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ImageTeaching Heroes:
Toss the Zeros

Facing gradebooks filled with zeros, some schools and individual teachers have decided that they simply won't accept incomplete assignments or "zeros." Kids who don't turn in finished work lose their recess or put in "working lunches" until it is done. While the approach can't promise flawless work, it does force students who don't meet their responsibilities independently to put forth some effort. Along with grades that more accurately reflect mastery of content, the frequent result is better retention, improved grades, and a renewed sense of self-confidence as a student. Included: Three no zeros approaches that work.

"Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of our approximately 500 students had several missing assignments, which were recorded as a zero percent in the grade book," recalled Danna Garland. "Many of the students would rather take the zero than have to do the work."

This philosophy was reflected in Glenpool Middle School's "ineligible list." Students who were failing were placed on it and not permitted to participate in extracurricular activities. At the start of the 2007-2008 school year, there were well over 100 students on the list each week, and most of those students were failing not because they didn't understand the work, but because they chose not to do it. The situation prompted Garland, who is Glenpool's principal, to institute ZAP (Zeros Aren't Permitted), a program that requires students to finish incomplete assignments during lunch periods.

"Since ZAP began last September, our ineligible list has shrunk to approximately 50 students each week. Students' attitudes are changing also. They are beginning to understand that it is a priority to do the assignments and to do them with quality," Garland told Education World.

Students understand that there are no excuses, but ZAP [Zeroes Arent Permitted] is intentionally not presented as punitive. All supervisors remain positive and supportive.

While it doesn't ensure passing grades, ZAP provides students with the opportunity to earn some credit for every assignment by requiring them to complete the work to the best of their ability. It has enabled Garland and her staff to identify "frequent flyers" who regularly need assistance so that interventions such as additional study time, tutoring, and special education referral can be implemented quickly.

"Parent contact has also increased dramatically," observed Garland. "If a student does not complete the missing assignment during lunch ZAP, we call the parent to schedule time before or after school when it may be finished."

Garland and the school's guidance counselor supervise the seventh and eighth grade ZAP periods and two support employees monitor ZAP for sixth graders. Books are provided as well as one-on-one assistance. Students understand that there are no excuses, but ZAP is intentionally not presented as punitive. All supervisors remain positive and supportive.

"When we first began ZAP, we talked to the students about being accountable and prepared for high school. We gave them pep talks often!" Garland explained. "I really think it's all about our attitude. If it's important enough for the principal and the counselor to help students every single day complete their work, then it is a priority. Students seem to understand that."

I really think it's all about our attitude. If it's important enough for the principal and the counselor to help students every single day complete their work, then it is a priority. Students seem to understand that.

Teachers have ZAP folders in which they send any incomplete or missing assignments to the ZAP classroom each day by 11:30 a.m. Admittedly, when faced with the additional paperwork, some Glenpool teachers might at times prefer to award a "zero" and move on, but those educators are definitely in the minority. One teacher told Garland that this was the first school year in which there were no zeroes in her grade book. All of the teachers seemed to agree that the grades the students receive today more accurately represent their true understanding and skill.

"Several of the high school students come to the middle school to deliver messages," Garland shared. "I had three senior boys tell me, 'I wish you would have had ZAP when we were in middle school. I needed someone to make me do the work.' I realized then the impact that ZAP would have on the students, maybe not so much right now, but as they mature and grow older."

Another student cried in the counselor's office, saying, "Why are you making me do the work? I just want a zero percent." For Garland, the event illustrated that for too long the school had allowed students to take the "easy way out."

"ZAP is not a cure all, but it does send a strong message to students and to parents that they must be accountable and that we will be relentless in our efforts," she stated. "With high stakes testing in Oklahoma now, we cannot afford for our students to coast through school. They must perform their tasks so that they learn the material and can pass those tests. Zeros simply aren't permitted at Glenpool Middle School any longer."


