Thursday, June 7, 2012

What a zero really says

Here is a guest post by Cherra-Lynne Olthof. She teaches middle school math, language arts and social studies. She tweets here and blogs at Teaching on Purpose. This post was originally seen here.

by Cherra-Lynne Olthof

A story was recently reported about an Edmonton teacher being suspended for giving his students zero’s in class in a school that has a no zero policy. (Incidentally, this article is located in the “news” tab and should be moved to the “opinion” tab. I always taught my kids that reporters should refrain from putting their personal bias into a news article. So if you read it, read it with a grain of salt.)

Many of my friends have had conversations about this controversial subject and I have stayed out of it. I have not written anything back on Facebook as people have made comments (mostly in support of the teacher) but in the past 24 hours as I have stood in groups of people who know me, many have turned to me and said, “You’re a teacher. What do you think?”

Oh boy. Deep breath in.

Ok, just remember… you asked for this people. My response is long so you might want to grab something to drink and a snack before you settle in to read this. My response comes in four stages. If you think this is a simple issue, it’s not. It’s very complex. And it’s about far more than giving a 0. I wrote a blog post back in February about Lates, Deductions, and 0′s but I obviously need to elaborate in my response to this difficult issue.

Issue #1: School Should Be Like The World Of Work

I get it, I really do. Many people equate school to having a job. If I don’t do my job I get fired. So a kid should get a 0. This works great if it’s not YOUR kid and it’s not HIS zero, doesn’t it? I caution you to think about this a little further before making such a snap decision. There are many things about school that have no equivalency to the world of work.

a) If you don’t do your job, you get fired. This doesn’t happen to kids. As a teacher I cannot “fire” a student. So many people say that the 0 is the punishment then. Well be careful here. As a worker someone has hired you. You applied for a job you thought you wanted and someone hired you because they believe you offered a skill set that would make you a valuable employee for the position. As a teacher I have not hired anyone to be in my classroom. You gave birth thirteen years ago and that’s why your child is in my classroom along with the other 26 kids I have. There was no choice involved.

b) Grades are like earning money. To anyone who says this, you clearly don’t understand my legal and professional obligation as a teacher. Grades are not money. John Scammel wrote an excellent blog post that says in the world of work effort is often related to increase in pay or promotion. As much as I would like to say that it’s the same for school, it isn’t. I have kids that do pretty much nothing in class but on the final project they show me they know their stuff. I have to give them a mark that reflects that. Consequently, I have students that put in ridiculous amounts of effort but still haven’t grasped the concept. As much as I would love to give them a high grade for their effort, that isn’t a true reflection of what they are capable of. As a teacher my job is to assess what your child knows about the content the Alberta Education Curriculum has set down for me.

c) If you don’t like your job, you can quit. Kids don’t have this option. They are LEGALLY obligated to attend until they are 16 (this will be changing to 17 in the near future). You job involves choice, attending school does not.

d) My job is to prepare them for the world of work? No. My job is to teach them how to think, how to learn, and how to problem solve. I am preparing them to be a responsible and contributing citizen to their country. This doesn’t always involve work. Ask a stay-at-home mom. She’s not working (in the traditional sense of the word that everyone seems to be talking about). Does this mean school was a pointless waste of her time? Not everyone goes on to “work” in the traditional sense. Not everyone will have a “job” after school. If this were the case, high school would separate kids into vocational classes and start training them right then and there. Why don’t we do that? Because your kids get to make that choice AFTER they graduate, when I’ve given them (hopefully) the skill set they need to make such a huge decision.

Issue #2: The Suspension Itself

This is a dicey one because I only know the details that have been reported in the newspaper. So I’m going to make a couple of assumptions here. It appears to me that the principal/administrator of the building has set down a policy of not giving out 0′s. The teacher violated this policy. This is an issue all by itself, forget WHY he was suspended.

For those of you so quick to equate school to the world of work…..if you work for a company that used to start at 10:00 am in the morning and you get a new change in leadership that says work will now start at 8:00 am but you basically ignore that and continue coming in at 10:00, what would you expect to have happen? Exactly.

As teachers we always have a choice. I remember several years ago I got a new principal and he laid out his vision of how the school was going to be. Right behind it he said, you can either support it or you can leave and find a new school to work in. And we did indeed have a teacher leave. That’s reality. You don’t like your job requirements? No one is forcing you to stay. If the school’s policy was to not give out 0′s and he knew this then he had a choice. He chose to stay and keep giving out 0′s.

According to the article, this teacher has repeatedly refused to abide by the policy. He was reprimanded several times. He knew the deal and he opted to stay and buck the system instead of finding a school that fit into his own personal beliefs. Well, there are consequences for that.

