Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Case of the Missing Zero (Subtitled: What's the REAL Issue?)

What an excellent week of meaningful educational discussions in the mainstream Alberta media!

I think the discussions generated by David Staples' recent column, on the topic of assigning grades of zero for incomplete work, in the Edmonton Journal are fantastic, and I especially appreciate the comments shared by disgruntled educators and concerned non-educators.  An article that can get people from inside and outside education talking about student learning is a valuable piece of writing, and this one has identified a pretty hot issue.

Ive been thinking about what I can learn from these (emotional) discussions....

A lot of good points have been made on both sides of the issue.  A lot is also left unsaid, and I think there is much much much more to the story than is represented by: 'he wanted to give zeros, he wasn't allowed, he's suspended, and common sense again seems to take a backseat to academic policy'.  

Some of the points made in support of assigning zeros for missing work are hard to argue with:

"Somewhere along the line they (the students) have to learn they have to be accountable..."

"There are very few soft zeros in the real world"

"We can use every teacher with high standards that we've got."

I agree COMPLETELY.  Students do need to be taught to be accountable. The real world does get tougher.  High standards are good.  Does anyone REALLY think the education system no longer holds those values?   That doesn't make much sense, does it?

I do believe, however, that the people making these statements may be forgetting one fact from their own past, and from those of their friends at age 17:  Not everyone who is currently in their 40s learned the lessons above by the end of grade 12.  I certainly didn't.  Many of my friends did not either.  Some people I know did.  It's likely the same now.

One of the benefits of teaching for over 20 years is having points of reference spanning many years.  Just as there were some spectacular students 20 years ago, there are some spectacular students now.  Let's not paint a picture of doom and gloom for modern education.  We graduate more students now than ever before, and we must not forget to celebrate those who succeed!

Spending time arguing about zeros misses the point I think.  Supporting ALL students is the real point. I'd love to see the conversations of this week keep going and morph into a desire on the part of those 97% of respondents who feel students should be given zeros to take a SERIOUS look at what school, and society, are really like TODAY and identify changes we can make to our education system to improve student learning.

One of the educators quoted in the Journal made reference to unmotivated and underachieving students in high school, reading significantly below grade levels.  That is sad.  Struggling students do not get to high school, in my experience, without years of supportive parents and caring teachers, administrators, and support staff trying to help them.  Hundreds of hours?  Thousands maybe?  Let's not dismiss the significant efforts of those teachers and parents who put in the hours trying to help kids before they arrived in high school

Just as there is no ONE factor that solely contributes to a student's development, there is no one solution (give them zero when they struggle) to solve the problem of their struggling at school.  
If society is more complex and challenging, let's realize that school (a microcosm of society, right?) is more complex and challenging too.  We can't use the solutions of yesterday to solve problems of today if they don't fit.   

Since I know you are thinking it,here are some solutions I'd like to see, based on my experiences as an educator and as a parent:

Mental health issues for children are on the rise, just like they are for adults  Let's get every child (and their families) who need mental health support the help they need before age 10.  Physical activity is part of this.  Let's fund playgrounds with new schools, give kids tons of gym time, fund/staff school breakfast programs, and support biology to help kids develop!

Let's adequately fund social supports for families in need.  Period.  Sales tax for social supports.  There.  I said it.  The S-T word.  Sorry.

Early literacy development is essential for preparing children for success in later grades.  Let's get every child into pre-school or kindergarten programs and primary grades at school where they get the attention, the excellent instruction and the COORDINATED support that matches their needs. 

Let's not have schools ridiculously overcrowded if we can help it.  If we can't help it, let's fund more teachers to work with those students.  Let's help teachers have the time to develop that deep knowledge of every student's needs so they can use their training to meet those needs.

Let's stop talking about building partnerships with our communities and start to make it happen.  Force agencies to work together, but support them to do so as well.  Offer huge tax benefits to businesses that partner with schools.  Offer huge financial support and programming flexibility to districts prepared to do the work with businesses to provide students with MEANINGFUL learning opportunities in their communities.  Relevance, more than punishment, motivates disengaged youth.  Ever see a student surprise you with the depth of their passion, their caring, or in any other way?  They all have it in them, as each of us does as well. Let's draw it out.

Let's provide funding that ensure teachers have the support needed to continually upgrade their skills, and the time to refine their practice IN the classroom. Not after hours. Let's be clear about expectations (i.e. the most important thing is good instruction) and lets be generous with support.

Let's publically celebrate our students who succeed within the confines of an outdated system.  MANY are graduating prepared for a complex global world.  Something good is happening too, and it is not fair to forget that.

There's lots more hat can be changed, sure.  But give me the above and I'll be happy.


I'm happy now, actually.  We are doing pretty well.  I see it in the mirror; I am a way better teacher today than I was before.  I see it all around me.  Things are improving.  We continue to focus on improving. Daily.  I look forward to seeing what school will look like in 10 years.  It's going to be that much better.  I seriously doubt improvement will look like the practices of the past.  We know more about how we learn now and we need to use that knowledge.

To end the zeros discussion for now, can we agree on the following?:

If a student does not hand in an assignment, teachers and parents need must continue to work with the student to complete that work.  Hound the student.  Pester the parents.  Rationalize.  Show two marks.  Cajole.  Bribe.  :)  Offer consequences for not doing the work.  If after all of that the work does not get done though, find out WHY it is not getting done.  Then solve that problem.  

Missed work represents missed learning outcomes (i.e. missed curriculum) and students are expected to master as much of the curriculum ad they are capable of mastering.  At the end of the year, let's summarize what remains to be learned and use that knowledge to start next year.

I can actually live with zeros at the end of June if the steps above have been completed.  

I know we need to be practical too. Give the zero if you need to right now.  Marks ultimately don't mean too much anyway.  :)   They are artificial representations of learning.  To prove it, I'll give good cash money to anyone who can tell me how a 68% differs from an 81% with respect to specific learning outcomes in MATH 9.  What's the difference between those marks?  What does the student who has an 81% know that the other student doesn't?

As we move forward though, try reflect on what might be the REAL issue at the heart of the conversations this it really zeros?  Or is it something bigger?