My twitter feed has been buzzing for the last week about an Edmonton teacher who assigned a zero, despite his school's No Zeros Policy.  My classmates have been blogging, the news has been reporting, and now my brain is struggling to sort through this information to get my thoughts organized into words.  I guess I will start by admitting I had only been reading little snippets of other people's opinions up until today.  This can be attributed to the overwhelming number of responses that came pouring out of the floodgates after the media released the story last Thursday. The first blog I sat down and read from start to finish, other than my classmates', was School Isn’t Like a Job byJohn Scammell.  The title of his post comes from the shared opinions of many community members about the role education plays in the lives of children and youth.

My first question was, "is school a job?"  I can quit my job at any point I become dissatisfied with the work I am doing, and have some choices about the fields of work I enter into.  I can choose whether or not I accept a promotion and can base my decision on things like remuneration, hours of the job, whether or not I think I will like my new boss or if I think I can work well with my new coworkers.  When I compare these to the choices I had in school, none of them come to mind until maybe University.  Children are expected to attend school until they are at least 16 years old in Saskatchewan, regardless of their interest, and have no choice about areas of study until high school, at which point there are only a few up for negotiation.  Each year students are shuffled on to the next grade and are assigned a teacher and a group of students they are expected to work alongside for the next 10 months - little to no exceptions there either.  So in that sense, no, school is not a job because it is not a choice and the pay is non-existent.

John writes that some people believe that the grade is the pay check, but goes on to discredit this theory because in the real world, pay is based on a number of variables including hours worked and productivity.  School isn't like a job in that sense either.  Marks are based on what students are able to show in terms of outcomes, not how much time they spent acquiring that knowledge or the number of worksheets or projects they produced.  How does this relate to zeros?  Well, a large portion of the population believes that assigning zeros for work not completed sets students up to take responsibility in the real world where if they fail to do the work at a job, they get fired.  Essentially a zero is the educational equivalent of losing your job.  John summed up his views on this false comparison:

        "A bright kid who does no work (I assume people are talking about homework here) and still writes and
        passes my tests will pass my class. He has to. He has shown me he can do the math.
        A weak, hard-working student who does every single thing I assign, but fails the tests will fail my class. He
        has to. He has shown me he can’t do the math.
        Any student, weak or strong, who doesn’t write my tests cannot be assessed. I make him do the course
        again. I have to. He hasn’t shown me whether or not he can do the math, so I can’t pass him.
        The bottom line is that I can’t assess work. Doing work just isn’t in my curriculum. Knowing math is. That’s
        all I can assess."

This is where Mr Scammell lost me.  Is making a student repeat a course not essentially the same thing as assigning a zero?  My equation of a fail to a zero is actually incorrect and the difference I found explained by Cherra-Lynne Olthof, a middle-years teacher from Alberta, here.  On the topic of zeros, she wrote:

        "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.'"

My lack of understanding on the difference comes from my inexperience in the field.  I didn't know that "INS" was an option, and maybe that's because it isn't one in Saskatchewan.  I honestly have no idea.  Maybe one of my Saskatchewan teacher-friends can help enlighten me on that one.  The other part is that I am not specializing in the area of high school education.  I am studying to be a primary educator where the ownership of responsibility is still slowly being transferred.  However, after reading and listening to multiple perspectives on the issue including the initial news story, opinions from respected educational bloggers, and the comments that ensued from both, the issue seems to be viewed as one of two things:

                    1) Should formative assessments be assigned a mandatory grade?
                    2) Who is to blame when students don't do their assignments?

To answer the first question - no.  Formative assessments are ultimately used by the teacher for the teacher to help guide future learning experiences based on what the students are and are not picking up.  They are not an indication of a student's ability because the learning is not yet complete.  If a student decides not to check in with his/her teacher, essentially they are the ones who will suffer in the long run.  And not because some teacher is going to give them a zero, but because they will have no way to gauge their learning or have the opportunity to receive clarification as needed.  This may or may not be reflected in their final grade, but having the opportunity to show what they know is all that matters.  Reporting is all about outcomes and indicators which is based on a final product, not about the steps along the way.  Of course teachers should assess more than one time per year, but if a student chooses to only complete the final assessment, the added stress to perform is on them.

