Roy Green: A Teacher Risks His Career Challenging School Policy
Recently an Edmonton physics teacher’s suspension was the cause for national debate. Lynden Dorval stood at the head of classrooms for more than three decades and increasingly experienced frustration with what Mr. Dorval considered the uneven and non-productive assignment and test score marking requirements he was expected to employ.
If a student failed to hand in an assignment Mr. Dorval’s instincts and experience suggested a zero mark be assigned that student. Similarly, were a student to miss a test or exam, a zero mark would result. This violated school board no, or soft zero policy. After repeated warnings not to stray from policy, which Mr. Dorval ignored, he was suspended and fully expects to be terminated prior to the beginning of the new school year in September.
There was intent in Mr. Dorval’s actions. Intent to demonstrate the failings of the soft or no zeros marking system and with enough classroom years to qualify for a living wage pension Lynden Dorval stepped up, took his chances and his lumps.
In the weeks since the suspension I have devoted on-air hours to the issue. In fact we expanded on it to include the noxious policy of social promotion, standard in many if not most school systems in North America. More about social promotion in a moment.
The result of repeat on-air interviews with Lynden Dorval was virtual unanimous condemnation of the soft or no zeros approach from parents and classroom teachers. A panel of teachers and college instructors spoke to the failings of the program and how it and other trendy approaches to education have created, according to college instructor Dr. Susan Weldon, a small but growing percentage of “functionally illiterate” high school graduates.
What is the argument for the soft zeros approach? Dr. Weldon writes, “suppose a student has four exams per semester and (for mathematical simplicity) gets 80 per cent on three of them, but misses one. Using a 100 point scale, 80+80+80+0=60 per cent average. That student is clearly achieving better than 60 per cent. The gap created by the zero cannot be overcome because the deficit is too large to be averaged out.”
Weldon adds a no zeros policy which doesn’t require completion of and ignores the missed exam would mark the student on only the three occasions work was completed, delivering an average of 80 per cent, which makes no sense. It is also not fair to deliver the same grade to students when one handed in all assignments and the other not.
Clearly there can be extenuating circumstances for missed assignments. Illness and family emergencies for example. In cases such as this teachers could establish a fair mark based on review of the student’s classroom, test and exam performance.
Telling is that not only the public leapt to Lynden Dorval’s support, but also significant numbers of his peer group. Almost invariably though such teachers who contacted me requested anonymity, expressing concern their views if made public may result in negative repercussions from their boards.
A consistent theme expressed by teachers was that if students understand that missed assignments result in few or no negative marking repercussions, they will take advantage of the situation. Human nature, in other words.
It’s not just soft or no zeros marking which requires review. The practice of social promotion has for too long disadvantaged students across Canada and the United States.
Social promotion is the practice of passing a student from one grade to the next whether or not that student has successfully completed the academic curriculum. This begins in elementary school where failing children are not required to repeat the school year. The practice of promotion to the next grade continues in high school where a student is assured of receiving a graduation certificate in usually four years whether or not that student has managed to pass any classes.
The philosophy supporting social promotion argues that to require a student to repeat a failed school year or subject will potentially create psychological damage, while allowing a child to remain with friends and their peer group throughout the school experience will result in improved self-esteem. Supporters of social promotion chatter the practice also results in lower drop-out rates. Well, duh!
If constant academic failure results in little or no negative consequence and morphs instead into a “hanging out” experience, of course drop-out rates will be reduced. More to the point though, what the social promotion policy also reduces is cost. Retention results in an increased financial commitment by a school board to a failing student and probably in the thousands of dollars annually.
So while social promotion perhaps may support a temporary sense of self-esteem, it is on conclusion of the primary and secondary school experience, complete with the issuance of a graduation certificate a student may have difficulty reading that self-esteem may then plunge into an abyss, as it quickly becomes apparent the young person is entirely unprepared for a professional career and may be limited to minimum or close to minimum wage employment.
Canadian employers have spoken on-air about what they have encountered at least some of the time when a high school diploma equipped young person who has never been told “your work isn’t good enough” applies for a job. Demands for an impossibly high salary and a refusal to accept that their job performance was sub-standard.
A McGill university professor spoke of students demanding a C grade test score be raised to a B because in the student’s view the work was worth that. After all, students argued, they had shown up for some of the classes.
By the time such issues surface public school systems are no longer engaged in that young person’s life. Their job of moving the student through the system without delay or increased cost is done.
The soft or no zeros policies when combined with social promotion can and do create conflict in the home. A father recently related that while reviewing his daughter’s completed homework assignment he discovered errors including one in a fundamental numeric calculation. When he pointed this out his daughter became angry and suggested her school work was constantly praised in class and essentially invited her father to “butt out”.
A young man in his early 20s and a college graduate while working as my call screener would write what I could only describe as gibberish into the computer program which allows the screener to inform the show host of the fundamental points a caller wishes to make. During a commercial break I told my screener I couldn’t decipher what he was writing. His reply: “Roy, I can’t spell. I didn’t learn to spell in school. When we’d be issued a spelling test and couldn’t handle certain words they were dumbed down until we reached words we did know how to spell.”
Educators and parents routinely challenge social promotion whenever the practice becomes an issue of on-air discussion. An Alberta teacher was almost reduced to tears as he spoke of how the policies significantly reduce or even serve to eliminate much of his ability to positively impact on his students.
Challenge moving your child into the next school year after he or she has failed the grasp the fundamentals of the year just ended? Parents relate virtual battles with teachers, principals, trustees and board officials as they seek to have a child repeat a year. Some parents capitulate. Others refuse to be stared down and eventually succeed in their objective. I hear from both and it is routinely only the latter group which believes it acted in the child’s best long term interest.
Let’s for a moment agree with the “self-esteem is damaged should a school year be repeated” view. I would then be a classic candidate for a repressed and negative sense of self-worth. For reasons beyond my control my scholastic achievement in Grade 8 was insufficient and unsatisfactory. That was the assessment of my teachers and was supported by failing grades. I was required, not requested, to repeat the school year and today I am convinced it was the best of possible options. To have moved me ahead to Grade 9, without the fundamental understanding of what was taught in Grade 8 would have been folly.
No doubt I would have appreciated such a decision. Temporarily.
There has been no damage to self-esteem. I didn’t struggle socially because of the retention. In fact, I had sufficient understanding of what was to be taught that second experience with Grade 8 that I became one of the class leaders.
There are educators who actively challenge social promotion. Paul Vallas ran the public school systems in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans and currently heads schools in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Vallas dismantled routine social promotion, requiring failing students repeat a year or course in all three of his former assignments and will do so again in Bridgeport. However, along with retention Vallas requires students receive additional teacher instruction. Retention itself can be avoided if a student attends and successfully completes previously failed courses during summer vacation time.
Vallas is controversial and has his vocal detractors. He doesn’t flinch, however. In New Orleans, Vallas lengthened the school year to 11 months and the school day to 8 ¼ hours, telling me students on his watch will receive the best public education he can deliver.
Lynden Dorval risked his career to challenge an education policy he could no longer support. Some would argue Mr. Dorval should simply have resigned from his classroom duties if he couldn’t agree with employer policy. In a general employment context that would be a sustainable argument. However, when the education of children is the issue which causes a 30-plus year teacher to take the actions Lynden Dorval took, further review of the policies is appropriate.
Roy Green is host of The Roy Green Show, a national program heard weekends on Corus Radio. Follow Roy on Twitter @theRoyGreenShow.