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Edmonton high school teacher suspended for contravening "no zero" policy

Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

No-zero hero?

Quote:
An Edmonton high school teacher says he has been suspended for giving students zeros on uncompleted assignments or exams.

Lynden Dorval, a physics teacher at Ross Sheppard High School, has been giving the mark for work that wasn't handed in or tests not taken even though it goes against the school's "no-zero" policy.

 

The thinking behind the policy is that failing to complete assignments is a behavioural issue and marks should reflect ability, not behaviour.

Dorval said he couldn't in good conscience comply with the rule.

"I just didn't have a choice," he said. "I just couldn't not do it. I tried to talk myself out of it many times, but it was just something so important to me, I just had to go through with it."

The policy was adopted by the school 1½ years ago, Dorval said.

The case for “No Zeros” policy

Quote:
I used to punish students with grades. I taught high school mathematics, and I believed I was holding my students accountable and preparing them for the real world by giving them zeros when they didn’t do something I wanted them to do. I was wrong.

About ten years ago, my principal told me to stop giving zeros. I didn’t understand why she had removed something I was using to control kids. I spent the next few years trying to figure out why I shouldn’t give zeros. Because I did the research, I became a better teacher.

There seems to be a perception that giving zeros means a teacher has high standards. This notion is incorrect for two reasons. First of all, the only standards that are assessable are the ones outlined in our curricula. A student’s grade should reflect level of performance against these standards. Secondly, this perception of high standards is based on some arbitrary standard of behavior and accountability. I would contend that giving zeros to students actually lowers this standard.

I no longer give zeros, and I believe that my standards of accountability are higher than they were before. Giving a zero is equivalent to letting the student quit. Students will say to me, “Just give me the zero. I don’t feel like doing the work.” Letting students quit does not teach them responsibility or prepare them for the real world. Making them do the work does. Letting them off the hook effectively lowers the standards of accountability.

The message I give my students is that they must finish what they start. Responsible adults finish what they start. I want my students to turn into responsible adults. When students are missing something I absolutely must grade, I make them do it. If students won’t, I involve their parents and the school administration. The message I am sending is that I expect students to complete their tasks. That’s accountability. That’s responsibility. That’s life. My standards of accountability are high because I do not let my students opt out of their work.

Ross Sheppard School Grading Policy (pdf)

Open letter on student assessment

Quote:
The reason we assign a certain grade is to give a student feedback on what they have learned. If a student writes a test and gets all the answers wrong, they are assigned a zero on that test. This tells the teacher the student does not know the material and needs extra support. The mark is then put in the context of all their other learning that takes place during the year. If, by the end of the year, the student still hasn’t mastered the material, they fail the course.

However, missed assignments are treated differently. Our approach to missed assignments is to work with each student to find out the reason they did not turn in an assignment. Once a teacher finds out the reason, they work with the student to come up with a solution to address the situation. They agree to a plan to turn in future assignments and the teacher holds the student accountable.

Our ultimate goal is for students to complete high school. To accomplish that goal, we must give students the tools they need to get there. We can’t write some students off if they have difficulty. If a student is struggling, we need to identify the cause and provide assistance.

We don’t let students off the hook and we don’t let them down, either. We set out clear expectations and then we support them in learning what they need to know. We give them opportunities to show us what they have learned. And we evaluate them on the work they actually turn in. That’s our approach to assessment.

 


Comments

Mr.Tea
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Joined: Jul 9 2011

I don't think this "no zero" policy is doing these students any favours. Basic educational standards at the high school level have fallen so far. There are people being promoted to the next grade when they're completely unprepared and people graduating high school as functional illiterates.


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

I can see a method like this in grade school. Even there, the final grade options may be "needs improving" "meeting expectations" and "excelling", but when we parent helpers mark a spelling test, and they get none right, they get a zero.

As for high school, I am not so sure; I can see the rationale addressing some reasons for students not engaging, but certainly not all. As well, taking it to the point of actually canning a teacher willing to put himself on the line for something he cares about is ridiculous. 

When my dad taught junior high, back in the 70s he had a student get up in front of the entire class once and say "You can't fail me. It doesn't matter what you do, my parents will go to the principal, and he will pass me" .

