A Zero Does Nothing But Hurt Education

The deeper I get into my teaching career, the more reflective I’ve become. Part of it is nostalgia, linking moments in the classroom to the stages of my life. Part of it is really disbelief that I have been at this for 20 years already. The idea that there are more yesterdays in my career than tomorrows is one that brings mixed emotions.

There is a happiness that those tomorrows in the classroom—which are still plentiful—will result in students getting the best version of me, the teacher. 20 years of lessons, conversations, moments in the room, and everything else that goes with the job gives you a sense of true confidence and assurance. At this point, I know I’ll never be perfect; but, I also know that everything done in the room is an attempt to make the classroom a great place for kids.

There’s also a bit of sadness when looking at those yesterdays. Unlike so many other professions, Teaching impacts young lives. What you do, how you do it, and why you do it can change the course of a kid’s life. That’s pretty heavy.

For me, I tend to look back at the things I did wrong as a young teacher. Inevitably, I go back to the first year of teaching. I was young, idealistic, and thought I knew all the answers. The only thing that remains is the idealism. That idealism’s foundation is built on doing what’s best for students. Back then, the intentions were good; sometimes the execution wasn’t. And, sometimes, the lack of knowledge really resulted in things that weren’t best for kids.

There was this young man in my eighth grade English class in that memorable first year. I remember him standing out on the first day because he looked so much older than the other students in my second period class. He had an edge to him and when I asked him his name, he had a really deep voice. He didn’t participate in the opening activity and asked to go to the bathroom just after it started. After that class, I had my first team meeting. The first question I asked was if anyone knew this kid.

My three teammates laughed. There was a story.

He was going to turn 16 years old later in the year and was taking eighth grade for the third time. His home life wasn’t great and inevitably he would stop coming to school; it’s what he always did. I was told not to worry.

Well, I heard that and decided I would be the Teacher to turn him around. So, I made a point to talk to him. We had a pretty good relationship. In class, he would participate. He would sometimes come into my room during his lunch period. I now realize that he probably didn’t want to be in the cafeteria with a group of 12 year olds and that we were really just six years apart.

Despite my efforts and what seemed to be a connection, he was failing my class.

This was what I was talking about when I said the intentions were good, but the execution wasn’t.

He was participating in class. He managed to pass most of the quizzes and tests. Heading down the stretch of the first quarter, he was passing my class. The problem? He didn’t do the essay assignment and the couple of homework’s I was forced to assign at the end of the quarter. That essay really hurt him. The zero in the grade book brought down the passing grade to a 58.

Yes, I gave him a zero because that’s what Teachers do when kids don’t hand in assignments. No work equals no grade.

Now, I offered to sit with him to work on the essay during those lunch period visits. He would always say “don’t worry, I’ll get it done” and change the subject. I told him that I wouldn’t let him fail. Yet, that’s exactly what I did. I failed a young man because he didn’t do one assignment; I failed him because I didn’t place enough importance on him to do it. And, most importantly, I sabotaged his best performance and effort he gave in class by giving him a grade that was unfair.

If that essay grade didn’t exist, his grade would have been in the range of a 70. He would’ve started the year on a positive note. He might have actually started to believe that he could pass. After all, he passed all of my in-class assessments. He participated. He never gave me or any of his younger classmates a hard time. 95 percent of his performance was passing.

And, yet, I failed him.

When I told him that he failed for the quarter, he didn’t react. He didn’t say anything. And, more importantly, he didn’t do anything for the next 10 weeks. He stopped participating. He stopped coming in during lunches. The zeros piled up in the grade book that quarter. He wound up with a 7 for the second quarter. Yes, a 7. There was no way he could pass now. He knew it. And, sadly, he stopped showing up. Midway through the year, he was shipped off to some program in the hopes of salvaging his year.

