Why Schools Need to Scrap the No-Zero Policy

Giving kids a pass for incomplete work may set them up for failure down the road

Photography by iStockphoto.com

No parent wants to see their child get a zero on an uncompleted assignment or missed test—but would you really want your child to get a pass? That’s exactly what happens if your child attends a school with a no-zero policy. But at least two Edmonton teachers have taken a stand against their school’s policy—and they’ve been disciplined for it.

The no-zero policy at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton prohibits teachers from giving students a zero on missed assignments and tests, but physics teacher Lynden Dorval continued to give students a zero for work that was not attempted. The result: Dorval was recently suspended for breaking the school’s no-zero policy. While the veteran teacher could appeal, he has said he will not take such action because if he is not successful, he may bear the burden of all legal costs—a financial hit he doesn’t want to risk.

Since Dorval’s suspension, another teacher at the school, Mike Tachynski, has spoken out on behalf of Dorval at Edmonton Public School Board meeting, and has said he is also facing disciplinary action because he too is now giving zeros for missed work, according to a CBC article.

To be fair, if a teacher has a fundamental problem with their principal’s rules, it’s probably a good time for the teacher to move on to another school; the principal is, after all, the leader. But these cases have nevertheless put a spotlight on the issue of whether schools should even have a no-zero policy.

Why Is There a No-Zero Policy, Anyway?
The theory behind the no-zero policy is that students should be given every opportunity to complete work in order to allow them the best chance to succeed and move on to the next level of their education. The idea is that students should not be allowed to fail. But is this policy ultimately failing kids?

In a CBC article, one Grade 10 student said high-schoolers who show up to class deserve at least a minimum mark, and another suggested any teacher who hands out a zero should not be teaching. Certainly, not all students feel this way. A student-led petition calling for Dorval’s reinstatement is being circulated at the school and students have created pins and T-shirts protesting the no-zero policy, according to a CBC article. These students see that there is something fundamentally wrong with giving kids a pass on failure to complete schoolwork.

When I was in high school (1997-2002), if you didn’t do the work, you got a zero. Some of my high school teachers gave a zero as soon as the due date passed—there was no room for late assignments, unless you made arrangements prior to the due date. My favourite elementary school teacher took a softer approach. He had a giant rock on his desk and we could put late assignments on it. Working from the bottom of the pile, he’d mark whatever he had time for; if he didn’t get to it by the end of the year, you got a zero (I’m pretty sure he made time to mark everything). The potential for a zero doesn’t prevent kids from succeeding; it ensures kids take some responsibility for their education.

Indeed, at a recent school board meeting Tachynski told trustees that he began giving out zeros for missed assignments and tests earlier this month. He said that after changing his policy, 27 students had approached him to make up missed work—a far cry from the two students who had come to him to make up work in the previous two months.

Don’t get me wrong—kids who are truly at risk of failing or dropping out should be receiving every support available (and, let’s face it, a lot that’s not available due to budget restraints). But there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, and a sweeping dismissal of making kids accountable does not help them succeed.

Are We Setting Kids Up to Fail?
The no-zero policy also raises a very important point about failure. Some of the smartest people I’ve ever heard speak say that you should never be afraid to fail. If we shouldn’t be afraid to fail, why are we afraid to let kids fail—even on a small scale—when they have the safety net of school?

Failure is a learning opportunity. It teaches kids about responsibility, accountability, consequences, learning from your mistakes—the intangible, transferrable skills that help us succeed in adulthood. And most importantly, it helps kids develop resiliency. If a child simply sails through school, how will they ever be able to cope in the face of adversity? What happens when they get a zero in university (which can easily happen—I know from experience)? And when they’re out in the workforce, what happens when they don’t get that coveted promotion, or, worse, get fired?

Failure is part of life, and to gloss over it, to pretend we can avoid it, is setting kids up for a lot of anxiety—and perhaps a much more devastating, debilitating failure—down the road.

What do you think? Would you want your child’s school to have a no-zero policy?

18 responses to “Why Schools Need to Scrap the No-Zero Policy”

  1. Wayne Watson says:

    And let’s not forget all the student who work their butts off to get assignments in on time and study hard for tests. What kind of message are we sending them?

    I completely disagree with the no-zero policy. I think it’s a ridiculous overreaction that saddles the rest of society with an illiterate, slacker as an adult. It’s a move by lazy principals unwilling to take responsibility for lazy teachers and students. Thankfully, my kids have had considerate and empowered principals supporting their teachers who make them earn every mark they get.

  2. Isabelle says:

    I agree with Wayne Watson on all but 1 thing. I don’t think that teachers are the problem. I think it’s lazy students and lazy parents. We live in an age of self-entitlement – and this generation is the worst by far. Those coming out of University come out thinking that they should be immediately given a CEO’s job and salary and that is simply not the reality – and some of these people can’t even spell the most basic of words, nor do they have any “real” skills. I decided to go back to University to get my degree, and the day before the exam – we are pretty much told what will be on it – REAL LIFE DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY!!! The coddling has to stop, and we need to go back to teaching methods of the 70’s and 80’s. Teachers taught the course material, students studied with the help of their parents, students were tested – you passed or you failed – there were no free passes – just like real life.