The kid was right. And if kids were smart enough then to recognize where power really lay and call it for what it was, I can only imagine that modern high school students who are so inclined can also see through these well-intentioned schemes. 


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

Mr. Tea wrote:
Basic educational standards at the high school level have fallen so far. There are people being promoted to the next grade when they're completely unprepared and people graduating high school as functional illiterates.

This refrain is so popular it's been sung for centuries! With respect, what evidence do you have that this is true?


jjuares
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Joined: Jan 21 2012

I find this very troubling. First, this guy had 35 years service so he was hardly taking much of a risk. He gets fired and then he retires. Big deal. The no zero policy is not related to self esteem as many people seem to think. The policy is there so that the assessment reflects student achievement against  the curricular standards. I am sure the no zero policy is a lot of work for teachers. You have to hunt down these students, contact parents and give them support and opportunities to complete the work. How much easier it must be to simply hand out a zero. Yes, there are problems with this  no zero policy but I do support it.


cco
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Joined: Apr 25 2005
CBC wrote:
The Edmonton Public Schools said Dorval was not suspended over the zero grade policy. "The situation is far more serious and complex," the district said on its Facebook site. "This is a staff discipline issue and we can’t speak to the specifics of this individual case. "The School Act authorizes suspensions for only three reasons: if there are reasonable grounds for believing the teacher has been guilty of gross misconduct, neglecting the teacher’s duty or neglecting to obey a lawful order of the board."
That's a pretty clever play, really. Knowing there's no more fertile imagination than that of a morally panicked parent, they've managed in a few short lines to imply Dorval might be guilty of anything from molesting students to dealing "bath salts" or whatever the horror of the week is, while simultaneously getting themselves off the hook of ever making specific allegations.

Mr.Tea
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Catchfire wrote:

Mr. Tea wrote:
Basic educational standards at the high school level have fallen so far. There are people being promoted to the next grade when they're completely unprepared and people graduating high school as functional illiterates.

This refrain is so popular it's been sung for centuries! With respect, what evidence do you have that this is true?

I don't have studies in front of me but it does seem pretty obvious just through observation and interaction. A family friend is a professor at UofT and says he can't believe how people accepted into a good university can barely put together coherent thoughts or write a proper essay and that it seems to get worse and worse every year.


love is free
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Joined: May 21 2012

you don't want to knock a student out on one assignment and force her/him to fight to get the b- with top-notch work the rest of the semester, but if you don't even bother to turn in your assignment, sure, you may have a debilitating mental illness or you've been hijacked by libyan terrorists or something, but i can't fathom how that deserves any grade but a zero until she/he turns something in.  i mean, this professor should have given this kid a 5/100 to avoid the suspension, but the point stands - even in the most progressive possible education system (and something tells me that edmonton is not that place), it's not fair that a student who doesn't turn in an assignment should be assigned any grade other than a zero.  exceptional circumstances should always be accommodated, but a blanket policy along these lines is just weird.


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

Catchfire wrote:

This refrain is so popular it's been sung for centuries! With respect, what evidence do you have that this is true?

Well I don't know about other universities, but I know that some time after I left, the University of WInnipeg found it necessary to establish a mandatory course to teach basic academic writing skills. 

Your guess is as good as mine as to why they felt the need to do that. 

THough I don't think it is a uniform problem. A friend of mine who took her high school overseas was shocked at her first experience of a Canadian university. She said the book-memorizing that is pretty common in first year classes was more like what she would consider high school level education. Her understanding of university was that students should come to class having read the material and prepared to analyze and expend on its ideas.

 

 


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

Mr. Tea wrote:
I don't have studies in front of me but it does seem pretty obvious just through observation and interaction. 

Yes! In fact the only evidence ever offered in support of this very popular refrain is anecdotal observations of the "obvious." I don't know what department your friend works in at U of T, but as someone with many friends and colleagues in rhetoric departments across the country, I submit that the idea that young people's literacy is on a perpetual downward slant is completely made up not supported by the evidence.


jjuares
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Joined: Jan 21 2012

Catchfire wrote:

Mr. Tea wrote:
I don't have studies in front of me but it does seem pretty obvious just through observation and interaction. 

