Let’s explore the current trend among school boards to have a “no zero” policy for assignments. This means that if a students neglects to pass in an assignment when it is due, or even before the end of term, the teacher is not permitted to give a grade of zero for that assignment.

The reasons that school boards and departments of education give for having this policy are very high minded and generous. The idea is that every student, regardless of socio-economic lifestyle, learning disability or challenges will have ample opportunity to complete assigned work and not be penalized because of time restraints. The work alone will be assessed; how long it takes to complete it will not.

Looking at this from a teacher’s point of view, this is a real can of worms. On the one hand, teachers tend to be very caring professionals. They want their students to succeed. Most teachers will give students whatever help and encouragement needed to achieve the necessary outcomes. So having the flexibility to provide students with open-ended due dates for assignments may be useful.

But, by mandating that teachers may not impose due dates on their students causes no end of difficulties. For starters, when an assignment is presented to the class and a due date is given, students immediately understand that it is a mere suggestion. Like not having to stop for the red light. They realize they can do it whenever they get around to it. This undermines the teacher’s credibility right off the bat.

Then the teacher must continue to monitor students’ progress with the assignment, helping any students who are struggling, not just until the day the assignment is due, but beyond. According to the policy, it is the teacher’s responsibility to give each and every student the support needed to successfully complete the assignment. Even after the class has moved on to a new unit, the teacher is juggling the record keeping and the extra support for those few stragglers while at the same time, fostering understanding and completion for a new assigned task. It is like trying to juggle more and more balls, without dropping any of them.

Finally, end of term looms. Exams must be evaluated. Marks must be generated. The teacher has a completely non-compromising due date to get those assessments evaluated and in to the office. The teacher must also be very sure s/he is able to justify each and every mark; there must be sufficient data to back up the scores.

The night before those important marks have to be completed, what are teachers doing? Marking assignments that students have only now passed in. Desperately trying to do a fair and comprehensive job at 2 am because, unlike the students, the teacher is accountable and does have a due date. Who’s working the hardest for the student to succeed? The teacher.

And what about the students? A few self-motivated students will pass the assignment in when it is due, being careful not to let their classmates know they have done this as it becomes an excuse for ridicule. Others will pass it in within a few days of the due date, knowing that if they don’t, work will start to pile up, or they know their parents will be checking up on them. Most students will procrastinate either because they are not motivated, because they don’t have the skills to organize their time, or because they feel the assignment isn’t important anyway. These are dangers of the “no zero” policy that greatly hinder student learning. It’s hard for the teacher to make the assignment relevant and a necessary part of the learning experience, when students see it as optional.

Students, especially those students who have learning difficulties – the ADD, ADHD, ODD, OCD kids – need the structure of knowing what is expected and when it is expected. If educators become namby-pampy about the target they want students to hit, these special students in particular will not find the mark. And ironically, it is because of these students that boards claim they need the “no zero” policy.

What are any of the students learning about time management? About organizational skills? About having a work ethic? About responsibility for their own learning? Precious little. And when they get out into the real world, does that all kick in because they have been nurtured and coddled and rewarded for mediocre work? Not a chance.

Employers are becoming discouraged by the unrealistically high expectations and the lack of motivation and skills among young people. Young employees expect to get high rewards for minimal effort. The classroom may have worked that way but the workplace does not.

Universities have had to implement remedial courses for time management and organization.

People between the ages of twenty and thirty are seeking professional counseling more now than ever before because of dissatisfaction with their lives. Things suddenly got very difficult for them when they left school and they have no coping strategies. No skills to draw upon. Life is no longer a bowl of cherries.

Students need to learn to complete work within a reasonable time frame. They need to learn organizational skills. They need to realize that there are consequences when little effort is expended on a task. They need to realize that they are responsible for their success, not the teachers.

Schools that are no longer teaching these things are failing their students, despite the “no zero” policy. Failing them for life.

So what would be an alternative to “no zero”?

Students, even young children, should be part of the assessment process. A class discussion about each assignment, covering what is to be done and how the assignment will be evaluated, including due dates and consequences for late work, would have the teacher and students on the same page. Accommodations for special needs students would be broached at this time. This discussion would ensure that the purpose of the assignment (what students will learn by doing it) and how it will be reflected on their course mark (scores) were clearly understood by teacher and students. The rubric or expectations would then be posted, so students could review the criteria as they worked on the assignment. Wouldn’t that help teach responsibility and accountability and be far more meaningful and manageable?


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