No Zero Policy

Margaret Wente from the Globe & Mail weighs in on the current no-zero controversy from Edmonton:

The classroom hero of zero

A funny thing happened to Lynden Dorval, a mild-mannered physics teacher at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton.

He’s become a folk hero.

Mr. Dorval, 61, has spent 35 years in the classroom. He has a reputation as an able and respected teacher. His principal and his school board, on the other hand, regard him as a troublemaker. A week and a half ago, the school board, at the principal’s request, took the highly unusual step of suspending him for unprofessional behaviour and for “negatively impacting student achievement.”

Did they catch him smoking dope with students? Letting them skip class? Slipping neo-Nazi propaganda into the lesson plan? No, no, and no. What he did was worse than that. He gave them zeroes. Zero on a quiz if they missed it without a good excuse; zero on assignments they never handed in.

You can read the rest of the article here.

Ms. Wente goes on to tell us that 97% of respondents agree with the teacher over the school-board in this case, and judging from the comments to her editorial and the comments a CBC story posted a few days ago, I’d say that’s about right.

As a not yet employed student-teacher, I’m not in a position to take a hard-line public stance on it, however, let me suggest a moderate approach, for those who believe in no-zero policies or not:

1. Not every piece of assessment needs to count towards the final mark.

2. Make a list of mandatory key stage assessments. Let students and parents know what these are ahead of time. Force the students to do them, during class-time out in the hall if necessary. If you can’t track down students to do them, assign an incomplete mark.

3. Make sure the student’s mark is an accurate representation of how they demonstrated they achieved the course outcomes.

I bolded the last point because I think this is really what I think the public is missing in this debate. Courses in Canadian public schools have listed outcomes, and it’s those that teachers are supposed to be teaching and assessing.

Marks are not currency. They’re not supposed to be used as rewards and punishments, and they’re not an assessment of  students’ social skills, study habits, or willingness to fall in line and get with their teachers’ program.  And yet, that’s how many people see them, and historically, some teachers have treated them.

For most places that have a no-zero policy, it’s not because “students might get too demoralized and give up” , as Wente argues in her article,  it’s because a zero says that the student has absolutely no understanding of the subject material, not even a little bit. Is that an accurate representation?


About James C.

A pre-service teacher about to start his first teaching practicum.
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