Yes! In fact the only evidence ever offered in support of this very popular refrain is anecdotal observations of the "obvious." I don't know what department your friend works in at U of T, but as someone with many friends and colleagues in rhetoric departments across the country, I submit that the idea that young people's literacy is on a perpetual downward slant is completely made up not supported by the evidence.

When I started university almost 40 years ago every professor seemed to start every class with a rant about how students were so weak in their basic writing skills and they were so different from students previously. So now when I hear this same theme repeated endlessly my reaction is something less than alarmist.


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

At least they don't beat right-handedness into them anymore, like they tried to do with my dad.

 


infracaninophile
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When I read Plato's dialogues at university, the ancient Greeks in the texts were complaining that the youth of the time were going to hell in a handbasket. 

What is demonstrably true now is that a wider range of students are entering post-secondary institutions. Thus students who, in earlier decades, might have gone straight into industrial jobs or apprenticeships are now in college or university. These aren't the Upper Canada College crowd, or the Grade 13 grads of yesteryear. Some may indeed have weak literacy skills, compared to students with intensive academic preparation. To call them illiterate however is hyperbole.

But there is no reason to think that our top students are any less well prepared than before, or that there are fewer (proportionately) of them. 

I remember being shocked at the poor levels of writing skills of many of my first-year classmates, and that was in the so-called "good old days."  There never was a golden age. 


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

It's my opinion, in fact, that if there is a trend, it's the opposite: youth are sharper than ever, more literate than ever, more well-read than ever. In terms of grammar, we've never had so many practicers of the long and storied complaint tradition in English, never had so many defenders of the comma and the semi-colon, and never had so many resources to consult as to our proper (or, more often, our improper) usage.

I mean, I was, of course, better than the whole lot, but I can't hold everyone to such a high standard.

But all this is irregardless. What I find most troublesome is not the assumption that students, now more than ever, need desperate measures to prepare them for the "real world" (sic); but that a zero on an assignment (in high school!) is a contributing step in that direction!


Unionist
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Joined: Dec 11 2005

Catchfire wrote:

It's my opinion, in fact, that if there is a trend, it's the opposite: youth are sharper than ever, more literate than ever, more well-read than ever.

That would be my observation as well.

And having spent the last few months watching (and marching with) the students of today, I would say they have exceeded earlier generations not only in scholarly matters, but in the spirit of self-sacrifice, solidarity, and struggle as well.

There is no shortage of commenters in the Gazette and certain other media who are calling students selfish, spoiled, and ignorant, and recommending that they get a zero on every front. I think this has become a clear line of demarcation, and it's a good solid one at that.

 


love is free
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Joined: May 21 2012

during my time as a grad student a couple years ago, i TAd seven courses at mcgill and three by mail from bishop's college in lennoxville.  all told, i graded something like three thousand assignments - papers, exams, oral presentations - in everything from american politics to canadian geography.  i can tell you that though the products of the mcgill students were vastly superior to those of the bishop's college students, the level of writing was universally poor.  so the elite of our country's student body isn't very impressive, certainly nowhere near where i expected, and i'd suggest nothing approaching what i myself consider to be the minimum standard for fully considered and true literacy.  it was a grim but oddly liberating epiphany that struck me one day like a bolt, that most people have conversational-level literacy and that's probably enough for them.  my guess is that it has always been this way, at least, since we achieved full literacy sometime around the start of the last century.  there's a moment in this carver story "so much water so close to home" where this woman is writing a note and she's not quite sure of the spelling of a particular word, pausing and thinking it over and sort of coming to the conclusion that she didn't really know how it was written.  it's a small moment but it always struck me.  like years later i saw a cousin of mine do the same thing, kind of silently re-write the word, then cross it out again and go back to the original.  i'm in the "there was never a golden age" camp.

and back to the topic, i can say that it would never have entered my mind to assign a grade of anything but zero if assignment hadn't been turned in.  that's about as 'real world' as it gets, and definitely the sort of thing that you should learn about well before going to college.  i'm all for a richer and more multi-variate pre-university education, but holy smoke are we falling down if a teacher can't assign a zero for a paper that hasn't been handed in.  if i were to eat zero food, my body wouldn't just give me energy.  if i were to abandon my girlfriend for a month, she wouldn't give me any marks for having known me.


