a simple "hand it in by this date or you get a zero."  I believe that a student should be given every opportunity to succeed, and that a teacher should do everything in their power ot give the students those opportunities.  However there has to be a limit.  Briefly going back to the teacher who started this discussion; his policy was that students were able to make up any assignment work that wasn't done until the end of the term, and if the work was not done by the end of the term, then a zero was given.  In some cases this could mean a student would have FOUR MONTHS to make up a missed assignment.  I would say that policy is beyond reasonable.  This issue is not about setting kids up to fail, or setting them up to succeed.  I think it should be about setting reasonable expectations and giving students every opportunity to succeed within those expectations.

I give no zero a zero, because it sets up our children, our future, to fail later in life.