Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Zero grade for zero work

Big discussion in today's department meeting.

Faced with the statistics of our embarrassingly-high failure rate, our chair (who I soon will be replacing) asked for our input on the problem, be they causes, solutions, or simply observations.

I've been around a year and a half now. My time to lay low is over.

Without using my colorful term, I stated that the jack shit problem is the only thing worth discussing. Kids who show up with absolutely nothing poison the atmosphere for everyone. They hurt themselves, hinder their teachers (I feel brokenhearted every time a member of the jack shit club has done jack shit, and it's bad for my teaching both short-term and long-term), and harm their more-conscientious peers. I even suggested a jack shit room. But I made it clear that we need to make sure that it is no longer acceptable in our building's culture that students show up without work or refuse to work when the arrive in the building.

My department head had another suggestion.

She believes that we should eliminate the zero.

Here's the justification--they hurt kids' grades too much. It's too hard to recover from not doing a big paper to pass.

Case in point: A C student does three of the four major papers. Gets a 75, 75, 75, and skips the fourth. That adds up to 225. Divide that by four, and the kid is failing with a 55%. Too harsh a penalty for one missed paper, says my colleague.

She advocates giving every kid a 50 on every assignment whether they do it or not. 75, 75, 75, and 50 adds up to 275. Divide that by four, and the kid is passing (with a D+, actually...68.75%).

(See more here.)

I respect my colleague, but I passionately disagreed with her.

The main issue where I am is that kids think it's okay to show up without having done any work. Giving kids a 50 for skipping out on work actually makes us culpable advamcers our poisonous culture.

"You think you can show up, do nothing, and it's acceptable? So do we!"

I argued my point hard, and I think most of the department sided with me. Colleagues used the word "enabling" to describe the policy, which I appreciated. Another colleague said "I hope our goal is to change the culture, and not simply to pass more kids."

Amen! The goal is to get kids to work. Not to lower the bar to beneath the floor so that more of them can pass.

My colleague also said that if a student understands the material, than he or she is "an A student" and should get an A. She cited a positively brilliant kid--one of the best writers I've ever had in 12 years on the job--who got a C for me last year and is getting a C for her this year in AP. Why? She skips assignments. "But you've seen her writing," my colleague says. "She's an A student."

My response: "No. She has an A brain...but A students do the work. Therefore, she's not an A student."

We kicked around some possible alternatives: A 4-point system, where an A is worth four, a B three, a C two, a D 1, and an F zero. It penalizes kids less for screw-ups. (The aforementioned kid with 3 75s and a skip would get a C- under this system.)

I wouldn't buy into that means that the kid who tried and struggled gets the same grade on a paper as the kid who played video games instead. That's unjust.

I might be persuaded to do a 5-point A is worth 5, an F is worth 1, and not doing it is worth zero. (The 3 75s kid: A low D. That, I believe, is the most just grade for this kid.)

The root question, which we never did come to a conclusion on, is whether a grade should measure just a kid's subject matter knowledge or a kid's work ethic. I think that, culturally, we have grown to understand that a grade is a mix of both, and I think that colleges and employers want it to be that way, since that mix is the cocktail that is the best determinant as to whether they'll make it after high school.

Like it or lump it, I don't merely teach kids to write, read, and think. I need to impart some sense of work ethic in them. If they barely do any work, and they pass, then I've failed. I'm not willing to give them something for just showing up (or, in the cases of chronic absentees, not even doing that).

Just another way that things are different on this side of the tracks.


Joe said...

I'm glad you held your ground and your department backed you up. Giving out any credit for no results is just absurd.

What kind of options do you give the students for turning in material late? I remember sitting in the Religion department offices on the last day of a quarter in Junior year of high school, furiously scribbling out overdue homework assignments until I had enough done to pass respectably.

An experience which probably reinforced my "wait to the last minute and hand in whatcha got" work ethic. But even that is miles and miles ahead of Jack Shit. Besides, look around on Dec. 24th (which I love) and Apr. 15th (which I do try to beat) and tell me it's not the American way.

TeacherRefPoet said...

We differ on late work. Some don't allow it at all. I'm quite lenient, taking of 10% per day late, and (in theory) not taking anything more than two weeks late, mostly so I don't have a million students overwhelming me with last-minute work. (I don't have the manpower of Macy's or H&R Block!)

Some of the teachers who think zeroes are mean don't allow late work. That's a contradiction in philosophy, I think.

There is a difference between poor work and no work. The former gets me to work with you. The latter means you are literally of no use in my room.

Jim Anderson said...

The problem is that one grade (A, B, C) means too much and too little at the same time. I like some of the theory behind standards-based grading--but it requires a smarter report card. If "A" represents only learning, then we need separate categories (on the transcript, natch) for things like behavior, effort, and timeliness. Here's an example from Ontario, Canada [pdf].

JJ said...

Keep up the good fight, TRP. I don't know of any job where I get 50% pay if I don't do the work. Sooner or later students have to learn there's a direct relationship between doing work and getting rewards.

Paula said...

In the long run, sounds like the no zero idea would result in more zeroes, resulting in fewer A thinkers...