  3. shannon says:

    Absolutely- we as a community- and the school system-are sending the wrong message to our kids. Why can’t they “fail”? If the student “failed” to complete the work, he/she simply did not do what was required and deserve a zero for that assignment; giving them any other grade makes little sense. When one of my employees does not do the work required of them, they are not rewarded; the problem is discussed and the remifications of such a trend are laid out, and ultimately if work assignments are not completed ( and completed well), let go. Allowing a child to believe that not completing work is some how okay, is foolish and sets them up to be entitled, poorly performing adults.

  4. I’m actually working towards my Master’s in Secondary Ed. Math. I’m doing research on grade retention v. social promotion when I ran across this page. I stopped to read it. I live in Alabama and have taught school in my home state and in Georgia. Unfortunately Progressivism and Humanism is leading this push. We live in a society where everyone is a winner and get trophies. You can see the same thing in American politics…don’t let them fail!! Bail-out!!! I have been approached by superiors and asked to allow a student to pass. Students know they will pass regardless of what they do. All the accountability falls on the teacher and the student plays the victim of poor teaching practice, instruction wasn’t differentiated to provide for each of the 120 students a secondary teacher has during a given year.

    I would like to know where the research is that put this into motion!!! Behaviorism clearly contrasts to such practices because passing a student acts as a positive reinforcement to laziness. It is clear case of humanism….raising humanity to deity stature where man has only to answer to himself with no absolute truths and progressivism….democratic society where everyone’s voice is just as valid as another’s. NCLB has actually had the opposite affect it was suppose to have. With graduation rate required to be at 100% by 2014, school officials were pushed to lower standards to save their jobs. Schools can help with fixing problems but they can never entirely fix moral and individual problems that are attained at home, on the media, on the streets, and at break. Their models speak of quitting school, making easy money, and helping themselves rather than finishing school, working hard, and helping others.

    We are sending our kids the wrong message. The message we should be sending is that failure is an option and is very likely if you don’t put the work in. I suppose I could as my congressman that my bills should be free that it doesn’t matter what I do…I’m entitled to that. Maybe the Republicans were on to something…No wonder people expect entitlements when they graduate school, they got them while they were in school!!!

    If you know of any articles (peer reviewed or journal) let me know!!

  5. […] Smusiak, C. (No date). Why Schools Need to Scrap the No-Zero Policy: Giving kids a pass for incomplete work may set them up for failure down the road. Retrieved from Canadian Family website: http://www.canadianfamily.ca/parents/why-schools-need-to-scrap-the-no-zero-policy/ […]

  6. […] she heard that her daughters’ school was doing away with letter grades a little more than a year ago, Sherri Fawdry’s first reaction was skepticism. And then […]

  7. Dayna says:

    David, I am writing an argumentative essay on this topic right now. The peer-reviewed article I am primarily using is entitled, “Re-visioning K-12 Education: Learning Through Failure-Not Social Promotion” by Vallett & Annetta. 2013.
    I like what you had to say, btw. I agree!
    Dayna

  8. Teacher who cares.... says:

    We have laws and rules developed over the years based on child development – you can start to drive at 16, drink at 18…etc. This is because children’s brains are not developed sufficiently for decisions and consequences – indeed the full brain development finishes in the 20’s. Students should not have the “option” to fail because the consequences are going to impact them in further grades. Fails are the easy lazy way for teachers to be done with the work – put a zero and my work is complete. The no – fail policy means the teacher can’t be lazy – they have to get the student to produce sufficient evidence of learning. Yes – it is the teachers job to -Teach!!!!! If a student isn’t engaged you must find out why and how to reach them. The lazy way = 0.

    Children are in school to learn – and are mandated they must have formal learning imposed upon them. Why? Because society deems them incapable of competent participation in work until a certain age – because they are children, brain development, etc. So if we already know that we know they are not capable of mature thought processes involving important decisions – why would we allow them to “decide” to fail?????

    It’s not a “No- fail” – just write in 50% to make the Principal happy!!!!! (LAZY TEACHER) It is – Teach the student something – or in many cases I bet those students could actually teach the teacher a thing or two!!!! Do the work – sit there with the student – find ways to help them develop motivation – that is teaching. That is what is meant by No fail.
    The student probably feels the disdain these teachers have for them….making them do extra work!!!! The nerve of these children!!!! Guess what? They ARE JUST CHILDREN – they don’t know, they don’t understand life yet, they are there to learn – and it is the teachers job to engage students – all children – not just the easy to teach ones. All children. Not just say like a 2 year old would “I am not gonna try to teach this kid cause he doesn’t care a he won’t do his work” – does that sound like an ADULT response to a child’s actions???????? No!!!! 0 = lazy to teach the kids who are difficult. Fail = lazy to help the students who probably need the most help. Blaming a child = being at a cognitive functionality on the level with the child. Be the adult, be the leader, be the TEACHER!!! Find a way to teach them.

