Sunday #23: June 3, 2012 – The Dorval Debacle: Zeroes, Heroes and Lost Opportunities

At the risk of being accused of bandwagon jumping, I am going to add my voice to the outcry against the suspension and probable future firing of Lynden Dorval, the Edmonton Public Schools high school science teacher who gave some of his students grades of zero for incomplete assignments or exams despite his school’s no-zero policy.

As a former teacher with fifteen years of experience teaching levels from kindergarten to college (though not in Edmonton), I understand Mr. Dorval’s view that high school students who don’t get a certain piece of work done should get a grade of zero. It’s a simple premise. No work = no grade. You can’t get money for a car you don’t sell. You can’t get paid for a job you didn’t do. How can you get a grade for an assignment you don’t turn in?

Proponents of no-zero policies say that we shouldn’t give zeroes because they hurt student self-esteem. I don’t disagree that self-esteem is important, but to say that it is the only important thing education should focus on is simply wrong. To say that we should ignore other important aspects of personal development in our schools is also wrong. One goal of education is to build well-rounded individuals, which requires more than just self-esteem. It’s also important to teach students responsibility and accountability which help them prepare for the adult world, for the work world. Self-esteem is important, but part of what creates self-esteem is pride in what you are able to accomplish. Students who don’t do their work have no accomplishments to be proud of. Any lack of self-esteem in such a scenario comes from the students’ lack of achievement, not the grades the teacher assigns. If self-esteem is truly the only concern, then what is the point of assessment at all? Any student who does not get an “A” can potentially suffer from low self-esteem as a result, so does that mean we should do away with assessment altogether? Of course not, that would be absurd. So too is the no-zero policy.

Another aspect of this self-esteem issue relates to the students who are motivated and who do work hard to complete their work. Have proponents of a no-zero policy ever considered the potential negative effects such a policy may have on those students’ self-esteem? What happens when a conscientious student does all his assignments and gets a “B,” then sees that an apathetic student who only did half the assignments also gets a “B” because his incomplete work wasn’t calculated into that grade through a policy of assigning the so-called “behaviour codes” such as “incomplete” or “not handed in”? The conscientious student will likely feel that his efforts are not rewarded or respected, which can have a detrimental effect on his self-esteem—and his motivation. Is that what educators who believe in no zeroes want?

Edgar Schmidt, superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools, in an open letter about assessment in the district wrote, “Our approach to missed assignments is to work with each student to find out the reason they did not turn in an assignment. Once a teacher finds out the reason, they work with the student to come up with a solution to address the situation. They agree to a plan to turn in future assignments, and the teacher holds the student accountable.”

Edgar Schmidt’s letter goes on to say that “we can’t write some students off if they have difficulty. If a student is struggling, we need to identify the cause and provide assistance.” As I understand it, Mr. Dorval did not simply assign a zero for any missed assignment and then walk away from the matter. As he explained in an interview with the Edmonton Journal, he shows students what their grades are with zeros and without zeros as a way to motivate them to do the work. He is available after school three days a week and during lunch hours to give students every possible opportunity, until the very last day, to complete missed work and to receive a proper grade instead of the zero. If a student loses that opportunity, that student is to blame for the zero grade not Mr. Dorval. By the time students hit high school, they should certainly be aware that their actions have consequences, and they should learn to live with those consequences. This is how the old adage about learning from our mistakes came to be; mistakes are indeed how we learn. If we take away the potential for zeroes and allow students to simply walk away from any work they don’t want to do, we are removing valuable learning opportunities for those students.

Based on Lynden Dorval’s follow up process to missed assessments, I do not see how he in any way broke with the assessment strategy that EPSB outlines. Furthermore, the no-zero policy is not in place throughout the district; it’s a school-based decision, so some students are subjected to more rigorous assessments than others.  Mr. Dorval would not have been suspended if he worked in one of the many Edmonton high schools that do not have a no-zero policy like his school, Ross Sheppard, has. What is clearly needed is a district-wide assessment policy that provides a more consistent approach to assessment across all schools so that an “A” in one school more closely matches an “A” anywhere else. The Dorval debacle is a perfect opportunity for Edmonton Public Schools to examine this issue and take a stand against no-zero policies which all schools must abide by. I hope the organization will take advantage of this opportunity rather than dig in its heels and lose it.

I have been following this story very closely since it broke. The vast majority of commenters support Mr. Dorval in his opposition to the no-zero approach. He has risked his job to stand up for what he believes is right, despite the personal consequences. As a former educator, and someone who wants to be able to believe in the responsibility and accountability of people coming into our work force, I applaud Mr. Dorval as a hero. Will Edmonton Public Schools trustees and the superintendent do the right thing? Will they cancel all no-zero policies in the district, develop a consistent, district-wide assessment policy and re-instate Mr. Dorval until he retires by choice (and before his current students have to write their grade 12 diploma exams without his guidance in the final weeks)? Or will they lose this opportunity to be educational heroes and instead choose to be ineffectual zeroes?

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3 Responses to Sunday #23: June 3, 2012 – The Dorval Debacle: Zeroes, Heroes and Lost Opportunities

  1. Lorin Yochim says:

    Thanks for linking this post to the discussion on my course blog about this issue . Out of curiosity, who, precisely, other than opponents to the “no zero” policy, bases his or her advocacy of the policy in arguments about self-esteem? This appears to be, frankly, an obfuscation preferred by conservative cranks, one with little basis in reality…unless David Staples is now the judge and jury of all that is real. While I am supportive of teacher autonomy and am generally sympathetic to Mr. Dorval’s way of dealing with students’ missing assignments, this nonsense about the coddled generation reeks of moral panic. As I’ve said in other forums, having attended high school in an era decidedly free of self-esteem talk, the claim that standards were higher “back in the day” stink to high heaven. First of all, in the good old days, most of the students who stand to benefit from this policy would have long since been eliminated from serious consideration by their teachers, but not because their lack of solid work habits and punctuality. Rather, they would have been cast out long before, moved to the back row or off to the chair in the hallway. The no zero policy seems not to be about letting under-performing students off the hook. Indeed, it seems to be all about keeping them on the hook and preventing hard case teachers from practicing catch and release with students who don’t have the knowledge or moxie to perform for the teacher in the way the teacher prefers. A final great irony in all of this is that Mr. Dorval seems to be exactly the kind of coddling teacher the strict standards folks would get rid of in a heartbeat if they had their way. Note that the man himself doesn’t seem to believe very strongly in deadlines.

    • Thank you for adding your thoughts to the debate. This article, which is not directly connected to the Dorval incident, is a good summary of arguments on both sides of the no-zero issue. Among other things, it shows that some educators use self-esteem as a factor in the debate.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Cheers, and I will pass this on to my students. I should probably modify my comments by saying that it is certainly the case that many teachers would understand this issue through an understanding of self-esteem. However, the more important dimension here (and whether this is understood or not is another question) is that of inclusion and exclusion. The idea that there is some objective set of standards that a “good” teacher can apply with discretion to formulate classroom assessment practices is a highly problematic one.

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