A discussion with a colleague prompted Bill Ferriter, a sixth grade language arts and social studies teacher in Apex, North Carolina, to rethink his grading policies. A fellow teacher wanted to fail one of her students for an entire year because he had horrible grades in her class, and the trouble was that the student's scores on the state's end-of-grade exams placed him in the top 20 percent of sixth grade students. While Ferriter understood her frustration, he felt that his peer's desire wasn't so much to identify whether or not the student had mastered the content but to punish the child for not getting his work done.

I think the biggest barrier to getting teachers to buy into a late work system like this is trusting that it just might work. We've all gotten ourselves trained somehow to believe that kids who have missing work are intentionally and willfully trying to disobey us. Once you reframe your thinking and decide to believe that kids really do want to do well, you'd be amazed at how easy it is to promote a spirit of accomplishment in kids who seem enveloped in failure.
-- Bill Ferriter

"That just didn't sit right with me, and as we wrestled through an intensely passionate conversation, I realized that the grades written on report cards by teachers across our country are incredibly subjective and largely dependent on a teacher's approach to accepting late work," said Ferriter. "What's worse, I realized how incredibly inadequate it is to try to express a child's strengths and weaknesses in one letter grade."

From that time, Ferriter went to work on a grading system that would accurately reflect a child's work behaviors and academic ability. Every child in his class at Salem Middle School is required to turn in every assignment. When an assignment isn't turned in on time, the student must finish it instead of going outside for recess. Ferriter refers to this as "working lunch." He regularly sends home a Work Behaviors Rubric that gives parents valuable feedback about the responsible actions their children display in the classroom. The grades that appear on the students' report cards are accurate indicators of their actual academic performance. As long as a child shows mastery of content on a task, Ferriter will award an "A," even if the work is submitted late.

The most convincing evidence that his method works is that the number of missing assignments in Ferriter's classroom decreases quickly over the course of the school year. The students know that as soon as a task is incomplete, they will miss out on their recess period, a powerful motivator for the very socially-driven adolescents.

"No Zeros": Making It Work

For Bill Ferriter, keep it simple is a mantra that pervades his grading process. His first endeavors involved complicated tracking sheets to record when and what type of tasks the students failed to complete, who came to "working lunch," and so on. And if a student missed his assigned working lunch, Ferriter had a fit.

"That just generated more work for me, which made it less likely my plan would still be in place today, so I scaled everything back," he explained. "When a kid misses a task, I stamp the child's hand with a rubber stamp to remind him to come to working lunch. When he arrives, I nudge him to get started and answer questions or provide papers when needed."

If a student forgets, Ferriter doesn't run around the school to track him down.

"I just wait until he returns and remind him that he has to come to working lunch the next day," said Ferriter. "Surprisingly enough, nine times out of ten, the student will come without needing another reminder. The tenth time, I sic the assistant principal or guidance counselor on him!"

"What's even more impressive, however, is the positive attitude that my kids start taking toward completing missing tasks," Ferriter reported. "Working lunch is almost never a fight, and I almost never have to track down kids who have chosen to skip out on the chance to make up their work. I think they genuinely appreciate the chance to make up work, without having to feel the immense shame that can get heaped on in an old-school classroom."

Many of the students also develop pride about having good grades for the first time. This leads their teacher to the conclusion that if support is provided and students are held accountable, positive momentum will build that has a great impact on a student's sense of self. Ferriter often wonders how the approach might have helped former students.

"I had a student in my room named Rodney [not the students real name], with whom I battled almost every day over missing tasks. He just never had anything done, no matter how many times I reminded him about the work that was due or how easy the assignments were," shared Ferriter. "Pretty quickly, I was convinced that he was choosing not to complete work because he was disobedient. I'd fuss at him almost every day. I'd use sarcasm when his every task would be missing. I finally stopped asking."

Then one day Rodney didn't bring in an essay that the class had been working on for weeks, and Ferriter sent him into the hall.

