Based in Long Beach, California, "Teach Me Mr. West" is a blog by Jason West. His posts explore the rewards and challenges of being a highly effective 21st century educator.

The Nuclear Zero

The Nuclear Zero

Before I get into this week’s post, I want to pause to acknowledge the tragic events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last week. Everybody reading this already knows and understands all too well the powerful reverberations this event has had on educators across the country. I posted the other day on Instagram about how a worker at my school accidentally tripped the fire alarm and—within the five seconds it took to turn it off—inadvertently sent a wave of anxiety and pre-panic across our campus. According to many in congress this is our new normal (though, real talk: we’re really talking about 90% of Republicans…not congress as a whole). But we don’t have to accept it. Major online campaigns like #ArmMeWith and @EveryTown are a good start. But, frankly, the biggest impact right now comes from the fact that the students of Stoneman Douglas have recognized that if they don’t step up and force the change they want to see—by giving speeches, interviews, and by setting up national marches—they will inevitably become another forgotten statistic. I’m hopeful that, because students are now stepping forward and making their voices heard (and embarrassing the generations before them who cynically shrugged their shoulders again and again over the fact that our government would do nothing to prevent another school shooting)…because of these students, things just might actually change. And, truthfully, it’s about effing time.

I also want to acknowledge something that is far, FAR less significant: the outpouring of support and camaraderie I felt after last week’s post. I want to thank everyone who expressed love and support in the form of notes, emails, texts, personal conversations, and gifts of pastries. I cannot tell you how many conversations I had in the last week where someone said, “Everything you wrote was exactly how I’ve been feeling these last two weeks.” Yes, the great gray beast of Febru-March is something that I have been waiting to write about since the beginning of my blog (literally, if you look at the first paragraph of my second post, I reference my intentions to write about it). It’s something many teachers go through and (this year anyway) it hit me pretty hard. But I’m back and I’m energized by your love and support (and the pastries also helped) and I’m ready to get back to it. Okay, enough with the preambles, let’s get to it.


I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not easy to live with. There are many things that make me crazy. Like people driving the speed limit on the freeway or my wife’s amazing ability to call me from another room just as soon as I’ve sat down on the couch. In education, few things make me crazier than punitive grading. Whenever I hear about how teachers grade student work on something other than whether or not the student proved mastery over the skill (under the guise of “giving life lessons”), I start to act a little like Homer Simpson in the following clip.

It’s not a pretty site.

This brings me to this week’s topic: Giving zeros.

A few weeks ago, I asked why we gave homework and I listed a few reasons why many teachers chose to give homework. Now, look…I’m all about revolution and industry disruption, but I don’t believe in changing something that works just for the sake of change. You may call it lazy, I’ll call it tried and true. So let’s go back to the tried and true template of, “If you asked any sample of teachers, I’m sure you’d get one (or more) of the following five reasons” and apply it to why they give their students zeros:

  1. If a student hasn’t done the work, I can’t assess the work! And kids need to learn that in the real world, if you fail to do something, you get punished for it.
  2. So what you’re saying is I should give 50% for an F? Why should I give half-credit for something that wasn’t done?
  3. If I give the kid who did nothing a 50%, what do I give the kid who tried really hard and failed?
  4. You’re just going to create a situation where a student can do nothing all year, then suddenly decide they are going to try in the last month of school so they can pass your class! That’s not exaggeration, that’s math!
  5. What you are doing is unethical and it’s only going to promote a culture of failure at our school!

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s go ahead and address these arguments one at a time…

1) IF A STUDENT HASN’T DONE THE WORK, I CAN’T ASSESS THE WORK! AND KIDS NEED TO LEARN THAT IN THE REAL WORLD, IF YOU FAIL TO DO SOMETHING, YOU GET PUNISHED FOR IT!

Everything said here is 100% true. Ah-ha! Betcha didn’t see that coming, did ya?? Just when you think I’ll zig, I zag! It’s true that if a student hasn’t done the work, you can’t assess the work. It’s also true that in the real world, if you don’t do something that is required, you receive a consequence. It’s also true that—in some dark corners of America—people actually enjoy the confectionery abomination of caramel M&Ms.

