64 thoughts on “The Case Against the Zero

  1. The Case for the Zero

    These are not trick questions: Can all students succeed? Will all students succeed? Should all students succeed? When presented with these questions, most educators answer a resounding “yes” to the first, a less resounding, unsure “no” to the second; and a burble of verbal mush to the third.
    Let us for a moment refrain from the political correctness which is slowly dooming our schools, and be candid with our responses. Can all students succeed? Absolutely. Will all students succeed? Absolutely not. Should all students succeed? Not if they are going to learn to function in modern society.
    I know that some of you are writhing in your chairs by now, calling me all kinds of names, and insisting that this stance on education is far too uncompassionate, too unforgiving, and generally too pessimistic. Yes, it is harsh; but I am a teacher. My job is to educate, inspire, motivate, and prepare the valued citizens of tomorrow. My job is not to set students up for failure the second they step outside of the school’s walls.
    If we agree that the purpose of education is to prepare students for life in the proverbial “real world,” should we not try to make school a bit more like the real world?
    Currently, in America, 8% of the population maintains a net worth of $1 million or more. This means that 92% of Americans are not millionaires. I am not by any stretch a math genius; however, it would seem that it is far easier to fall into the 92% than the 8%. Thus, it is easier to fail at becoming a millionaire than it is to succeed.
    Let us take this concept a step further. 12.5% of the American population is below the poverty line. This means that there is a 4% differentiation (this equates to roughly 33 million people) between the number of aristocrats and the number of paupers. Hence, it is easier to end up poor as opposed to rich.
    Also, do you like your job? You should. You beat out hundreds, if not thousands, of salivating applicants just waiting to jump into that position. In America, there are an average of 308 applicants per job opening (research is based on job openings offering $22,000 or more per year). This means that an applicant can become one, or one among 307. It is exponentially easier to not get a job than it is to land that perfect career.
    The list goes on and on; and in each new aspect of “real life” it seems to be far easier to fail than it is to succeed. Those that succeed must possess some quality or gift which separates them from the others. They must demonstrate some quality that causes them to stand out among the masses. Successful individuals must work harder than the rest, work smarter than the rest, be relentless in their pursuit of success, and generally have their act together. Unfortunately, Americans have embraced an educational system which raises students up under a system which is essentially the real world flipped upside down.
    The mantras of modern day education are absurd: “Everyone will pass! A for effort! I’ll just curve the test! What if you get half credit for being three weeks late!” These (among others) are sung throughout the schools of America; and now we want to abolish the zero because it is “unfair.”

    Briefly, let me run down the anti-zero debate. In a traditional grading system, there is a ten point differential between each of the first four letter grades (A=100-90, B=89-80, C=79-70, D=69-60). However, there is a 60 point differential between the lowest D (60) and the lowest F (0). This means that there are 40 points which constitute passing, and 60 points which constitute failing. It is easier to fail than to succeed, hence, more work is required to pass.
    So, the concept of the zero is unfair. Of course it is! That is the beauty of it! It needs to be easier to fail a class than it is to pass. Students need to work, and when they fail to work, it needs to affect them longer than just until the next test. In life, it is easier to find the bottom than the top. In school, it should be easier to find the bottom than the top.
    Students need to learn to fail, diagnose why, and make corrections. This process will never happen so long as they can work less, and yet still manage the same results as the completely devoted, diligent, and hard-working students.
    Do not misunderstand. Students need to be encouraged, inspired, and pushed. Just understand that not all students will succeed, nor should they; and be okay with that. Some will take the easy road, and the easy road leads to the bottom. It is the way of the world.

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  2. The Case for the Zero

    These are not trick questions: Can all students succeed? Will all students succeed? Should all students succeed? When presented with these questions, most educators answer a resounding “yes” to the first, a less resounding, unsure “no” to the second; and a burble of verbal mush to the third.

    Let us for a moment refrain from the political correctness which is slowly dooming our schools, and be candid with our responses. Can all students succeed? Absolutely. Will all students succeed? Absolutely not. Should all students succeed? Not if they are going to learn to function in modern society.

    I know that some of you are writhing in your chairs by now, calling me all kinds of names, and insisting that this stance on education is far too uncompassionate, too unforgiving, and generally too pessimistic. Yes, it is harsh; but I am a teacher. My job is to educate, inspire, motivate, and prepare the valued citizens of tomorrow. My job is not to set students up for failure the second they step outside of the school’s walls.