If it hadn’t been a school policy then I would have completely disagreed with the suspension. While I don’t like the way certain teachers teach, it is NOT my place to tell them how to do their job. At least not as a colleague. As an administrator it is their job to run their school as they see fit and set down policies and procedure to benefit their students. But policies apply to EVERYONE, not just to those who “choose” to follow them.

Issue #3: What a 0 really says…..

Dorval says he thinks the policy is linked to a self-esteem factor. That somehow a student will give up if they get a 0. But make no mistake, getting the 0 doesn’t cause them to give up. They choose to take the 0 because they’ve already given up. I’ve found that in my experience a student would rather get a 0 then a 23%. There’s an old saying that it’s better to be thought a fool then to say something and prove it. Well, for some kids they would rather be THOUGHT a failure then do the assignment and prove it. A 0 is easy to take and it’s easy to defend. That’s not the crushing blow. The crushing blow is actually doing the assignment and failing it. So what’s the alternative? I’m just not going to do it. I’m going to fail it anyways so why bother?

GIVE ME THESE KIDS! PLEASE! Give me the kids who think they are failures and so have chosen to not do the work. Because that’s really what a 0 means for a lot of them. The 0 says, “I’m scared of doing this and finding out I’m a failure.”

My husband and I are both teachers. We discuss this on a regular basis. I have a legal obligation to report what your child knows about the content of the curriculum. This is all I can do. How much I like your child can’t factor in. How many hours your kid puts into their assignment can’t factor in. How many assignments your child turned in out of the ten I assigned can’t factor in. All that matters is what your child has proven to me about his knowledge.

Sometimes a kid earns a true and honest 0. After doing the project or writing the test they have actually scored a real 0. I think I can count on 1 hand the number of times I’ve ever had this happen in my 11 year teaching career but if this is the case, then yes a 0 is justified. You know 0% of this content and I can prove it. I have evidence.

My husband and I also admit that giving 0′s is often a tracking system to report back to parents what the child has and has not done. Ok, fair enough. I don’t really agree with it but if this is a tracking system then that’s fine and even as a parent I don’t have an issue with that. HOWEVER….if a kid does none of the assignments I have given and he writes a 98% on the unit exam, I’m giving him a 98% in the course. If I start averaging in those 0′s and now suddenly he’s at a 42% I am reporting false information about what your child knows. I am saying he only knows 42% of the content when in fact he knows 98% of it.

I’m not a fan of averaging. I never have been. Ask anyone who failed their drivers test the first three times (I know people who have, seriously). Should those marks be averaged out? If so some people would never get their license. Do I get a golden license because I passed my test the first time? Of course not. Does your license look different because you took three chances? Or if you failed it the first time should that be it? Your chance is over. You failed. No license for you……EVER! Should I give you a zero because you missed your bus on the way to your test and failed to show up for it on time?

We have to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of giving assignments? I give assignments along the way to check up on the learning that I’m hoping is taking place. It’s actually more for me then for my students. It tells me if I’m doing my job. It tells me if the kids are getting it or if I need to stop and go back. A kid fails to do the assignment? Well I have no way to know where his learning is then, and that will have it’s own natural consequences later on when he writes the test of does the project. I don’t need to give him a zero now. Especially if the kid understands what the purpose of an assignment is. They are check points to see how you are doing as you work your way along. You miss the check point? Well, I can’t help you much then. Especially if you keep missing them. I’m awfully busy with the kids that are stopping at the check points and asking for help. And to be honest, some kids don’t need the check points. They cruise right along. We often refer to these kids as the “independent learners” and I’m ok with that.

What it ultimately comes down to is their final proof of knowledge. I give an assignment/project/test designed to assess what they really know. And if a kid misses that…..?

How do I deal with kids who don’t do their work? I give out something called an Insufficient. People have told me this is a fancy way of saying 0 but it really isn’t. When I write INS on an outcome what I’m saying is, “I have no idea if your child can do this or not. I have no evidence with which to make this judgement.” That is much different then giving out a 0 which says, “Your child knows 0% of the content of this subject.” But what a statement to make!

All kids learn. They learn at different rates and at different times, but they all learn. You have to really try hard to get an honest 0 in my classroom.

Issue #4: We Need More Information

I know this teacher looks like some kind of hero. He’s standing up for himself and his ideas and I give him kudos for that. I don’t agree with his policies but that doesn’t make him any less of a teacher in my eyes. We just have different pedagogy when it comes to teaching students. I don’t think any less of him for that. But before you go and string the rest of us who don’t give 0′s up by our toes, ask yourself… much do I really know about this situation? You are looking through the key hole of a door that looks into an entire house. You don’t know what the back story is. You don’t know the history. You are responding only to what you have been told and sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

I’d love to have a conversation with this teacher as a matter of fact. I have questions. Like….what kinds of assignments are the kids not turning in? Why aren’t they turning them in? What background do your students have? What home life are they living with?

