Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Zero Tolerance

A local high school teacher was recently suspended for giving a grade of zero to a student who did not hand in an assignment. There is a little context, but the absurdity of it is right there in one sentence. The background is that many schools and school districts are implementing "no zero" policies that prevent a teacher from giving a grade of zero. Part of this movement has to do with well-meaning educators, who feel that grades should be a reflection of what a student knows, and it is unlikely a missed assignment means the student has absolutely zero knowledge of the subject. Also, when grading assignments mostly in the 70% - 90% range, a single 0% can dramatically lower the overall mark to the point where the student may feel it is pointless to try to salvage the year. There are some less noble incentives as well, such as artificially propping up school averages (which can impact funding) and high school completion rates.

The Edmonton Public School Board does not have any specific guidelines on zero grades. But the high school in question does, which the principal has every right to implement and enforce. In this case the teacher has been reprimanded several times for violating the No Zero policy, and his suspension was a result of not following the rules. When this story hit the newspaper it seemed to strike a nerve, and an online poll showed roughly 97% of respondents supported the teacher's right to hand out a zero grade (this was out of more than 13,000 votes, so I'd consider it a big enough sample to be accurate). Many teachers wrote in support of the no zero policy, many others in support of zeroes.

My daughter's junior high has grades of A, B, C and D. No F. The corresponding percentages show that a D ranges from 0 (wait - what?) to 49 percent. Back in my day, that was an F. There are also indicators for "unable to assess" and "incomplete" among others. My guess is the unable to assess means the student didn't hand in his work on time. But it looks like you can be a C student with a 50% average, which is a form of grade inflation. The C earned today isn't worth as much as a C from 20 years ago, but it is treated as equivalent. Maybe this is why the minimum high school averages required by universities keeps going up. Which probably encourages more grade inflation to keep up - a vicious circle. As average grades get higher and higher, the impact of a zero is even more noticeable.

Grades should be measuring actual student achievement, not potential. If a student has mastered the subject material but does badly on a test, do we add up the right and wrong answers, or should we change the C into a B because we know the student is capable of better? Certainly at post-secondary schools (and for the rest of your life) your grade depends on how well you perform, and high school students should be held to this standard as well. I fully support the teacher for giving out a zero, especially since he does it reluctantly and only after several warnings. I also support the school board for suspending the teacher, as he violated a clear condition of his employment whether he agrees with it or not. Actions and consequences.

The zero grade issue is part of a larger trend in our society. We want nothing but success; failure is not an option. The biggest example of this is the bailout mentality in the financial system. Essentially, banks and other financial companies do stupid things that lose so much money they should be bankrupt. But instead of punishing incompetence with failure, these institutions are rewarded with large loans that ultimately come from taxpayers. In the moment of crisis the fear of "systemic failure" justifies keeping all these interconnected banks solvent. But the lesson learned is that risky behaviour has no downside. It would be nice if you could go to Vegas and bet a stack of chips on a hand of hold'em, and if you lose the casino would give you more chips.

Iceland's rogue banks were among the worst ever for going in over their head with all kinds of risky, idiotic currency schemes a few years ago. When things went wrong (as they always will, when you go all in with your poker chips again and again) the people refused to allow their government to use their money for bailouts. Protesters with torches actually stormed the Althing - the Icelandic parliament, and forced a referendum where the people voted to stick the banks with their own losses. The banks imploded, investors were punished, and there was a lot of pain to go around. But four years later, look who has the best GDP growth in Europe. Iceland has gone from negative 6.6% growth in 2009 to positive 4.5% this year. The message here, ignored by pretty much every other country on the planet with a banking problem, is that you can punish bad behaviour, take your lumps, and move on. The world does not end. It's actually healthy.

Whether it's missing high school assignments or billion-dollar banks gambling on shaky securities, rewarding failure only encourages more bad behaviour. It is also an injustice to those who completed their assignment on time, or who managed their investments prudently. We ought to accept that there are winners and losers, that sometimes bad things happen, that a little rain must fall. We should live with and learn from failure. We need to be able to tolerate a zero now and then.

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