    “Nobody cares what you know until they know that you care” – this INCLUDES children – if you card enough to find ways for them to succeed – they will do the work…..that I know for sure.

    Now WHO wouldn’t want that for their child????

  9. Richard Schmidt says:

    what you say is fine but slightly out of context. you’re correct, teachers should find a way to teach all types of children, thats why they are paid extremely well. however in the end the child must show knowledge of the subject being taught or fail the course. i know of some children who were passed, and should not have been passed, but their parents sent them to summer school anyway. the next fall term their grades were in the 70’s. cause and effect, consequences for your actions, these are things, very important things, that also need to be learned.

  10. Andrew says:

    My grade would have been much higher if I went to school now. I got tons of zeros. Homework was not my thing. Not proud of this now but as a kid I made dumb decisions and I paid for them with zeros. A zero-zero policy is only going to hurt kids. I needed to learn what it was like to fail before I pulled my stuff together.

  11. Michael says:

    Your post seems to imply that there is some age (you suggest age 20) at which children suddenly develop sufficient neural connections to realize that a decision to refrain from meeting their responsibilities results in life consequences. Studies show that the brain changes and grows in response to challenge at any age. That’s why I teach my 2 year old to tidy after herself when she eats dinner in order to get dessert. I think a student in primary school can be taught to understand the relationship between completing work and academic success and accolades. It’s a crime to simply attribute laziness and excuse-making in many pre-teens and teenagers to a lack of sufficient maturity. Don’t kid yourself: If you send your child to grade 11/12 or university without a solid understanding of their academic responsibilities, you are limiting their opportunities for a successful future in a world that is increasingly cut-throat and competitive. No university professor or employer is going to sit with your 20-year old child and find ways to motivate them.

  12. Michael says:

    Your post seems to imply that there is some age (you suggest age 20) at which children suddenly develop sufficient neural connections to realize that a decision to refrain from meeting their responsibilities results in life consequences. Studies show that the brain changes and grows in response to challenge at any age. That’s why I teach my 2 year old to tidy after herself when she eats dinner in order to get dessert. I think a student in primary school can be taught to understand the relationship between completing work and academic success and accolades. It’s a crime to simply attribute laziness and excuse-making in many pre-teens and teenagers to a lack of sufficient maturity. Don’t kid yourself: If you send your child to grade 11/12 or university without a solid understanding of their academic responsibilities, you are limiting their opportunities for a successful future in a world that is increasingly cut-throat and competitive. No university professor or employer is going to sit with your 20-year old child and find ways to motivate them. You have a parental responsibility to ensure your child makes the connection between his/her academic and social role and his/her future success.

  13. Teacher who actually teaches says:

    Your post is just plain ignorant. Putting all of the blame on the teacher for a student not doing his work is such an uninformed and immature response. Did you ever stop to think that the onus IS and SHOULD BE on the student and his parent who allows it? I am a teacher with 15 years experience who graduated first in his class with a master’s degree in EDUCATION. I teach at a school that has such a policy, so I have an informed perspective on the matter.

    This policy is a disaster. Those who think that it doesn’t inherently teach irresponsibilty are simply wrong. I AM a teacher who actually teaches. But I spend half my time during school hours trying to track down homework and class work assignments from my 140 students. Does that help me TEACH? Does it mean that I’m not teaching? Or does it mean something else?

    I promise you: teachers are working hard already. VERY hard. Policies like these infantilize our students and waste teachers’ time that could and should be going into lesson planning, peer collaboration driven by best practices, and correcting.

    Shame on you for blaming teachers for students not doing their work.

  14. Trent DeJong says:

    The philosophy behind the no zero policy is not to protect children from failure. The no zero policy begins with the idea that the marks must be an accurate measurement of student achievement–their skills and abilities. A zero can be given, but only if a student knows nothing–not if they haven’t turned an assignment in. For the same reason, grades should not include work done by other students (group work), or “late” marks, etc. Just what a student knows or can do. The no zero policy does not allow students to choose to not complete all their work–they must to all the assignments so that the teacher has the data by which to measure student learning. Again, I reiterate, the no zero policy is not to protect a students fragile self esteem, it’s to make the marks an accurate measurement of student learning. Late work, or work not completed is a disciplinary issue.

  15. Stephen says:

    Come the Next generation, our schools will be filled with teachers who are products of no zero…….the blind leading the blind, great! :-(

  16. Christian Hoogheem says:

    “To be fair, if a teacher has a fundamental problem with their principal’s rules, it’s probably a good time for the teacher to move on to another school; the principal is, after all, the leader.” I completely disagree. If the teachers are not willing to make a stand against initiatives based on poor research and only gut feelings, then who will make that stand?

  17. Richard Cook says:

    I completely agree with the no-zero policy. And along with this, I find my daughter’s teachers over-inflate grades on quizzes, which only leads her to have a false sense of her grasp of the work (and for us to be misled on how she is actually doing and how much she is comprehending. We are setting our kids up for failure by not showing them how to experience and learn from failure as they grow up.

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