    If we agree that the purpose of education is to prepare students for life in the proverbial “real world,” should we not try to make school a bit more like the real world?

    Currently, in America, 8% of the population maintains a net worth of $1 million or more. This means that 92% of Americans are not millionaires. I am not by any stretch a math genius; however, it would seem that it is far easier to fall into the 92% than the 8%. Thus, it is easier to fail at becoming a millionaire than it is to succeed.

    Let us take this concept a step further. 12.5% of the American population is below the poverty line. This means that there is a 4% differentiation (this equates to roughly 33 million people) between the number of aristocrats and the number of paupers. Hence, it is easier to end up poor as opposed to rich.

    Also, do you like your job? You should. You beat out hundreds, if not thousands, of salivating applicants just waiting to jump into that position. In America, there are an average of 308 applicants per job opening (research is based on job openings offering $22,000 or more per year). This means that an applicant can become one, or one among 307. It is exponentially easier to not get a job than it is to land that perfect career.

    The list goes on and on; and in each new aspect of “real life” it seems to be far easier to fail than it is to succeed. Those that succeed must possess some quality or gift which separates them from the others. They must demonstrate some quality that causes them to stand out among the masses. Successful individuals must work harder than the rest, work smarter than the rest, be relentless in their pursuit of success, and generally have their act together. Unfortunately, Americans have embraced an educational system which raises students up under a system which is essentially the real world flipped upside down.

    The mantras of modern day education are absurd: “Everyone will pass! A for effort! I’ll just curve the test! What if you get half credit for being three weeks late!” These (among others) are sung throughout the schools of America; and now we want to abolish the zero because it is “unfair.”

    Briefly, let me run down the anti-zero debate. In a traditional grading system, there is a ten point differential between each of the first four letter grades (A=100-90, B=89-80, C=79-70, D=69-60). However, there is a 60 point differential between the lowest D (60) and the lowest F (0). This means that there are 40 points which constitute passing, and 60 points which constitute failing. It is easier to fail than to succeed, hence, more work is required to pass.

    So, the concept of the zero is unfair. Of course it is! That is the beauty of it! It needs to be easier to fail a class than it is to pass. Students need to work, and when they fail to work, it needs to affect them longer than just until the next test. In life, it is easier to find the bottom than the top. In school, it should be easier to find the bottom than the top.

    Students need to learn to fail, diagnose why, and make corrections. This process will never happen so long as they can work less, and yet still manage the same results as the completely devoted, diligent, and hard-working students.

    Do not misunderstand. Students need to be encouraged, inspired, and pushed. Just understand that not all students will succeed, nor should they; and be okay with that. Some will take the easy road, and the easy road leads to the bottom. It is the way of the world.

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  3. Sorry, Mr. Kotter. I just caught this, seven months later!

    Mr. Kotter wrote:

    Dear Home work Blues,

    I just showed this thread to a number of colleagues and they unani­mously agreed that you are an arrogant jack ass. Coincidence? I think not.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    Depends on who your colleagues are. And who cares? I write about our personal history, our personal life and the impact homework has had on my family and my child. That’s real. The day my daughter’s homework is reduced to a manageable amount in high school, the day we all come to a realization that reading Wuthering Heights in 5th grade and writing a novel daily beats whatever crap you choose to send home, the day I am convinced the time spent in school is used wisely, is the day I stop complaining.

    I also use research and credible studies to back up what I already know. I have an earnest eager dedicated well behaved child with a passion for learning and inquiry. She’d stay up all night to finish if I let her.

    You find that worthy of name calling? Suit yourself. My job, in part, as a mother, is to nurture, instill values, sow the seeds of learning, educate, cultivate a passionate life long learner, put bread on the table and make sure my child has a roof over her head and clothes to wear. And I’m just getting started. My responsibilities as parent are much longer than even that long list. My job is complex enough. Where in this long list do you find room for me to also be an unpaid involuntary teacher’s aide, seven days a week from early in the morning until the wee hours of the following morning? Yet that’s all I do, at the detriment of other more worthy pursuits.