My colleagues told me that it wasn’t my fault. He chose not to do the work. And, that I was right for giving a zero. After all, what message would I be sending to the other kids and him if I gave credit for something that wasn’t done? That’s not how life works. You have to get kids prepared for the harsh, real world.

I can’t tell you a story of when I stopped giving zeros. It just sort of happened when execution started to get closer to intention. There wasn’t an epiphany or one of those “Teacher” moments in a classroom with a student. But, I can tell you that I wish that epiphany happened back then. If I had this encounter now, it would go far differently. And, it might have made a difference.

Had I given him a 50 on that essay, he would have passed quarter one. Yes, some may view this as being soft and giving him credit for nothing. But, a 50 is a failing grade. He still failed. But, that failure would’ve been more equitable. We only have 10 ways to tell students that they got an “A”. That’s only 10 ways to say “you did tremendous”, “this was excellent”, “outstanding job”. We have 10 ways to tell students they got a “B”, 10 for a “C”. All of that seems fair.

Why do we, the education industry, have 64 ways of telling kids that they failed?

Does a zero help foster responsibility? Consequence? Accountability? Obviously, it does not. It does foster the idea that their teacher gave up on them. It’s unfortunate because the majority of teachers don’t realize it. I didn’t realize it during year one, but that zero was my signal that I gave up on him. And, honestly, it took me a long time to realize it.

We get into the profession because we want to make a positive impact on students. I believe that almost every teacher gets into the profession because of that. We want to impact their lives. We want to set them up so they can have happy and productive lives. We believe that the life lessons kids learn in our classrooms are just as important as the content. And, most take that part very seriously.

That’s where the ideas of responsibility, consequences, and accountability come into the education world.

The education system does have an obligation to develop these characteristics. And, for the most part, we do a pretty good job. But, as an industry, we are still holding on to some outdated ideas. We are slow to adapt to the idea that we are preparing students for a new economy, not the model from even five years ago, let alone 100 years ago.

But, slowly—ever so slowly—we are starting to evolve.

We are beginning to see that we can foster the characteristics of responsibility, consequences, and accountability without degrading, intimidating, or stripping a student of his/her self-worth.

Yes, we can do this without giving a kid a zero.

Execution Gets Closer To Intention

For me, it is simple. 50 is the lowest grade I would ever consider giving a student. That 50 still allows a student to recover his/her average with better performances on other assignments. A 50 won’t sabotage a grade so badly that it takes away any chance of a student passing a quarter, a semester, or a year.

Some may argue that I am giving a student free points. No, I am still failing the student (more on that in a minute), but I am failing a student and leaving his/her dignity intact. They still have hope. There is still a reason to try.

Others argue that it isn’t fair to give a student points when other students who do the work may receive a failing grade. That’s also faulty logic. If 50 is my new 0, why can’t 60 be my new failing grade for those who hand in the work? Again, they are still not receiving a passing grade.

I will always regret that situation from year one. But, that situation has helped form my values of grading. A zero is damaging to a student. It is damaging to the teacher. And, it sends the exact opposite message about the importance of the work being done in class.

A Zero Takes Away Hope

Given the nature of a zero, we are generally talking about a segment of students who need every bit of motivation we can throw at them. They need to know that they have a chance. They need to know that the effort that they are probably scared to give has a chance to work. Keep in mind that the zero tells the student that he/she has zero chance of succeeding in your class.

About a decade ago, I remember walking into a department meeting and hearing a conversation between two colleagues about a student. The one teacher had him the year before. This student’s new teacher said that the kid already had four zeros. It was the third week of school. Essentially, the student’s fate was decided because of a number that takes away any mathematical possibility of success.  Why would he/she even try?

Yes, we want to produce a generation of responsible people who can deal with challenges. But, dealing with challenges is about overcoming adversity. We need to always have hope that we can overcome. A zero removes that hope. It removes the possibility of redemption. It stands to reason that it removes the motivation.