Aristotleded24
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Joined: May 24 2005

love is free wrote:
and back to the topic, i can say that it would never have entered my mind to assign a grade of anything but zero if assignment hadn't been turned in.  that's about as 'real world' as it gets, and definitely the sort of thing that you should learn about well before going to college.  i'm all for a richer and more multi-variate pre-university education, but holy smoke are we falling down if a teacher can't assign a zero for a paper that hasn't been handed in.  if i were to eat zero food, my body wouldn't just give me energy.  if i were to abandon my girlfriend for a month, she wouldn't give me any marks for having known me.

Nor would my boss give me marks for work done in the past if I all of a sudden stopped showing up for work.


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

In the first place, I think any comparison depends greatly on where one is, My guess is students are more experienced and literate in some things, and not in others. Certainly the world is a much bigger and faster place nowadays and people have a lot more information than in the days when we had two tv channels and no internet. Even so, I am equally shocked sometimes at the things some people aren't aware of.

As for the grade. I just don't see it as such a big deal, certainly not enough of a deal to suspend a teacher who objects to it on principle when the administration had the option of just going around him. I can only imagine what message that sends to students.

And I don't know, but I think the lesson that when one does nothing one gets nothing is a fairly important one. It doesn't mean you can't be supportive. And if a student does not care enough to take part in a lesson, I hardly thing receiving the results of that is going to break any hearts, or stunt the student's development.

I can't say that I have had much experience with older kids, but one of the things I have learned about younger kids is that part of that love and support includes firm boundaries that they know they can trust. Why do you think they spend so much time testing them? Kids can be many things, but they aren't stupid.

 


ryanw
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Joined: May 24 2012

I know this is the internet and pointing out grammar is THE thing to do and all ...but is it not startling to see how quickly the line is drawn from "doesn't have sentence structure, essay qualities" to "functionally illiterate"

let no one say teachers don't think highly of themselves

I cannot think of a greater ignomy for a student to suffer than to have their 'content' essay fopped off on to some marker(TA temps we're looking at you) who knows little to nothing of the (non-academic english)content. Their mark would skyrocket if they had someone who enjoyed the breadth of the content rather than its arrangement on the plate.

Instead you have some unmotivated person going over the motions and rapping knuckles a la their own english profs from 20 years earlier

I don't mind when an english prof does that, bless their hearts for trying; them and their 50 abbrieviations

but the other subjects eeek, even writers have editors probably to perserve their knuckles


Left Turn
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Mr.Tea wrote:
I don't have studies in front of me but it does seem pretty obvious just through observation and interaction. A family friend is a professor at UofT and says he can't believe how people accepted into a good university can barely put together coherent thoughts or write a proper essay and that it seems to get worse and worse every year.

Standards in English grammar have clearly gone down. Most teachers don't teach it anymore; they just assume that students will learn it through osmosis, which is a very hit and miss way of learning grammar.

Standards in math, on the other hand, have gone up. When I was in high school in the 90s, I was required to learn math concepts that my dad said he didn't learn until university.


Left Turn
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The philosophy behind the No Zeros policy, namely that students should have their work evaluated on its merits, even if handed in late, and that students should learn something from every assignment, is admirable.

I fully support the right of students to have their work evaluated on its merits, even if it's handed in late; and the right of students to take a test, even if they chose to skip class on test day. And I fully support the concept of students getting a redo on an assignment or test if what they initially hand in would get a zero.

What I don't support is requiring teachers to chase after students, up to and involving the parents, over assignments that have not been completed. I consider it an egregious infringement on the labour rights of teachers to fire them for not going above and beyond in this manner. All workers deserve jobs with set hours outside of which your time is yours and the employer can't place any demands on it.

