Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Zeroing in on the True Heroes

     Any time a topic can get educators communicating and the public fomenting, it must be a good topic right? The debate that has emanated from Edmonton has sparked much commentary, columns, blog posts, and angst. I purposely sat back and gave some time for examination of various perspectives. My bias is clear and this post will remove any doubt. Let me begin by highlighting three key comments that came out following the initial story. I’m thankful to Douglas Reeves for his message to me as I was thinking about the matter and sent a question to him, Ken O’Connor for his brilliant reply to the Edmonton Journal, and Bruce Beairsto for his excellent post. Here’s what I culled as essential pieces of their writings with my translation in italics below each piece:

The rationale for making grades accurate has absolutely nothing to do with "self-esteem" - but only about making grades accurate.  I believe in keeping score, including in children's sports, and I believe in giving them negative feedback when it is accurate.  But in things that society really values - like hockey - the consequence for missing a shot is not being kicked off the team, but rather the requirements for more practice and harder work.  That's all I'm asking for in the English and math class.  When students mess up, the answer is not the academic death penalty that the zero becomes, but rather the requirement that they DO THE WORK - before, during, and after school.

Douglas Reeves

The delusional smokescreen that some want to pass off as their rationale for doing the wrong thing, carries significant consequences. The only rational consequence for not doing the work is doing the work.

As soon as a student has one or two zeros they have no chance of success and as soon as students have no chance of success what do students do  – they give up trying and often become a discipline problem. This must be seen as unacceptable – schools are places of learning for children and thus it should ‘never be over till it is over;’ we must always provide hope and so opportunities for students to provide sufficient evidence of their knowledge and understanding of the learning outcomes must be available until at least the end of the school year.

Ken O’Connor

How’s that working for you as you have the most challenging students in your class disengaged for an extended period of the school year? Is there a better alternative?

Assessment is intended to provide students with feedback about what they know and what they do not yet know. Assessment is not about reward and punishment. It is not a motivational tool.  You shouldn’t get marks for trying hard, or being a great person, or complying fully with your teacher’s expectations and you shouldn’t lose them for being offensive or absent or even lazy.  You get marks for what you know, pure and simple. If a student knows absolutely nothing at all about the required content, then give him or her a zero.

Bruce Beairsto

Never mind bonus marks or penalty marks. Stick to the facts. If a student has learned nothing after two weeks with their teacher, who is that an evaluation of? (Check out my post at

     I have looked at some of the feedback the original story generated on the Edmonton Journal website and find some of the commentary incredulous. Two general themes emerged and I have summarized them here:

     1.  The “good old days”

     This seems to be the most familiar lament out there. Folks who continue the belief that it was “all so much better when…’ are suffering from what I term “nostalnesia” or the selective recall that prevents them from seeing the realities that also were a part of long ago. Schools of the past include lots of bad practice like the strap and exclusion of any students that were “different”. They also reflected higher failure rates and dropout rates than are present today. We also have higher graduation rates and tougher entry requirements for post secondary institutions. I know my marks that granted me easy access to university three decades ago would not measure up today. Despite these advances, we still have too many students not graduating or leaving schools without the capacity to take on the next challenge. Hitting these students with the inaccuracy of a zero for socially inept behavior (that’s what late assignments, skipping school, and cheating are) does little to help them identify strengths and weaknesses and even less to close the academic gap.

     2.  “Worked for me”

     Sometimes surviving a process leads people to believe the process must be okay. “I did okay in school so the system works.” “I took a number of zeroes and made out just fine.” “I got the strap and it taught me a lesson.” The question I have is “Did it really work or was there capacity to recover?” When I ask adults to describe their worst educational experience, it inevitably revolves around a poor practice inflicted by a teacher. My audiences mostly include people who have resiliency or talents or support that allowed them to overcome the poor practice but the scars are still there. What, then, for those who don’t have that capacity? Who is speaking for those it didn’t work for and what is the cost to society? I don’t think there were many letters to the editor from those whose school experience set them back. Let’s look at why 75% of inmates are functionally illiterate and see if there’s a connection to a negative school experience. It costs more to incarcerate an adult than it does to educate a child. 

     The other factor that’s important in this discussion ties back to the first section above in regards to the “good old days”. Once upon a time there were plentiful opportunities for unskilled labor and if you left school, you could still land on your feet. As recently as 1940 the manufacturing industry and the agriculture (including fishing/mining/logging) industry accounted for over 50% of the workforce. Today they barely combine to reach double digits and have been replaced by tertiary industries (service providers), which now account for 70% of the workforce according to “Clark’s Sector Model”. 
The “works for me” belief reminds me of the interview they always do with the world’s oldest man. Occasionally, a comment gets made along the lines of “I smoke a cigar and have a shot of whiskey every day”. That’s generally poor advice for the majority of us to live to be centenarians. 

     I am troubled by the notion that the teacher in this story is being lauded as a hero (it’s not worth my mentioning the teacher by name as he has exhausted his fame derived from ignoring the agreed upon practice and deserves the consequences of that decision). In reality, his comments speak more about a need for power and control than accurately relaying the progress of his students to the intended learning outcomes and helping them to get there. Granted, this might mean more work than just saying, “I taught, they didn’t learn”, but isn’t that what teachers are supposed to do? 

“When a teacher is a "hero" in the eyes of journalists for maintaining the right to inflict mathematically inaccurate and ineffective grading systems on children, then I wonder who the villains are.” (Reeves)

The irony here is that those who laud the teacher ignoring the rules of his workplace are often the same ones who want to inflict the zero on students who have done the same.

     Yes, we live in a day and age where superlatives are tossed out like beads at Mardi Gras  (“that was super, mega-awesome”) but let’s reserve the title of hero for those teachers who are overcoming major obstacles in helping their students achieve the impossible thereby making it possible. I firmly believe that every student is a success story waiting to be told. Thank goodness we have heroic teachers in classrooms everywhere who have chosen to push through the challenges and the easy excuses to help their students achieve. To set them up for future success rather than take the easy way out and wash their hands of their capacity to influence. Education is not about predicting the future; it’s about creating it. Let’s zero in on the true heroes in our schools – the teachers who inspire and don’t limit the potential of their students.