That Zero Changed My Life (Said No Student Ever)

I recently reflected on an article I kept seeing on social media about a teacher getting fired for supposedly not abiding by the school’s grading policy. As a student, did I ever get a zero? Sure. Was it right? I guess. As a teacher, did some of my students receive zeros? Probably. Was it right? Probably not.

As an instructional leader, do I support the idea of students receiving zeros? In most cases, the answer is no. The bottom line is that we must exhaust all options to promote the success of each and every student regardless of how much they are driving us crazy or seem too lazy to complete any work. I can remember as a teacher and team leader working with a small group of seventh-grade students during my lunch. They had lost their way, and learning was not a top priority due to extenuating circumstances at home. They would come into my classroom and complete work that was way overdue in several of their classes. Over time, they started to catch up and realize that we were not going to let them dig a deeper hole for themselves.

​I often think we as educators believe it’s important to teach students a life lesson by giving them a zero because we need to prepare them for the real world. In fact, we need to think about building supportive and engaging learning environments that not only show students that we care about them but also hold everyone accountable.

I remember as a student sitting out the first half of a basketball game because I was not holding up my end of a bargain. You know what? I deserved it. In more recent years, both as a teacher and administrator, there were a few occasions where students were not being responsible and needed to be held accountable. When that happened to me as a student, did that mean I got a zero? No. Something that meant so much to me was taken away for a short while. I still needed to make up the work and learn the material.

The whole zero thing is an easy way out for all parties involved. Now, if there is a point where all options have been exhausted and nothing has changed, then we can have a discussion about who deserves what grade. The research is very clear in this area of education. John Hattie tells us that that a teacher’s estimate of student achievement has a 1.29 effect size. Additionally, Hattie tells us that teacher credibility has a .90 effect size. The research makes it abundantly clear that if teachers believe their students can achieve desired learning outcomes, they will. On that same note, students know if you are legitimate as a teacher and will subsequently either rise to the occasion or not really care about learning. Students also know if you are legitimate as an instructional leader as it relates to keeping a pulse on what is or is not going on in your school.

The important thing here is to keep having these conversations with your colleagues, school stakeholders, and students. As my friend Eric Sheninger wrote in a blog post on a similar topic in 2013, changing his school’s grading policy “addressed a broken component of our school culture and improved it.”

Brad Currie is the author of All Hands on Deck: Tools for Connecting Educators, Parents, and CommunitiesHe was a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader and the 2017 NASSP National Assistant Principal of the Year. Currie currently serves as the director of planning, research, and evaluation for the Chester School District in New Jersey. Learn more by following him on Twitter at @thebradcurrie or visiting his website at www.thebradcurrie.com.

2 Comments

  • Mike Duffy says:

    Back in the 60’s, I gave a grade for work every other day: homework, quizzes, tests of many varieties, and individual and team projects. Then at the end of the grading period, I’d allow each kiddo to drop the four lowest grades. before computing the final grade. In the 80’s I began to think no student actually gets or deserves a zero in my class. So my bottom grade became a 40(no matter what).Still an F but not a zero. A 40 gives hope….

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