I also fully respect the right of students to refuse any assignment for whatever reason, even if it gets them a zero. You know, the right to withdraw one's labour and such.


abnormal
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Left Turn wrote:

Mr.Tea wrote:
I don't have studies in front of me but it does seem pretty obvious just through observation and interaction. A family friend is a professor at UofT and says he can't believe how people accepted into a good university can barely put together coherent thoughts or write a proper essay and that it seems to get worse and worse every year.

Standards in English grammar have clearly gone down. Most teachers don't teach it anymore; they just assume that students will learn it through osmosis, which is a very hit and miss way of learning grammar.

I think it's safe to say that most teachers haven't been teaching grammar for a very long time - I was lucky in that my Grade 12 English teacher decided to spend the first ten minutes of virtually every class teaching grammar (even though it had nothing to do with things we'd be tested on).  Otherwise I'd have been proof of my German instructor's comment "The reason most students have trouble with German grammar is that they don't know anything about English grammar."

And based on the job applications we receive for clerical positions high schools today definitely aren't teaching much in the way of grammar or writing skills of any sort.

Quote:
Standards in math, on the other hand, have gone up. When I was in high school in the 90s, I was required to learn math concepts that my dad said he didn't learn until university.

I'm not sure I'd use that as evidence that "standards" have gone up, only that the curriculum has changed significantly.  I know that my daughter was doing things in IB math that I never covered until university (we covered little or no statistics in high school but my daughter had to do a major research paper in the area (pretty much material that I would have been teaching in first year university courses in my academia days)).  And my son covered topics in Grade 10 that I didn't cover until Grade 13.

 


Unionist
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abnormal wrote:

And based on the job applications we receive for clerical positions high schools today definitely aren't teaching much in the way of grammar or writing skills of any sort.

Interesting sentence construction.

I'll forgive the omission of a comma after "positions". But what am I to make of the assertion that "high schools today" are "based on" job applications?

Conclusion: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.


janfromthebruce
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I took a first year and advanced grammar/writing courses at university and it was the best 2 courses I ever took - I learned how to write at a higher skill level and how to write super essays at university level. I also TA'd at 2 universities and devised a marking template which I provided to each student, so they knew before hand how their papers would be graded. I also provided students with the marking scheme for "late" assignments in conjunction with the other.  And yes, "real life" does sometimes get in the way.

Because there were many 2nd language students and international students, or perhaps students who did not have great writing ability, I ascribed 15% to spelling/grammar/punctuation and sentence structure, and the rest of the marking scheme was based on "content", thus it was evaluating their knowledge of the subject matter.

And FYI, one course the assignments were designed to build towards that "final essay" so they learned the skills of how to research on a subject matter, develop a bib, develop a thesis statement, and so on. Also there was opportunity for oral presentations and other literacy media communication components because there is many ways to communicate literacy in a subject matter and we all have different talents.


Sineed
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Joined: Dec 4 2005

This teacher was interviewed on the CBC. Interesting interview - he conceded that there was little risk for him, as he was 35 years in and near to retirement anyway, and expressed sympathy for younger teachers who shared his teaching philosophy.

He sounds like a committed teacher, who incorporates the zeros he hands out into a framework of helping kids pull their socks up. He says that the "no zero" policy lets kids face no consequences for not handing in assignments; so for instance, if a kid did 60% of the assigned work, but got 75% on what was completed, the "no zero" policy forces teachers to grant a 75%. What he does is take into account the unfinished work, and he also allows kids to make up the assignments for which they received a zero.


Unionist
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Joined: Dec 11 2005

Dorval should consider himself lucky. The University of Ottawa fired Denis Rancourt for giving all his students A+. Here was the rabble interview with him at the time, and here was the babble discussion.

And Sineed, whose posts I love and wait for with anticipation (glad to see her back around these parts!), unfortunately said this at the time:

Quote:
But seriously, the average 20 year old, even a very bright one, doesn't know shit about shit.

Could she have been referring to agriculture students?

 

 


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

@ Unionist #22

Or in this case, Unionist, schreiben. *ha ha*

This brings up a whole different matter - the fact that academic English isn't functional English at all. In fact, it a jargon designed in part to keep out the riff raff. The other part of course is to make some academics think they are speaking and writing better English when often the opposite is true. 

