Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sarah O'Donnell's piece in the Journal on the "No Zero" policy has stirred up a healthy discussion about where education is today and where it is going.

I must first confess the impact of my up-bringing vis-a-vis my notions of responsibility. My father, a right-wing Albertan who spent 20 years in the military, has a very black and white view of the world. You show up, do what you're told, respect authority, don't ask for any concessions, make it on your own, mean what you say and say what you mean. He was very strict and things were very cut and dried with him. My mother is a left-leaning British woman, who grew up very quickly during the War, learned to go without, always maintained a stiff upper lip and a strong sense of duty and etiquette. Things were most definitely "right" and "wrong" with both my parents and probably as a consequence, I was a straight A student, who sought the approval of all my teachers. A zero was an unthinkable horror. So, for someone like me... growing up with parents as I did... the mere THOUGHT of a zero was enough to ensure that all my assignments were done on time and all tests were completed on the scheduled day, no matter what. End of sentence.

However, we need to recognize that a) not every student is the same, b) not every family is the same and c) education has shifted away from an authoritarian, one-size-fits-all, controlled model. All three factors tell me that flexibility, understanding and compassion are vital if we are going to get all kids across that finish line of high school completion.

It's my opinion that zeros don't work for kids who are already struggling. They don't motivate them, they don't inspire them to try again and they don't (as much as my Dad might disagree) teach them to "shape up or ship out." Well, maybe the latter but rarely the former. I've heard from teachers that the kids who repeatedly fail to pass in assignments or complete their work WANT zeros, not because it will "set them straight"... because a zero represents the end. It's done. The teacher will stop nagging me now. Instead, these dedicated teachers refuse to give in to the ease of a zero and refuse to give up on these challenging students. The assignments get done because the teachers sit at lunch with them until the work is completed. The test is given the day the students come back. The work is marked when it is handed in. The teachers see the end of the year as the final goal, not this week, not this day. These teachers focus on what the students need to be successful in the next year of school and let go of all the little stuff. They adapt to the circumstances of the student and sometimes, these can be extremely trying. In the "good old days", teachers wouldn't ask and therefore, often had no idea of the struggles students faced outside school.

Most schools have adopted an "Assessment for Learning" model. Under this approach, testing is a tool to help guide the learning, to point out the gaps in student knowledge and to redirect the efforts of both teacher and student so that that student can be successful. We grew up with an "Assessment OF learning" model: testing was merely a means to grade students, to assign scores and to identify the ones who "got it" and the ones who were "flunking."

I recognize that there is something in all of us that wants to punish what we see as bad behaviour. We worry about the notion of consequences being lost and kids growing up without a clear sense of obligation, duty and responsibility. Will they ever learn the importance of deadlines if we don't teach them? Are we letting them get away with too much? I think deadlines are important; I have never missed one. I think being on time is important. For me, these are signs of respect. However, maybe these behaviours comes further down the line, once attitudes towards learning and being in school are improved. Perhaps, they develop after a strong relationship has been cultivated between the teacher and the student. (See for link on the CBC piece where the teacher talks about improved attendance and academic achievement after implementing an exercise program) I think ultimately losing your lunch hour, being forced to complete the work in front of the teacher, is a far worse consequence for most kids than a zero. With the relentless efforts of their teachers, they may learn something far more important than deadlines: that someone cares and thinks they are worth the effort.

At the end of the day, zeros are simply not instructive and we are in the business of learning.

So, what's so bad about kids getting zeros, flunking and eventually dropping out? Maybe it's what they deserve, I can hear my Dad saying. Thirty years ago, society could afford to have kids quit school. They could find work without a high school diploma. They could join the Army and have discipline instilled in boot camp, as my Dad did. But today, we face a different world. The vast majority of jobs now require AT LEAST a high school diploma. The statistics show that, given our aging demographics, we will need each and every high school student to graduate, be productive and help to keep our economy and our society going. On a purely self-interested level, we can't afford to have any high school drop outs.

Economics aside, the most important thing to me is the moral imperative. There should be no "throw away" kids. Every single one deserves as many chances as they need to succeed, because the cost of them failing is just too high. Equality is not giving everyone the same thing- it's giving everyone what they need to be successful.

So, I say, hats off to the dedicated teachers who willingly take on the extra work of finding multiple ways to reach and teach kids. We all owe them a huge debt.

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