Just because something is true, doesn’t make it right.

Take the above teacher response, for example. Everything stated in that response is 100% factual, however it does not reveal 100% of the picture, which makes it 100% wrong (I’m an English teacher, so you can 100% trust me on the math here, guys…).

See, if a student hasn’t done work, of course you can’t assess what isn’t done—except that you are assessing what isn’t done when you give them a grade of zero. The grading scale isn’t like a color scale where zero is the absence of a gradeit is the lowest possible grade one can receive on a 0-100% grading scale (more on that later). And in the real world, if you fail to do something—your taxes, for example—you will have to pay a fine.

But here’s the thing: you still have to pay your taxes! As Wesley Snipes has learned, you don’t get to say, “Sorry, Uncle Sam. I didn’t pay my taxes this year, or for the last three consecutive years, but here’s an autographed DVD of Blade. Fingers crossed, I’ll get my life together and pay ‘em next year!” When you give a student a zero, what you are really teaching them is that if they don’t do something, they will be punished, but they won’t have to do the work anymore (more on this next week). Not exactly a “real world” model.

2) SO WHAT YOU’RE SAYING IS I SHOULD GIVE 50% FOR AN F? WHY SHOULD I GIVE HALF-CREDIT FOR SOMETHING THAT WASN’T DONE?

Full disclosure: nothing makes me go full Homer Simpson than this argument. In a grading scale of 0-100%, every grade is divided up by increments of 10% (A = 90-100%, B = 80-89.9%, C = 70-79.0%, D = 60-69.9%)well, every grade but a grade of an F, which we’ve deemed SO important that we’ve given it NEARLY 60% OF THE ENTIRE GRADING SCALE!! If I told you that I was going to give you a chocolate chip cookie made by famous baker Christina Tosi, but 60% of it was made out of rat hair and bird feces, you’d probably think twice about eating it (I mean, it was made by Christina Tosi, after all). But that’s the thing about gradesthey aren’t cookies. You aren’t giving a student half of something for doing nothing, you are giving them what should be the lowest F possible on a grading scale divided into increments of 10%. That would be a 50%. Anything below a 50% is, well, below failing. Sorry, Billy...because you didn’t do the assignment, I’m going to give you a grade that is below failing! That’ll teach you a thing or two about how properly cite textual evidence!

One more fun fact: If you miss an assignment (no matter how understandable your reason or situation) and you get a zero, do you know what you’d have to do to bring your grade back up to the lowest “A” possible? You’d have to get a perfect score on the next nine assignments! That means that it would take nine scores of 100% (not 95%, not even 99%) to offset a single zero.

Okay, one more fun fact: I know quite a few teachers who are all about giving punitive grades because they truly believe it teaches students real-life skills. I’ve asked them what they give a student who doesn’t turn in an assignment. “I give ‘em a zero!” they’d proudly proclaim. Then I’d ask what they’d give a student who cheats or plagiarizes an assignment (because, again, they use grades to punish students). “Also… a zero,” they’d say, though clearly not as confident. There’s just something about hearing that chain of non-linear thinking out loud. Of course that doesn’t make sense. If you are really into using punitive grading systems, giving zeros for missing work still makes no sense! After all, you wouldn’t give a jaywalker the same punishment as a bank-robber!

3) IF I GIVE THE KID WHO DID NOTHING A 50%, WHAT DO I GIVE THE KID WHO TRIED REALLY HARD AND FAILED?

Now, maybe I’m totally wrong on this (it wouldn’t be the first time), but I’ve never had a student try really hard on an assignment and somehow still earn a grade so low that it didn’t even matter that they did anything at all. But more to the point, when I hear this, I always want to yell back, “WHAT DO YOU GIVE THAT KID?! YOU GIVE HIM AN OPPORTUNITY TO REDO THE ASSIGNMENT AFTER RETEACHING HIM THE MATERIAL BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO DO WHEN YOU HAVE A STUDENT WHO IS DESPERATE TO DO WELL BUT DOESN’T GET THE SUBJECT-SPECIFIC CONTENT OF YOUR CLASS BECAUSE YOU’RE TOO BUSY USING YOUR GRADEBOOK LIKE SOME KIND OF TWISTED, ORWELLIAN VERSION OF THE SORTING HAT IN HARRY POTTER!” But then I think better of blowing up at a colleague and, instead, shove a full Snickers bar in my mouth—because eating chocolate and nougat stuffs the rage down—and quietly come to the realization that this is why I’ll never be ready for swimsuit season.