"When I got outside, I had every intention of reading him the riot act, but I was stopped by his muffled tears," Ferriter remembered. "Through heaving breaths, he explained that he simply couldn't get his work done at home. His mom worked at night, so he was responsible for his little sister. He also had a list of chores to do that would have taken me a month."

Home just wasn't a place where Rodney could do work, and Ferriter believes that had he taken time to uncover the challenges that Rodney was dealing with and to give him time and support at school, his experience with the class would have been far more positive.

"I constantly worry about the kids who failed in my room early in my career, wondering if they'd be more successful today if I had been more professional yesterday," Ferriter admits.

Parents cautiously embrace Ferriter's grading policies at the start but, over time, the majority come to appreciate that the system actually gives them more information about their children's strengths and weaknesses than they have ever received.

"Instead of having to guess at what a D means, the parents know that their children haven't mastered the core objectives of our curriculum," Ferriter stated. "Then, they can refer to one of our work records to find out if coming to class late, failing to complete homework, forgetting to participate in class, or acting inappropriately with peers -- behaviors that typically influence a child's success or failure -- are interfering with the student's success. If so, they can exert a bit of positive parental pressure to encourage their kids to improve."

Ferriter knows that teachers who take the leap to an alternative grading policy should be ready to articulate their plans and make sense of it for their students.

"You will be asked questions, by everyone from parents to principals," he advised. "A well thought-out response to the inevitable questions that is built from a solid understanding of the developmental needs of the students you serve will make you more convincing than you can possibly imagine."


"I think that teaching students to be responsible for their school work by setting up consequences that help them succeed, such as No Zeros Detention, has been very beneficial for the students on our seventh grade team," explains Maria Strevay. "As a team, we try to illustrate to students that No Zeros Detention is not a punitive consequence, but one that gives them allotted time to complete their school work with the assistance of teachers, if that assistance is needed."

Strevay is a seventh and eighth grade language arts teacher at Old Vail Middle School in Vail, Arizona, who assumed her position in the middle of the last school year. She noticed immediately that a large percentage of her students were not turning in their work, so at the end of her first quarter of teaching, she decided to take part in the team's "No Zeros Detention." Within a few weeks, she saw a significant decrease in the number of delinquent assignments. The detention clearly motivated the students to get their work in on time.

"I had one student who constantly would not turn in his school work," Strevay shared. "Each week, the student stayed for No Zeros Detention, and the student diligently worked and completed all past-due assignments. It took about a school quarter, but after that time this student began to regularly turn in assignments on time and the student's grade went up from an F to a B. The student became so proud of what he had accomplished and would brag that his name was no longer appearing on my No Zeros Detention board. It brought a smile to my face and to the student's."

The team created the detention for make-up work in response to a deficit in completed assignments. The students weren't doing the needed practice in their homework, and their grades were suffering. Held every Tuesday after school, "No Zeros Detention," despite its name, was designed as a student aid and not a punishment.

We generally have the student make the phone call, and when he or she is finished speaking with the parent the student will pass the phone to the teacher who will then confirm that the student will stay after school.

"If a student is missing an assignment, then he or she must attend our detention," explained seventh-grade science teacher Tiffany McKee. "The day before the detention, parents are notified that their child will be staying after school to make up the work. We generally have the student make the phone call, and when he or she is finished speaking with the parent the student will pass the phone to the teacher who will then confirm that the student will stay after school."

Teachers share the responsibility of monitoring each detention session, with each supervising two to three detentions in a grading period. The detention requires a teacher to put in an extra hour in addition to the full school day. Prior to the detention, the teachers email a list of student attendees to a coordinator, who forwards a complete list to all teachers.

"Many students involved in No Zeroes Detention start to get their work in simply because they do not want to give up their Tuesday afternoon," added McKee. "Surprisingly, some students who are not assigned detention choose to stay on Tuesday after school because they know that they have a quiet environment in which to do their work and two teachers will be available if they need help."

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 08/18/2008
Last updated 08/25/2009