    That’s my job. Are you a teacher? An educator? I’ve told you my job. Now tell me yours. Your job is to teach. So go do it. And do it well. It’s what my tax dollars pay for. And lose the arrogant attitude yourself. Listen more, get defensive less, and you’ll learn a lot.

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  4. Mr. Will- I hardly no where to begin. Firstly, I enjoy a spirited debate and am not “writhing in my chair.” However, as someone who as actually “made it” in the real world and retired at a relatively young age; I can tell you that the 1% you are refering to didn’t all get there by following a traditional academic path. Of course, not all students will “succeed” according to your rather narrow version of success. (BTW, have you succeeded according to your narrow version of success?)

    School isn’t really like the real world. Many people succeed who are not formally educated. On the other hand, many succeed because of the doors opened to them by family circles (and yes) college alumni. No one is disputing that a college education opens doors. However, once a young adult walks through that door, a myriad reasons will either prevent or help him/her climb the ladder of success (most of which have nothing to do with a formal education). The salaries for professional classes (doctors, lawyers, accountants) are eroding as we speak and that will not change.

    Your grandiose platitudes are dogmatic and dull (like homework blues I love alliteration). The “easy road” is a subjective term. Suffice it to say, you have truly missed the point of this blog.

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  5. I do not believe homework should be given in every subject, but Math is a must. Math is only learned through repetition, and you can’t get that in a classroom.

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  6. Sarah — why can’t you get repetition in a classroom?

    My kids are in school 30 hours a week. If they just spend 5 hours a week on math in the classroom, that’s more than enough for them to learn what they need to know, if the time is well spent.

    One of the things I’ve discovered by working with my daughter on Singapore Math is how little time teaching takes if it’s done well. I’ve only spent a few hours with her and the Singapore workbooks, and she’s learned more than she learned in many weeks at school.

    I think it was John Taylor Gatto who asserted that a bright child could learn the entire content of elementary school in about 100 hours of tutoring, and I think he’s right. Sometimes I think that if we took the 30 hours of school and just had the teachers work one-on-one with the kids on a rotating schedule, while the other kids did whatever they liked that didn’t interfere, we’d have happier kids and more learning.

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  7. As a teacher educator, researcher, and homeschooling parent, here’s another perspective. First, Gatto’s right–there’s not that much math to be learned in the first eight grades, and a kid who has a stimulating life but zero math instruction can arrive at the end of sixth grade, and say, gee, I’d like to learn any math I’ve missed and learn it all in about 30 hours.

    Also, the research seems to indicate that when children don’t care about what they are learning, lots of repetition is needed, because kids forget material much faster when they are not interested or when they learn something for a test, rather than just to learn it. Most of us learned math that way, so we ASSUME math requires lots of repetition. If kids are interested in learning, they learn the same concepts and skills with only a few tries, just as toddlers learn words from 1-2 exposures.

    Because most school teaching is disconnected from any real world problems or issues, there is no reason for kids to be interested. I teach teachers about PreK-3 curriculum year-round every year, and if curriculum is mostly about studying things kids get interested in (pollution, fairness, animals), then you bump into reasons to learn all the truly important “core content,” and then kids learn it pretty easily and willingly.

    Motor skills require lots of repetition, but if understanding something takes tons of repetition, that is proof that either this is the wrong time to learn it, the wrong way to learn it … or perhaps it isn’t clear to the child why they should learn it (and “You’ll need this someday” is a lousy rationale, because very often, they won’t).

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  8. I’m a seventh grade social studies teacher working in a junior high that has just switched to ABCI grading. I’ve always been bothered by the negative power of the zero grade, and I’ve tried something new this year to compensate for it. I’ve scrapped the traditional 90 to 100 = A, 80 to 89 = B formula for calculating grades. Instead, I grade A level work on a 75 to 100 scale. B = 50 to 74; C = 25 to 49; I (Not Yet) = Zero to 24.. This change has had several happy results. First, obviously, it greatly reduces the power of a zero grade to negatively impact overall average. I’m no longer failing 40% of my students, and the boost to my students’ self esteem alone is worth the change! I also find that the system meshes better with a standards-based grading philosophy: A equates to 4, B to 3, C to 2, I to 1 (I understand that the C = 2 equivalency is not quite kosher, since a 2 score does not yet meet standard. Still, there is some rough equivalency. (My school district’s damnable online grading system, Skyward, seems to understand this scheme better than it does any other standards-based grading approach I’ve tried.) Finally, since I tend to score a typical A at the midpoint of my A grade range (say, 88 points for an A), it gives me greater freedom to reward exceptionally good efforts with an A+ grade of 100.

