Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Zeroes for students and Suspensions for teachers

Consider these two scenarios and let's see if there's a connection.

Scenario A

Let's pretend I'm a teacher who believes in grading students work and when they don't hand things in on time I deduct marks each day until the assignment is handed in. When kids don't believe that my assignments are a good use of their time or effort, I give them a zero.

I believe I am holding kids accountable and responsible for doing their job. I believe I am upholding high standards.

Scenario B

I am that same teacher who works in a school district where there is a no zero grading policy. Because I don't agree that this policy is a good use of my time and effort, I refuse to follow the district's no zero grading policy and am suspended from teaching.

The school district believes they are holding me accountable and responsible for doing my job. They believe they are upholding high standards.


The threat of a zero is the equivalent to the threat of a suspension. These are instruments of control between the powerful and powerless. Zeroes for students and suspensions for teachers have less to do with learning, accountability and responsibility and more to do with compliance and punishment.

How we feel about zeroes and suspensions all depends on whether we are dispensing or receiving them. The kid getting the zero is likely to feel the same way as the teacher getting the suspension.

This is why I cashed in my reward and punishment tool box a long time ago and found a better way to work with people, regardless of whether they have more or less power than me.


  1. Hi Joe - great post as always. When you wrote "Zeroes for students and suspensions for teachers have less to do with learning, accountability and responsibility and more to do with compliance and punishment" I would also add in that there is little to no effort to build capacity with our kids or our staff if we take the heavy-handed, do-as-I-say method. Our district has been addressing the zero-grade issue for a few years now, but it's still a discussion that happens throughout our schools and parent communities, and it's one worth having as often as needed.

  2. The suspension for the teacher is a far more serious form of punishment. These examples are not equivalent in scale or impact. And the size and impact of any given extrinsic power tool is important.

    But a truly non-coercive environment looks a lot different. What about attendance, for example? Suspensions? Removal of students/teachers exhibiting violent behaviour towards others?

    My point is that this is not a simple dichotomy. Context is important. While I agree that punishment is not a good form of social control generally speaking, each case has to be considered in its totality. Would you abolish laws, police and jails completely? No question we have too many of them, and some bad laws. But I do believe in some forms of social exclusion for certain anti-social behaviours.

  3. Schools are a part of the education system, not the justice system. Terms like reward and punishment have no place where learning is concerned. This is yet another example why school is not like work.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan - usually a kid in school

    failure is not in the falling down but not getting up , giving a kid a zero is certainly not going to help him get up

  6. Watch a kid learning an instrument or sport... there are no grades, just natural consequences. The more effort they put in, the greater their reward; lack of effort results in lack of improvment. Too bad our school systems try to "box" students into all learning the same thing at the same pace, regardless of personal interests and abilities. Intrinsic motivation is removed, there are no consequence for lack or effort (no-zero-policy) nor for extraordinary effort.

  7. This is my experience with "no zeros" and "no lates"--basically adopting a model of assessment that does not incorporate one’s work habits. A.k.a: Assessment for Learning

    For my below average students, this model worked extremely well. It kept them in my courses (Math and Physics) for longer; I had way fewer drop outs. They may not have been learning the prescribed learning outcomes, but they were learning something and by attending for the duration, I do believe that they were better served in the long run.

    In the two years that I adopted this model, however, I saw an overall drop in class averages and a higher increase in stress and anxiety, especially with my high achieving students. Why? Students (as do adults) naturally procrastinate. In the absence of deadlines, work was put off and retests accumulated. At report card time, it was not uncommon to have students catching up on weeks of work in a very short period of time. Some students would have a retest planned for each day of the week, in the final week of class.

    I polled my students and it was virtually unanimous from them that THEY WANTED MORE STRUCTURE. Again, I teach mostly post-secondary bound students. These are the movers and the shakers of the school both academically and through leadership.

    When I brought back deadlines, zeros and limitations on the number of permitted retests, I was thanked!! My averages went back up to before; students are distributing their time better.

    I believe that the problem with what is being discussed here is that it seems that people are assuming that all students need to be treated the same way. They don’t. Some need zeroes; others do not. Everyone is going to thrive under their own terms. Treating students fairly does not mean that we should be treating them equally.

  8. If school assignments are out of context and without purpose then it's boring and irrelevant. Under these circumstances grades are necessary to artificially induce student's extrinsic motivation.

    This is not a teaching or learning style to be accommodated to -- it's a problem to be solved.


There was an error in this gadget

Follow by Email