What I learned when I stopped giving zeros

By Richard House

A passionate educator, Ricky House has spent the past four years in the classroom and is a graduate of the University Of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Education where he served as an Urban Fellow and Masters of Arts in Teaching Candidate. Upon completing his internship at Pittsburgh's Brashear High School, Ricky moved to Baltimore to begin his teaching career in the Anne Arundel County Public Schools teaching Eighth Grade social Studies and serving as a Team Leader at MacArthur Middle School on Fort Meade. One of the highlights of his time at MacArthur, was a lesson in which he has his students research the disparities the media shows between black teens and white teens. This was done in connection to a lesson on the Baltimore Uprising in April of 2015. Ricky is currently a seventh grade social studies teacher at Gunston Middle School in Arlington, Virginia where he manages the schools chapter of My Brothers Keeper  https://www.whitehouse.gov/my-brothers-keeper where he continues to maintain his educational philosophy of rigor, relevance, and relationships as a way to achieve classroom success.

This past spring as co-lead teacher of the Social Studies department in my school, I challenged myself and the other teachers in my department to stop giving zeroes and replace them with forty percents. I did this for a number of reasons and having tried it for a marking period, I can honestly say I will never give zeroes again. As more school districts around the country shift towards “no zero policies”, educators should come to understand the benefits of these policies and how they can push students towards the mark of success.

I must be honest that when I started my teaching career, I was taught not to give zeros as an intern in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. The district had a “no zero” grading policy in place so it was that much easier for me to become accustomed to the idea when I began my teaching career in Maryland. My first year teaching a student could receive a grade no lower than a 40 which was equal to a not handed in and they received 50 if they did some portion of the assignment. Many teachers argue that these policies make excuses for children and show students that they can still get by, just by doing the minimum amount of work required. We need to stop for a minute and realize that giving zeros is simply not fair.

1. Most districts grade on a ten point scale: Most school districts as well as colleges and universities across the country grade on a ten point scale. That means that there is a ten point range for each letter grade from A - D except when it comes to failing grades. If you fail an assignment in most cases you can receive anywhere from a 0-59. This is simply not fair. Once you start receiving consistent grades below 40%, it becomes harder and harder to climb out of the hole that has be dug. Our goal as educators should ultimately be to help our students achieve success, not prevent them from rectifying mistakes.

2. No Grading Policies will help students confidence: After I stopped giving zeros in the spring of this year, I noticed that students who had been struggling to pass my class all year now realized that they had a chance to pass. Yes, many of these students had failed my class in previous marking period as a result of not completing assignments, but I noticed these same students were not motivated. In many cases, especially with middle schools, students tend to lose confidence the lower their grade sinks throughout a marking period. They get to a point where they think that the grade has sunk too low and they cannot recover. Policies like this help prevent that.

3.These policies focus on growth rather than mistakes: As educators we have got to get to a point where we realize that our job is to prepare our students for success and help them grow, not to punish them for their mistakes. No Zero Policies help measure a students growth over time which should always be the goal. Adolescents make mistakes and at this stage in their lives empathy and compassion from educators can go a long way. As educators we have to understand that we are not perfect and we cannot expect our students to be. Yes, we have to prepare them for a life that will not always be as generous and forgiving, but quite frankly giving a child a zero does not lower the bar in any way. Students who are not going to complete the work are still going to fail, but at the same time these same students will have the opportunity to recover without feeling like they’ve dug a hole to deep to recover.

While I understand that these policies will not be popular with all teachers, educators have always been willing to adapt to change and we must continue to do so. A 2016 Washington Post Article stated

“But many are critical of the shift, arguing that teachers are losing important tools to enforce diligence and prepare students for college and the workplace. They say that artificially boosting student grades can mask failure and push students through who don’t know the material they need to know to actually succeed.” (Washington Post 2016) .

Surely this is a worry of many educators, but no zero policies do not reward students for not doing work. A student who does no work throughout an entire marking period is still most likely to fail. Another question, we must ask ourselves as educators is “How is failing a student preparing them for college and the workforce?” If a student is consistently not handing in assignments, our goal should be to address the root cause of this problem and attempt to help them, get back on track, not punish them.

As educators we must be cognizant that not all of our students have the same learning style nor do they learn at the same pace. No Zero policies will truly help us transition from a grading system that focuses on punishment and one’s inability to recover after a series of mistakes to one focused on growth and is driven by a theme of equity. Finally as educators sometimes we become so focused on setting the highest of expectations, that we forget why we became teachers. A little empathy and compassion can go a long way.