Friday, February 25, 2011

Zero? Really, they learned nothing?

The "zero debate" is alive and well despite the compelling information that leading educational thinkers like Tom Guskey, Doug Reeves, and Grant Wiggins share about the lack of accuracy that is the end product of this practice.  In an excellent post recently on his blog (, Tom Schimmer notes "More often than not the zeros, and the resulting lower grades, move kids to a place of hopelessness where they would rather give up than try."

So why does the practice continue? More often than not I hear the response around fairness and/or consequences for a perceived lack of effort.  "The student earned a zero", is passed off as the rationale.  Recently I was talking with a group of secondary teachers and that defense was offered. I pushed back a little with the suggestion that I found it incomprehensible that, based on their skill set, training, and aptitude for teaching, any one of them could spend an instructional phase with students and not impart any knowledge.  That's what a zero means! After two weeks of skilled instruction, nothing was learned.  Is this even possible given the talent of the vast majority of teachers I have encountered? Absolutely Not!  On some levels the zero reveals more about ineffective adult practice than student performance.

When confronted with this perspective, the tone of the conversation quickly changed.  Let's focus on what's happening for students throughout the instructional phase.  Let's use assessment in a formative fashion so that we know, almost immediately, where students are during the learning phase. Let's commit  to bringing our entire skill set to impact the end result. Let's employ numerous strategies and share our passion for student success with all of our kids.

Once we can turn the discussion to whatever it takes in order to have students succeed, it's amazing how the zero debate has less traction.  We may never completely eradicate them from our marking system but they should serve as reminders of something needing improvement rather than a rationale that creates further disillusionment and disengagement.


  1. I have been reading the online comments regarding the Zero issue and, like you, I find it very hard to understand how teachers can argue in favour of such a mark. I understand the disappointment one might feel if a student refused to hand in an assignment or left all blanks on an exam, but I would rather find out why that occurred. When I was in high school back in the late '60s I did something that makes for a good story - but that is about all it does. I was assigned to do a review or Wuthering Heights in an English class and chose not to. I wrote about "The Search for Bridie Murphy". Was my teacher amused? No. Did he give me a Zero? No. He asked why I had done that, and though my excuse was far from good, he gave me a pass. Some teachers might have given me a Zero and then where would I have gone from there?

    1. Thanks Bob. Great example and more to the point of what educators should be trying to do. Zero seems like too easy a way out from exploring the underpinnings and discovering that learning is happening and can be recognized as such.

  2. There is more and less to a ZERO than first appears. Most k-12 teachers, school sites, and districts have grading policies that are not an all or nothing sum total. The education system in America is more varied than stars in the sky. All too often educational fads and bans on certain grading marks sweep the nation without careful consideration for the nuances in each classroom, school, district, and state. All too often parents, authors, and the educational elite make propositions and act based upon their own experiences from a particular time and place, often decades ago. This is not a valid approach to living and learning. If we let ourselves believe, our children believe, and our students believe that the goal is points, then a ZERO is an issue. This is a common misconception. If the goal is learning, then the points will follow whether there are zeros or not. Most importantly a zero for a missing assignment, cheating, copying, getting all answers wrong is an opportunity for reflection and assessment for the student, parent/guardian, and teacher. A good grading system is reflective, consists of multiple assessments, a variety of assignments, and includes points reflective of classswork, participation, homework, tests, projects, activities, etc. Neither banning zeros gets to the heart of the problem nor allowing zeros gets to the heart of the problem. Parental aspirations for their children has a larger impact on student learning than feedback from teachers, study skills, homework, testing, and teacher education. When teachers, principals, school boards, superintendents, politicians, and families finally admit that to themselves, students grow and or will grow. As long as politicians, principals, superintendents, and parents blame teachers and the number Zero, they can get re-elected. It avoids having to tell parents/guardians the truth, and thus avoids millions of nasty emails that these parents would send after getting a dose of reality. Many authors and publishing companies make a lot of money based upon their own misconception or feeding into the misconceptions of others on purpose. Yes, after two weeks a student learns something in a classroom. No, they don't learn something if they are habitually absent, removed from the classroom for extreme behavioral issues, are in the wrong classroom placement, or are in need of great counseling. No amount of Professional Learning Communities, Data Teams, Whole Language, Cornell Notes, Clickers, or Pre and Post Assessments will fix that. Teaching is a craft, as teachers we can be masters of many things, we can be powerful, and make an impact. It is, however, not in our bag of tricks to make all families whole or fix societal ills that perpetuate a yearly cycle of children in and out of classrooms that need more than a teacher. We must drop and avoid the Jesus Complex, the mantra of the Progressive Movement, so that we can save one star fish at a time. If points are issued for a variety of reasons, then an average of them will not be zero. If a child is giving up on school for one zero or multiple zeros, there is more to that circumstance than meets the eye. Rather than making broad generalizations about students dramatically giving up on school and life, it would be helpful to include real case studies and statistics with great specificity.

  3. Thanks Jesse. Lots of food for thought that should be a focal point for faculty discussions. You have touched on a number of issues that ought to occupy more of our talk time than the number zero currently does.