If the teacher was assigning assignments where your child had to answer 150 textbook problems every night, suddenly that turns things around doesn’t it? You would cry out, “That’s crazy!” Or what if he was an English teacher and the assignment was to copy out 2 pages of text from Romeo and Juliet in perfect handwriting. You would cry out, “But that’s pointless!” What if you found out the assignment was given the day half the class was on a ski trip and when the student failed to turn it in the next day he was given a 0. You would cry out, “That’s not fair!”

My point here is that we all need to ask questions before coming up with our opinions. But I have to admit….I am about to launch into a unit where I am teaching my Grade 8′s about what it mean to have an INFORMED OPINION vs. POPULAR OPINION. This news article and the people who responded to it with their comments couldn’t have come at a better time.

So in spite of everything I say, “Thanks for helping me plan my Monday English lesson.” I can’t wait to see what my Grade 8′s have to say about this.


  1. >a) As a teacher I cannot “fire” a student.

    Sure you can. If a student refuses to work in class, you can document the issue and eventually have them removed or moved to a different class.

    >c) If you don’t like your job, you can quit. Kids don’t have this option.

    Sure they do. Students can drop out of a course and take it through ADLC, if they're in senior high, or through schools like SelfDesign if they're K-12. If they're older than 16, they can drop out of school. At any point throughout the year, a student can withdraw from school and be educated by his parents. They can also change schools and explore options in their community, including Catholic schools, charter schools, and private schools.

    >d) My job is to prepare them for the world of work? No. My job is to teach them how to think, how to learn, and how to problem solve.

    As a teacher I very much agree with you, but look at the poll results from the Edmonton Journal: fully 97% of respondents think that students should be given zeroes for work not done. You're putting yourself into a very tight position when you say that your paedalogical practice goes against what 97% of your parents want from you.

    >HOWEVER….if a kid does none of the assignments I have given and he writes a 98% on the unit exam, I’m giving him a 98% in the course.

    That's fine and good for disciplines where final exams can measure outcomes, but what about English, for instance? How can one demonstrate research and revision processes on a single three-hour exam? How can a student demonstrate competency in speaking, listening, viewing, and representing on a single exam?

  2. Jen,

    To have a student moved to another class is not that simple. In small schools, there may not be any place to go. Besides, unless it's linked to severe behaviour issues, it's not likely going to happen. Given you all are working in the same place anyway you're not firing them, you're just putting them elsewhere, they'll still have to do the work eventually.

    The 97% also represents a poorly worded question about an issue that as Cheryl writes is more complex. Our grading system is antiquated. I'm guessing the real belief is that students shouldn't be given a free ride. No one would disagree. The fact is that most people can't envision an alternative. Grades have been used to measure, motivate, rank, sort and discipline. That's a lot to ask of a number. We can do much better and it's thoughtful, caring educators working hard to change a system that is far from perfect. But most of us only know one way.

    Finally to your last point, you nail an important issue that is in part addressing my previous point. A single grade can't capture all those competencies. Let alone a single exam. We don't have to default to the lowest common denominator, we can design projects and opportunities for students to demonstrate their abilities and learning that go beyond the traditional exam. Again, educators are currently grabbling with this challenge. Most parents haven't considered this. Why should they? They have lives of their own. Which means at some point, it requires them to trust their teachers and requires teachers to do as Cheryl and Joe do and that is to articulate and be transparent about their teaching and beliefs.

  3. Thanks for providing a counterpoint. This topic is ripe for media sensationalism, and that always reduces the intellect of the discussion and prompts knee-jerk reactions. Students need to take responsibility for their decisions, and part of "teach(ing) them how to think, how to learn, and how to problem solve" is teaching them forethought - that actions have consequences. That's what people feel is being overlooked when a Zero is not issued for an assignment that wasn't completed.

    Perhaps this is also a veiled reaction to the function of education. I feel a little disappointed that your job is not to prepare my child for the real world. Your explanation is telling, because I think many people are surprised at the "real world" tools (or lack thereof) that students have when they leave school. Parents need to be taught what their role is in this process as well, because it's the child's loss if the parent and the educator both think that it's the others' job to prepare them for the work world.

    Most teachers' reaction to this (that I've seen) has been philosophical - to point out that we don't understand the role of the educator. While most parents probably don't find satisfaction in that response, it is clearly the message that we NEED to hear, so that we can take our own role in preparing our children.

    Again, thanks for the perspective.


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