By Michael Zwaagstra (AIMS Research Fellow)
The longstanding no-zero policy in Newfoundland and Labrador schools is no more. The CEO of the English School District recently announced that teachers are once again free to deduct marks for late work and assign marks of zero when work doesn’t come in at all.
This is a significant step forward, not only because no-zero policies have proven to be ineffective, but because the English School District has long refused to acknowledge that it had one in place. As recently as 2015, the previous CEO, Darren Pike, told the media that the English School District did not have a no-zero policy. Teachers knew better, of course. That is the reason Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association never relented in its demand to revoke this misguided policy.
No-zero policies are the brainchild of assessment gurus such as Ken O’Connor and Damian Cooper, who claim that report cards should rigidly separate student behaviour from their academic achievement. Because handing work in late, cheating on assignments, or not submitting an assignment are behaviours, these actions should not have an impact on a student’s final mark in the course. Instead, teachers were expected to deal with these behavioural issues and assign students’ marks only on the work that comes in.
Now this might make sense in theory, but anyone who teaches in a real classroom with real students knows that it almost never works. The moment students find out that they can hand in their work anytime or not hand it in at all with no penalty, teacher deadlines become meaningless. Similarly, if the worst consequence for cheating is being required to redo the assignment, then some students will take the risk. After all, they have nothing to lose.
To further illustrate the absurdity of no-zero policies, consider what happens in a class where students are expected to hand in ten assignments. Since teachers cannot give zeroes for work that doesn’t come in, students figure out that it makes more sense to pick the assignments they actually submit. Of course, nowhere in the real world do things operate in such a ridiculous manner. Employees are required to complete all of their tasks, not just the ones they like to do. Not only does failure to complete work lead to a loss in pay, employees who act this way quickly find themselves unemployed.
Now that the no-zero policy has finally been repealed, Newfoundland and Labrador educators should consider what lessons can be learned from this debacle.
The first is that bad education policies have incredible staying power. Newfoundland and Labrador teachers have laboured under the absurd no-zero policy for half a decade. It took years of lobbying from teachers and parents to get the English School District to see the light on this issue.
Second, the battle against a misguided policy needs to be waged on two fronts. On one hand, it is important to provide solid reasons why a policy is mistaken. But the other front is in getting a school district to acknowledge that a particular policy even exists. Even though the no-zero policy was as plain as day to teachers, successive CEOs continually denied that the policy existed, which made it difficult to mobilize pressure on the school district.
A third lesson is that evidence alone will not result in a policy change. Even when research studies exposed as a house of cards the claims made by assessment gurus, supporters of the no-zero approach remained unfazed. The no-zero policy is finally gone from Newfoundland and Labrador because teachers, parents, journalists, and politicians read the research evidence and spoke out, forcing the school district to make the right decision.
Finally, no-zero policies are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to misguided educational policies. From rigid inclusion to project-based discovery learning to differentiated instruction, Newfoundland and Labrador teachers are bombarded with bad ideas. Instead of trusting the professional judgment of teachers who read and understand the research literature, school and divisional administrators force teachers to adopt the latest fads.
Getting rid of the no-zero policy was a step in the right direction. However, this is no time for teachers and parents to be complacent. There are a whole lot of other misguided educational policies that need to be axed. Let’s hope the pressure continues and meaningful change happens.
Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public high school teacher, and co-author of What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/9/2012 (2013 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
High school physics teacher Lynden Dorval probably never expected to become a celebrity. But with his decision to defy his principal's no-zeros edict, the Edmontonian ignited a nationwide debate about grading practices in schools. Under no-zero grading policies, teachers are forbidden from assigning grades of zero to students for assignments they do not submit.
Public response on this issue has been overwhelmingly on Dorval's side. Students rallied to his defense, teachers spoke out in support of his position, and newspaper pages were filled with letters attacking the no-zero policy. Even an online poll conducted by the Edmonton Journal reported more than 97 per cent of the 12,486 respondents opposed the no-zero policy.
Largely in response to public pressure, Edmonton Public School Board trustees voted at their June meeting to conduct an extensive review of their assessment practices. The review is scheduled to commence this month.
Hopefully, trustees will take the time to review the research on no-zero policies. If they do, they'll find the evidence does not support the overblown claims made by no-zero supporters.
One of the best-known no-zero advocates is Ken O'Connor, an assessment consultant in Ontario. In his book How to Grade for Learning, O'Connor claims zeros cause students to withdraw from learning. However, the only source he cites to back up this claim is an article in the NASSP Bulletin by Thomas Guskey, an education professor at the University of Kentucky.
Guskey does make the statement attributed to him by O'Connor but cites only one research study to support this claim — a 1992 article in the British Columbia Journal of Special Education by Deborah Selby and Sharon Murphy. In it, Selby and Murphy describe the experiences of six learning-disabled students in mainstream classrooms. These six students had negative experiences with letter grades and blamed themselves for their poor marks.
It should be obvious that it is absurd to generalize the experiences of six learning-disabled students to the rest of the student population. And yet this article is regularly cited by Guskey when he makes the claim that grades of zero have a negative impact on students. Even a more recent article by Guskey that appeared in the November 2011 edition of Educational Leadership contains the same claim, with Selby and Murphy's article again providing the only research support.
Clearly, the claim that research evidence strongly supports no-zero policies is flawed. No-zero proponents cannot hide behind the research argument since the evidence is quite weak.
In addition, there are many reasons why school administrators should avoid no-zero policies. One is that they inevitably bring controversy with them, something acknowledged by even their strongest proponents. If a school chooses to use a no-zero policy, it can expect controversy will likely overshadow other more important initiatives. School administrators need to ask themselves whether a no-zero policy is worth the opposition they are certain to face.
No-zero policies also unreasonably interfere with the professional discretion of teachers to determine grades. Teachers know their students and realize that it is unrealistic to expect the same strategies to work with every student. All a no-zero policy does is take away one of the consequences teachers can use for students who fail to submit their work.
Students who submit their work on time could end up receiving worse grades than those who submit only some assignments. Since no-zero policies prohibit teachers from giving a zero for incomplete work, a student who hands in an assignment and receives a mark of 30 per cent would have been better off not to submit it. Students will figure out it is in their best interest to pick and choose the assignments they submit.
Finally, no-zero policies fail to prepare students for life after high school. Employees don't get paid for doing nothing and universities don't grant credit to students who choose not to hand in their assignments. A pilot who never flies a plane, an electrician who never wires a house, and a journalist who never hands in a story can all expect to get paid nothing. Employers aren't going to accommodate employees who can't be bothered to submit their work. Teachers need to prepare their students for this reality.
Let's hope trustees in Edmonton and across Canada recognize the folly of no-zero policies.
Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (fcpp.org), a public high school teacher, and co-author of the book, What's Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.
— Troy Media