EDMONTON — A Ross Sheppard High School teacher has been suspended and expects to be fired for giving students zeros despite the school’s no-zero grading practice.
The physics teacher with 35 years experience said he continued giving zeros when students failed to hand in assignments, instead of using behaviour codes such as “not completed,” which the school requires under its grading and reporting practice.
“To me, this is just not working,” Lynden Dorval, 61, said of the no-zero policy the school introduced about a year and a half ago. “This is just a way of inflating marks and it’s not benefiting the students ... It’s a way of pushing kids through and making the stats look good, but at what cost?”
Under the policy, teachers must pursue students to arrange for late assignments to be completed. If the student doesn’t turn in enough work for the teacher to assess progress, the teacher should enter “unable to evaluate,” the policy says.
In Dorval’s physics and science classes, students who didn’t turn in assignments got a printout of their marks showing them how a zero would affect their overall grade. Most times, the strategy spurred students to complete the work, he said. “Once I give that printout, I get a flood of assignments.”
Dorval said he also gives students a handout at the beginning of each school year informing them of his marking practices.
“It says right on there that I still give zeros,” Dorval said. “It’s on that handout I give them at the start that it’s up to them to come to me to make arrangements (to finish the work). I stay after school three days a week and I’m usually in my room at lunch hour, and sometimes the kids have spares so I tell them, ‘You make arrangements with me to come in and make up the work.’ ”
After several warnings from the principal, Dorval attended a hearing May 15 with officials from the school and Edmonton Public Schools, including the district superintendent. On May 18, Dorval got a letter informing him he is suspended indefinitely.
“It is regrettable that after a long career with Edmonton Public Schools, you chose this very public and destructive course of action,” says the letter from the district superintendent.
Many Edmonton public schools, particularly junior and senior highs, have operated under no-zero practices for several years. It’s part of a national trend proponents say helps ensure more students make it through the school system, learn course material and succeed. Critics argue it doesn’t prepare students for the real world.
The no-zero approach is not a district-wide policy but something set by individual schools and principals in Edmonton.
The no-zero approach is a “common practice” now in the city’s public schools, said superintendent Edgar Schmidt. That doesn’t mean students are coasting to graduation without doing the work, Schmidt said.
“When assignments are given, the expectation is that they will be done,” he said. “Really, we’re actually pursuing students to try to get them to demonstrate what they know.”
If the work still isn’t done, a student might have to retake the class or find alternate ways to show they know the material, Schmidt said.
“So this is not, in any way, making life easier for kids. It is, in fact, continually finding ways for them to actually demonstrate the work and demonstrate their knowledge,” he said. “We believe it’s a fairer practise to clearly lay out to students and often to parents through their progress reports what they have been assessed on and what level of performance they’ve achieved.”
Such feedback is much more motivating than a zero, Schmidt said. “Simply taking them off the hook with a zero that says they don’t have to do it anymore is actually not helping kids get to the learning.”
Grade 12 Ross Sheppard student Will Lumsden said he agrees with the no-zero policy but doesn’t understand why the district suspended Dorval before the end of the school year. Lumsden was in Dorval’s international baccalaureate Physics 30 class, where a new teacher is now filling in while students prepare to take diploma exams in mid-June.
“I have nothing against the new teacher other than it’s a completely different teaching style,” Lumsden said. “It’s thrown a lot of students through a bit of a loop, especially with it being a diploma course. The change wasn’t exactly necessary, in my opinion.”
Teacher suspensions are rare, said Edmonton Public Schools spokeswoman Cheryl Oxford. There have been only “a handful” within the past two years, she said.
Dorval can ask for representation from the Alberta Teachers’ Association if he decides to appeal the suspension.
The ATA believes teachers should primarily be responsible for assessing and evaluating students, ATA spokesman Jonathan Teghtmeyer said. However, teachers are ultimately accountable to their employer, he said.
Dorval said he expects to appeal the suspension. He said he thinks many teachers at Ross Sheppard disagree with the no-zero approach but he was in the best position to take a stand against it as an experienced staff member.
“My career is ended. I’m not happy at all ... It’s been pretty tough,” Dorval said, his eyes tearful. “You can see I’m getting emotional. I didn’t expect to end my career in such a dramatic and sudden way.”