    Jon Holdaway
    Tacoma, WA

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  9. There is not a mathematical inconsistency with using a 100 point scale within a course and a 4 point scale to calculate GPA. Let’s look at the 100 point scale and use 60 as the cutoff for pass/fail. The 60 is being used to say that a student must be accountable for 60% of the expectations of this course in order to pass. It can be debated whether meeting 60% of expectations is good enough or not but that has nothing to do with the mathematical argument. It can also be debated whether the purpose of the grade is only to measure proficiency in the content or if other lessons such as accountability, responsibility, etc. should be measured as part of the grade. Again, this has nothing to do with the mathematical argument. What is says is that anything below a 60 is not acceptable. The percentage is converted to a letter grade and each letter grade is assigned a number value. The number value is then used for a different purpose – to calculate a GPA. The two scales can be different because they are being used for different purposes. The 100 point scale is a tool used to determine the level of performance within a single course. The 4 point scale is tool used to calculate GPA. They are not the same thing.

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  10. sf, yikes, too much obsession with the grade. Like the tail wagging the dog. Let’s not forget the real reason kids are in school. Hopefully to learn. So much fixation with every minutiae of the grade causes us to miss the forest for all the trees.

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  11. I wonder if they are having this discussion in India, Korea and Japan? No effort = no credit. What is unfair about that? It is sad to think that children will have to wait until they reach adulthood in order to learn that actions and decisions have consequences. This misguided effort to build self esteem and artificially boost grades is sick and twisted. Everyone doesn’t get a gold medal, a blue ribbon or make the honor roll. Lowering the bar devalues the meaning of achievement. All we’re doing here is skewing measurable data to make it appear that students are achieving, to keep parents from complaining about mean, vicious teachers who don’t realize how wonderful their precious angels are. Go ahead and do this. We’ll still have 18 year olds who can’t read, do math or point out states and countries on a map. But they’ll graduate with a 3.5 GPA, and a high school diploma that means even less than it already does.

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  12. Eric. Do you ever wonder why the suicide rate in the United States is so high? Children go to school for 8 hours a day. We have about 180 days of school a year. That’s 1440 hours a year. Children working for 1440 hours a year. Spending 6 hours on homework? That’s 20,160 hours a year or 98 hours A WEEK. Extracurricular activities add even more to the stress. The worst part? Teachers have the nerve to blame it on the students, the victims. You may say it is a question of laziness. I’m in band at my school. I put out countless hours under the sun in order to learn how to march a show and march it well. I read, I draw, I play music, I write. There’s so many things I love to do. But when it comes to homework, the moment I think about it I get sick and feel like throwing up. I dread it more than anything. After knowing true depression for most of my life and finding that I really want to be happy in my life and realize my dreams, I’ve realized that homework is eating away at me day in and day out. It’s always been this way for me, even since 1st grade I remember the stress I had. I can’t wait until I’m out of school, so I can get over the trauma I’ve had to endure and really work on getting my life where I want it to be.

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  13. The Dangers of Douglas B. Reeves’s Argument

    While I agree with some of Mr. Reeves’s hypotheses, I am worried for others, specifically the notion that changing zeros on a one hundred point scale to fifties would be more equitable. I’m surprised he didn’t make it fifty points and a cupcake.

    For someone railing against mathematical hypocrisy he is treading very thin ice by suggesting this. To be clear, he is advocating a system where a student can complete two out of every ten assignments and pass a class. This is a solution? I cannot, in good conscience, send the message that students can blow off 80% of my work, do well on 20%, and expect to be successful. Sorry. Not going to happen.

    Ultimately he concedes the idea of using a hundred point scale altogether in favor of a four point one, which I am much more open to discussing even though it is not without its own inherent problems. However, my fear is that most teachers reading, “The Case Against the Zero” would opt to disrupt their current system as little as possible and just change zeros to fifties. Again, this is to say to students that if they only show up on Fridays and work really hard, they’ll pass our classes.

    Doug is right, there is no trick here; except perhaps how a student graduating from a school that requires only 20% of its work to be done is going to fare well in life; that’s a trick I’d really like to see.

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