The answer to number two is related to number one, and is less about blame and more about concern.  If a student is not completing a teacher's assignments for some reason, that reason should become the concern of the teacher.  Teaching is intended to be a reflective practice that is always changing to meet the needs of the ever changing students.  Sometimes lessons that were expected to wow, end up bombing.  It happens!  The important thing is that teachers reflect on what went wrong so that changes can be made if the lesson is attempted again.  The same goes for assignments and assessments.  The biggest indicators of student engagement at the high school level are attendance and completion of course work.  While it may be difficult to accept part of the responsibility for lack of student participation, it is important because the education belongs to the student - not to the teacher.  It really doesn't matter what the teacher thinks qualifies as an awesome lesson - it matters what the students think.

In the end, I don't believe that handing out zeros benefits those who receive them most.  If the argument is around teaching responsibility, students who do not complete the assigned coursework are less likely to pass any type of assessments the teacher needs to make an informed decision about what the student knows.  If a teacher is unable to assess a student with sufficient evidence, the student will have to retake the course.  No one said that they were passing students with zero proof of learning!  If the argument is around fairness, education is meant to be fair, not equal.  Fairness is not giving everybody the same thing, it is about giving everybody what they need.  If a student feels that they don't need to participate in certain learning activities, then that is a decision they are allowed to make, pending an understanding that their decision may impact their future mark because of a lack of comprehension.  That to me is teaching a student responsibility and consequences without the use of a threat or punishment of a zero.  Seems more effective to me.


06/11/2012 1:02pm

My thoughts are still reeling from this topic. I don't think I really clarified my position or teaching philosophy. The perspective I was trying to take was that of high school students who are capable of making decisions. I do not think they should be able to do whatever they want, but I do think that they are mature enough to negotiate their learning. And learning is as much about the process as it is about the "product". I would not necessarily penalize a student for missing check points along the way, but I wouldn't ignore that either. This is where knowing your students is important and building relationships that allow for a dialogue to occur around expectations from both parties and negotiating the representation of learning. Teaching is never a cut and dry profession, so we need to have some flexibility in our teaching practice.

06/12/2012 7:36am

I wish I had chosen different words to explain the failing kid. Most hard-working math strugglers manage to get through. It's not very common for a kid to do lots of extra practice and still fail all my summative assessments. It's one of the reason I quit giving homework. A weak kid who practices for hours and does it wrong, has solidified his mistakes to the point where it's too hard for me to correct. It's much better that I catch his misunderstanding early in the practice phase by giving him formative assessments in my class.

06/12/2012 11:32am

Thanks for your comments, John! I almost think that math has its own challenges because one thing builds off the next and students are constantly learning new things that depend on a piece they were taught before. I like your perspective on homework. One of my classmates wrote a post about assigning homework here: http://pedagogicalpondering.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/homework-what-is-its-purpose/comment-page-1/#comment-28. I hadn't considered that when a student wasn't getting it in class, sending them home with extra practice might be nothing more than an opportunity to practice it wrong. Whereas with reading, they only get better by doing it. I know that I still have a lot to learn, which is why I am looking forward to internship this fall. Thanks again for your comments, I appreciate the opportunity to hear and learn from others!

06/12/2012 10:13am

Great insights Michelle. I especially appreciate the discussion of giving an insufficient grade to a student. I have never thought of that being a way to tell students, and parents, that the student has not shown enough work to know whether they know the information, rather than assuming that they know absolutely nothing. 
Touching on the questions you asked, I feel than in an ideal classroom both summative and formative assessment techniques should be practiced and both forms of assessment should go towards the final "grade" in the class. However that being said, I feel that the summative assessment has much more impact on student learning because they can take part in the assessment and evaluation. I think that this is something that needs to be touched on when discussing this issue - students NEED to be actively involved in their assessment because when they are involved they can take ownership for their learning. 

06/12/2012 11:43am

Thanks for reading, Shayna! I'm not sure if an "insufficient" is an option in Saskatchewan. I haven't heard back from any of my high school teacher friends yet. As for formative and summative assessments, I tried to clarify my thinking in my comment above because I know in my post it sounded like formative didn't matter. And I agree with what you wrote, Shayna - that they are BOTH important and that they should BOTH involve student input. Because, like I said, it is the student's education.


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