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?

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