Commentary

Saunders: Those who earn zeros should receive them

bsaunders@newsobserver.comNovember 17, 2013 

Ask school board member Tom Benton whether he thinks students should receive a zero for assignments poorly done, turned in late or not at all, and he’ll ask you a question.

“Do you want me to answer as teacher, a principal, a school board member or a parent?”

Parents and educators in Wake County are divided into two camps – NZ and PZ: no-zero and pro-zero. Members of both groups are on both sides.

Benton is NZ; I’m PZ.

Benton was a teacher for nine years and a principal for 24. He feels that handing out zeroes is counterproductive and will result in a bunch of kids in class so far behind that they won’t even try to catch up.

I feel that kids who earn zeros should receive zeros – along with assistance to help them catch up.

What could be fairer than giving students what they earn on a paper, a test or in a class? It’s not like a single zero will prevent a motivated student from receiving that sought-after scholarship from an Ivy League institution. A student on that track would not receive a zero in the first place, right?

Wrong, Benton said: “We all know students can make some horrific mistakes and turn around” their classroom performance.

They are less likely to turn their performance around, he said, if catching up “becomes a mathematical impossibility. … (T)hey’re going to sit there in the class and not do any work, and possibly cause problems. …

“You don’t want to do anything to encourage kids to not do work.”

The Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African-American Children no doubt had the best interest of children in mind when it, too, opposed giving zeros to children. But the advocacy group is not doing kids any favors by delaying the onset of reality.

Think about it. How many of us remember what a shock it was to learn that in life – unlike in school –you are not graded on a curve, there are no makeup days and that all the pleading in the world will not get you a chance to do “extra credit” work for an assignment you botched or didn’t turn in?

Benton opposes extra credit work. “Even when I was a teacher, I’d ask my students ‘Why am I going to give you extra credit when you haven’t done the original assignment?’” he said. “I am for some sort of pathway that most teachers already provide that allows students to redo a poor grade, whether it’s a zero or 20 or 30.”

Speaking of zero or 20 or 30, have today’s kids never heard the phrase, “turn lemons into lemonade,” or, more specifically, zeros into passing grades?

The possibilities are limitless when the teacher affixes a giant red-inked goose egg atop your test paper. With the flourish of a red pen, industrious students can turn a distressing zero into a respectable 70, 80, 90 or, if they’re really ambitious, a 100.

Don’t look at me like I’m the first person to think of that. I promise I never did that with a failing grade, since the folks pretty much knew what to expect from my schoolwork. I did, though – once – turn a “100” on an elementary school spelling test into “1,000” and proudly show it to my aunt.

My aunt: “I thought 100 was the highest grade you could get.”

Me: “Uh, the teacher said mine was so good that she gave me more than 100.”

My aunt: “That’s nice.” (Walks away shaking her head, wondering what will become of me.)

I was no fan of the presidency of George W. Bush, but I did agree with his speechwriter’s denunciation of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” for children.

That’s what lowering the achievement bar or sheltering children from the grade they earn is – a soft, albeit well-meaning, bigotry.

On the other hand, I’ve been a fan of the Coalition for Concerned Citizens for years and agree with its desire for a uniform grading policy throughout the school system. That policy, though, should contain zeros for students who deserve them.

The advocates for children would be better off remembering the famous saying: “If you really want to be a hero, teach ’em so they won’t get a zero.”

Saunders: 919-836-2811

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