When this story broke in Edmonton on Thursday, the general public (and some teachers) started sharing their thoughts about the use of the zero. The prevailing comment in the media from the general public goes something like,
That’s ridiculous. I have a job. If I don’t go to my job, I don’t get paid. If a student doesn’t do the work, he should get 0. We need to prepare students for the real world.
This view is common, and it shows a misconception about assessment in our schools. Schools are not like jobs. Their systems of rewards and punishment are completely different.
The reward for having a job is money. The reward for working hard at your job and doing good work can be promotions and/or more money.
We don’t pay kids for school, so the reward for going to school isn’t money. People who make comments like the one above seem to think the reward for going to school is the grade. They’re wrong. The reward for going to school is not the grade. It’s the learning. The grade is a reflection of that learning. They are very different things. The difference is not being noticed in the public right now.
The difference is that learning does not occur in our students at a fixed hourly rate. Some students learn the material quickly. Some take longer, and need much more practice. Heck, some students walk in on day one already knowing most of what is in the curriculum of the course I’m about to start teaching them. The grade I assign doesn’t (and can’t) reflect how many hours they put in learning. It just reflects whether or not they have learned the curricular outcomes. Grades, then, are very different from money paid for work.
Many jobs are salaried. Mine is. There are weeks where I put in tons of hours getting things done and there are weeks that are slower. My pay remains the same. If I’m sick occasionally, I still get paid. I have worked hard, done the best I could, and been promoted. Lots of jobs are like mine. Then there are jobs that are based on hours worked, or items produced. Those kinds of jobs reward extra work with extra pay. A welder willing to put in 70 hours a week is going to make a ton of money. School just isn’t like this. Kids who put in the most hours might not get the highest grades.
Those who subscribe to the view that grades are like pay for work believe strongly (97% in Edmonton’s recent poll) that students should get 0’s for missed work (this post explains why they shouldn’t). By that same logic, do these people believe that students willing to do extra work should get extra marks? For example, if a student comes to me and says he wants to improve his grade in math class by doing 20 extra worksheets, are these people suggesting I should give him the worksheets, and then raise his grade from 64 to 98? Would this approach teach students to be like our hard-working welder?
If we are willing to punish students who don’t do the work with a grade of 0, regardless of what that student actually knows, then it seems to me we are also saying we should reward students who work hard, regardless of what they know. It’s the same thing. So by this logic, we need to make sure that the students who get the highest grades in our classes are the ones who spend the most extra time on the course, hand in the most things, and work harder than all the rest. Let’s reserve the 98% grades in Math 30 Pure for students like this, regardless of what they know. Let’s reserve the failing grades for students who don’t work hard, regardless of what they know. Let’s make sure smart lazy students fail because that will teach them about the real world. Let’s make sure hard-working students are rewarded with high grades so we can fill our medical and engineering schools with hard-working students, even if they’re not that bright.
Does that paragraph above sound as ridiculous to you as it does to me? Good. Because now you know what I hear every time I read a comment like the one I opened this article with. That’s what school would look like if we believed it was exactly like having a job.
Our curriculum doesn’t allow us to reward hard-working students with grades. It doesn’t allow us to punish lazy students with grades. Hard work just isn’t an outcome in the high school math curriculum in Alberta.
A bright kid who does no work (I assume people are talking about homework here) and still writes and passes my tests will pass my class. He has to. He has shown me he can do the math.
A weak, hard-working student who does every single thing I assign, but fails the tests will fail my class. He has to. He has shown me he can’t do the math.
Any student, weak or strong, who doesn’t write my tests cannot be assessed. I make him do the course again. I have to. He hasn’t shown me whether or not he can do the math, so I can’t pass him.
The bottom line is that I can’t assess work. Doing work just isn’t in my curriculum. Knowing math is. That’s all I can assess.