4) YOU’RE JUST GOING TO CREATE A SITUATION WHERE A STUDENT CAN DO NOTHING ALL YEAR THEN SUDDENLY DECIDE THEY ARE GOING TO TRY IN THE LAST MONTH OF THE SCHOOL YEAR SO THEY CAN PASS YOUR CLASS! THAT’S NOT EXAGGERATION, THAT’S MATH!

Do you only grade one or two assignments a year? Because if you do, you might not want to blame math on this onemaybe re-evaluate your teaching practices. Don’t just take my shade-throwing as gospel, here’s the real math: Let’s say you graded 10 assignments in a semester and a student did nothing for the first 5 assignments. Then, for the second-half of the semester, he did every assignment and scored exactly 70% (a passing grade) on every assignment going forward. By using 50% as your base, this student—the one who turned his life around and started completing and passing every assignment going forward—would end the semester with a D in your class. Congratulations, you now have a student who is eligible to graduate, but still not eligible to go to a four-year university. Which brings us to…

 5) WHAT YOU ARE DOING IS UNETHICAL AND IT’S ONLY GOING TO PROMOTE A CULTURE OF FAILURE AT OUR SCHOOL!

Yes, this was said to me once. Word. For. Word. This is the biggest misconception of using 50% as the baseline for grading: you aren’t shoving illiterate kids to the front of the valedictorian line or moving kids who can’t do algebraic functions straight into the Harvard dormitories. What you are doing is giving students—CHILDREN—the ability to slowly crawl out of whatever hole they have dug for themselves (for whatever the reason).

This is the impetus behind me dubbing it “the nuclear zero.” If giving a student a zero out of 5 does damage to an overall grade, giving them a zero out of 100 is tantamount to dropping a nuclear bomb on their grade. Like a Will & Grace reboot, the nuclear bomb is something we can all argue about whether or not we should even have in this country. And also like a Will & Grace reboot, the nuclear bomb is something we can all agree should never, ever be our first and best option. The same can be said about nuclear zeros in a grade book. The nuclear zero crushes any hope a student has at making meaningful growth. It is something that is essentially impossible to recover from. A 50% as an F doesn’t give a kid a free pass from failing, nor does it give them "half-credit" [insert twenty consecutive side-eye emojis here]. It simply makes recovering from past mistakes more realistic.

So if, after reading this, you find yourself with a pretty low opinion of the nuclear zero, just know that you’re not alone. I’m not going to sit here and pretend to have figured out an accurate, reflective, and equitable grading system. I haven’t. Frankly, the whole point of writing this 5-part series on grading is to create a conversation that gets us all a little closer to figuring it all out. I’ve been on a decade-long journey to find this system and I’m still working on it. I simply think there are better ways to grade students than through a system that sets certain kids up for guaranteed failure within the first few weeks of a semester. I also think we can teach real world skills and consequences that are actually reflective of the real world (instead of a dystopian world where an “F” makes up 60% of a grading scale and sugary garbage known as caramel M&Ms are ubiquitous). And I think that if we are only doing something because we’d rather err on the side of caution by being overly critical and severe with a child’s future than make the “unethical mistake” of trying (and potentially discovering fault with) a new and more equitable system, then we should all quit teaching. I hear nuclear bombs always need building.

But hey, if you disagree, go ahead and write a response in the comments proving me wrong. And don’t worry if you don’t have the time or the energy…I promise I won’t give you a zero.

 

Next week, in part 4 of my series on education reform, we’ll discuss late work policies. And no, I have no idea how I’m going to include a Simpsons clip to lead that discussion. Until then…


Do you agree or disagree with my take on zeros? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Two Thousand and Late-Teen

Two Thousand and Late-Teen

Hitting The Pause Button

Hitting The Pause Button