You wantto learn how to use and write pointlessly large words, convoluted and just plain bad sentence structure and content which dances around and around an idea without getting to the point? Go to university.

I ran into this in a first year English course when I got, in red pencil, on one of my papers: "paragraphs too short". Not content, not even hard grammar, and contrary to what I thought a paragraph was, which was something which started and ended with a distinct idea, even if it was only two sentences rather than a Dickens novel.

Journalistic writing may also be a technical style, but it manages to get ideas across which are often just as complex and sometimes even literary, while still being clear and speaking to the general public (specifically, grade 10 English, and nothing over three syllables except when necessary).

This touches on the other education thread, since in at least one country where tuition is free - Germany - they still have a way of limiting who gets into university - by teaching them different languages - one plain, and the other full of five-dollar (mostly English root) words.

 

 


Sven
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janfromthebruce wrote:

I took a first year and advanced grammar/writing courses at university and it was the best 2 courses I ever took...


kropotkin1951
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Joined: Jun 6 2002

6079_Smith_W wrote:

When my dad taught junior high, back in the 70s he had a student get up in front of the entire class once and say "You can't fail me. It doesn't matter what you do, my parents will go to the principal, and he will pass me" .

The kid was right. And if kids were smart enough then to recognize where power really lay and call it for what it was, I can only imagine that modern high school students who are so inclined can also see through these well-intentioned schemes. 

Let me guess, he was white and his parents were at least middle class and also white.  Privilege often trumps everything in real life.  No FN's or POC student in the 1970's would have said something like that and if they had the teacher's response would not have been fear.


Sven
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Joined: Jul 22 2005

If a "no zero" policy was the rule and if I were a teacher, then I'd tell the students on the first day of class: "If you do absolutely nothing in this class (you turn in no assignments and you take no quizzes or tests), then the lowest possible score you will receive on any assignment, quiz, or test will be a 1.  At the end of the term, if all you have received are ones, then you will have "earned" an F for the course.  I will send a summary of this to your parent or parents so that everyone understands what the expectations are at the outset of this course, so that there will be no unpleasant surprises if someone receives an F under these terms.  Any questions?"


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

I'll dispense with my usual arguments about the futility of teaching grammar (shorter version: we learn 95% of English grammar, on average, before we are 4 years old. All the apparatuses in place -- which are still there, despite our laments over the loss of tedious grammar classes in school -- teach shame rather than any practically observed improvement in intercourse and are based in some myth of perfect communication) and try to address the actual administrative action here.

On one hand, this teacher objects to a policy which is grounded in many years of educational theory and practice. It's the theory adopted by the school board. Of course teachers -- especially ones with many decades' experience -- should be able to express dissent to such policies, but there is something unsettling (maybe just because I disagree with him!)  about this sort of maverick action (and I do have Birgitte DePape, whom I do support, in mind here) which he knows will fit into the narrative, which media and its listeners love (cf. this thread), of weakened educational standards, failed preparation for the "real world" (sic), and namby-pamby liberal educational theories. But at the end of the day, I take the board's experience over a single vocal teacher unable to assimilate modern theory into his practice.

On the other hand, I think that students should be exposed to multiple teaching philosophies. For example, in my own career, the teacher that got me interested in English Literature as a career was about as hardcore a grammarian and old-fashioned as a scholar as you can find anywhere in the academy. We still talk (and still fondly), but I know if he saw my research out of that context, he would gruffly hrm-hrm me out the door. I wouldn't give up that experience for anything, even though I differ in about every substantive way as an educator from that course! I'm not sure, however, that this applies to grading philosophy in the sense that the school's main contention here is that incompleted assignments are a behavioural issue, not an academic one. For me, that's a very valuable distinction.

In the past, the governing sentiment in Canadian high schools was "students have a right to fail." More recently, that "right" has been questioned: why should they? Like the school board says: our goal is to get students to finish high school. For me, that's a much more admirable goal than affording young people the right to be failures.

N.B. Prof. Trehearne (the aforementioned hardboiled prof) would have called abnormal's error, which Unionist pointed out, a "misplaced modifier," not a D.P.


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