A Zero Takes Away The Value Of Assignment

If we are assigning a student work, it is because we believe that the work is valuable. We believe that the student either has to learn the content, skill, or concept or demonstrate that he/she can apply that content, skill, or concept.

A zero negates all of that.

If we believe that the work is important, then it is incumbent on us, as Teachers, to demonstrate to the students that the work is important. We must make every effort possible to have the student complete the work. We have to create an environment that tells the student that the work is more important than filling a column in the book. We have to create a climate that shows that we value the work so much that we will do anything and everything to get them to do it.

Simply handing out a zero and moving on doesn’t send that message. Responsibility is a value as well as an action. We have to model the value that we are responsible for getting them to complete our valuable work.

Will we will get every kid? We won’t every time, but that doesn’t mean we lower the expectation. It doesn’t mean that we give up trying or setting a climate where the work is valued.

By setting that environment, we are not only telling students that the work is valuable, but we value them completing that work. A zero shows no value for any of that.

Zeros Create A No Win Environment For Everyone

Once you give the zero, there is no turning back. The student will most likely fail. And, you’ve already given them the worst case scenario. There isn’t any lower. There isn’t a more harsh punishment. You have no more options. And, the student knows that there is no chance of success. That classroom environment is irreparable.

My story was an extreme example, but that is exactly what happened. I gave a zero. It caused him to fail and give up. He couldn’t win, no matter how much of an effort he actually gave. I lost every bit of credibility with him. I lost him without even seeing if he had an issue with writing. After all, he was repeating 8th grade for the third time. Instead of creating an environment that allowed for opportunity and the safety of trying, I gave a zero that ended all of that. We both lost.

Extra Credit Isn’t The Answer; Re-Do Is

Before I finally ditched the zero, I was always searching for ways to give kids more opportunities to overcome those zeros. So, I went with another tradition in education: extra credit.

I would give kids projects, in-class contests, and even bonus points on tests in order to boost their grades.

Yet another example of good intentions…poor execution.

Extra credit is born out of good intentions. We give it to help kids. But, truthfully, we are giving it because they didn’t succeed with our work, the “stuff” we spend weeks teaching and assessing. So, instead of spending the time giving out projects that may or may not be (loosely) connected to the curriculum, why not allow students to re-do the work we deemed important?

The re-do accomplishes a few things. First, it develops the idea that our work is important and meaningful. It is so meaningful that we want them to continue to work on it until they “get it”. Second, it creates the an environment of accountability. Students are accountable for the work, not submitting a project for extra-credit. Extra credit results in a grade that isn’t reflective of what a student has learned. But, re-dos allow students to raise grades. In the end, the grade is more reflective of student performance.

Whether the grade is a zero, a 50, or a 64, a re-do will give students an opportunity to succeed. It isn’t a gift or a softening of standards. It’s actually the opposite. It’s showing the importance of work and that they are accountable for it.

Final Thought

The logical argument about outlawing a zero is quite simple in that it makes mathematical sense. More importantly, a zero sends the wrong message in education. We should be creating an environment where we value the work, the responsibility to master it, and the opportunity to succeed.

It all really goes back to why we first got into this field. We aren’t here to say “gotcha” to students and punish them for those moments. We are here to teach them. We are here so they learn; we know that learning is rarely linear. And, we know that all students don’t learn the same way. We differentiate lessons so why can’t we differentiate grading? When we put the individual student’s needs front and center, everyone wins. Eliminating the zero frees Teachers to do just that.

I often wonder where that young man is today. I am hopeful that he is enjoying his life and was able to find happiness. I am hopeful that he found someone who didn’t give up on him like a young teacher unknowingly did 20 years ago. I hope he found out that you are not a product of one singular grade or one singular action. I hope he found out that life isn’t about a number. I hope he found out that life is really about constantly learning, constantly trying to do better, and constantly trying to help others. Those are things that should’ve been taught in eighth grade English and in all of his classes.

Hopefully, these are the lessons taught in our classrooms today.