Recently a teacher in Alberta was suspended for giving a student a zero. There followed a lot of weak analysis by the media and emotional commentary by the public, including other teachers. Lots of heat was created but not a lot of light. So far I have found it, for the most part, to be a depressing example of our inability to hold a thoughtful discussion in the public sphere.
So, what is the issue here? The teacher’s suspension is irrelevant. That was for insubordination—failing to abide by the duly created policies of his employer—not for giving a zero per se. One could inquire as to whether due process was observed but that’s not an educational issue, it’s a matter for the HR department and it’s not really an appropriate topic for public debate.
The educational issue, which really is a good topic for public discussion, is whether giving a student a mark of zero for work that is late or not completed is something a competent professional teacher would do. The answer to that question is clearly No. A teacher who understands assessment and who is committed to the best interests of students would not do that. You can contend that its “tough love” or that you are preparing the student for the “real world” but these arguments are red herrings. Its not that students should not be prepared for the real world or that they should not learn that their actions have consequences, but misusing marks is not the way to go about it.
Assessment is intended to provide students with feedback about what they know and what they do not yet know. Assessment is not about reward and punishment. It is not a motivational tool. You shouldn’t get marks for trying hard, or being a great person, or complying fully with your teacher’s expectations and you shouldn’t lose them for being offensive or absent or even lazy. You get marks for what you know, pure and simple. If a student knows absolutely nothing at all about the required content, then give him or her a zero. Otherwise don’t.
Now if a student does not hand in his or her work, what should a teacher do? Well, the logical thing is to say, “I can’t tell what you know or don’t know so I won’t give you a grade.” (Actually, the policy in most schools is to give a grade of “Incomplete,” which means just what it says and gives you something to put on the report that is informative.) Without a grade, of course, the student cannot complete the course so now he or she has a choice. Do the work and demonstrate what you know or take the consequence of not getting a grade—which is the same as failing, but if that happens it will now be clear why it happened and what it would take to change that.
Giving a zero for any other reason than having evidence that the students knows nothing at all is foolish and confusing. It mixes up motivation, which is important, and consequences, which are also important, with assessment, which is about determining what a student does and does not know. Marks should not be used to either reward or punish. They are not a sort of currency that students earn for their efforts.
Of course, there is a long history of teachers using marks in this way. The twisted and antiquated logic of that practice is deeply entrenched in habit for some people, but that doesn’t make it either right or reasonable. Full disclosure; forty years ago when I started teaching I thought this was logical and fair too. But the educational world has learned a lot since then and so have I. Now we know that there is a much better way. The fact that this has been common in the past is no reason to carry on making the same mistake forever. It’s the educational equivalent of snake oil.
Changing this bad old habit is not a matter of pandering to a student’s self-esteem or lowering standards to make sure they don’t fail, its just a matter of thinking straight and of learning from the best practices of others. There is abundant research and classroom experience to show that intelligent assessment practices are extremely effective in helping students learn, and there is no research, only folklore, to suggest that using marks to motivate or control is educationally effective.
Of course, this approach is more work than just writing kids off, but is that a good reason to keep doing it? It means that those teachers who have been using marks to control student behaviour will have to figure out a better way to go about it, and its about time they did. It also means that teachers will need to explain themselves to parents, which is what many educators have doing for the past decade while assessment practice has been one of the primary topics of professional learning in education. Hopefully, when the smoke clears on the melodrama in Alberta, there will be even more of that.
 See, for example, http://weaeducation.typepad.co.uk/files/blackbox-1.pdf