Ontario secondary students can now get “zeros!”

What grades are supposed to reflect…

Traditionally, when most parents and educators thought about grades, whether at the high school or university level, they assumed they were a realistic measurement of a student’s work.  Sure, most knew that teachers included a small percentage for effort and participation in every grade, but that a total grade could be counted on as a clear indication of how well a student could duplicate a skill or had covered a certain body of material. 

Ontario government’s “success” strategies…

Well, not so in Ontario since the Dalton McGuinty government came to power in the fall of 2003. In fact, in the government’s quest for “inclusion” and “equality,” they have watered down what students have to do to the point that academic standards are now meaningless.

For example, the Ontario Liberals implemented what they euphemistically called “success” strategies to make sure more high school students graduated.  Now, credit where credit is due. The Specialist High Skills Majors is an excellent program, as is the e-learning option.

Ontario government’s “no-fail” policies…

But, the credit rescue and credit recovery were wide open to abuse and inconsistency, as was the fact that all too often teachers were not allowed to give zeros to students who didn’t complete assignments or didn’t hand them in on time. As a result, many of the success strategies were re-labelled by professional journalists and bloggers like me as “no-fail policies” — because they prevented students from experiencing natural consequences.

Ontario students can once again get zeros…

Well, thankfully, the Ontario government took one small step back from that social precipice today by unveiling a policy that once again allows high school teachers the right to assign students a zero grade if they don’t hand in an assignment, or hand one in late.  That is certainly good news but much more needs to be done. 

Possible consequences of no-fail policies …

As I wrote a couple of days ago, some (e.g., StatsCan researchers) are coming to the erroneous conclusion that increasing illiteracy rates in Canada are due to not having enough adult education programs. Well, perhaps we should first investigate what is going on, or not going on as the case may be, in all of Canada’s publicly funded high schools, as well as the consequences of four decades of social promotion from Grade one straight through to Grade 12.

Entitlement versus individual responsibility…

In my opinion, it is an issue of ideology. The progressives and liberals feel that if they could only get more kids to graduate and experience success (even if undeserved), there would be less psychological and social strain (anomie) and therefore less crime and less poverty. Yet, the reverse is probably truer. From a conservative point of view, for example, reducing academic expectations not only takes away the fear of natural consequences, but it doesn’t inculcate the values of personal initiative and responsibility. Is it any wonder, therefore, that our society is plagued by the attitude of entitlement.

Endnote: Other sources here.

22 thoughts on “Ontario secondary students can now get “zeros!”

  1. To be meaningful, grades often need to be accompanied by helpful criticism. I spent an interesting parent-teacher with my eldest’s English teacher in junior high, pointing out that three spelling corrections and a couple of minor grammar points here seriously unhelpful in showing her how to improve (English had always been her top subject), let alone explain her mark. Teacher complained that I was carrying elementary expectations into new school which was not totally the case; I expected said offspring to do well but I was much more concerned that constructive advice was given to enable improvement. I know it takes more time to do this, but – particularly when essays and reports are involved – failure so to do means the student experiences an arbitrary result which is no more understandable than if the teacher had used the ‘down the stairs’ grading method.


  2. Now if we can only get the corporate world in Canada to respect achievement then we may be on our way to a better future. Until that happens embrace mediocrity in Canada and the sad results.


  3. Hopefully it will give students some incentive to actually complete work on time. It was interesting to read students’ responses to the changes. Most were opposed to it saying that they were young and such rules were better implemented in university. Hopefully students will learn that their education is their responsibility. Currently, it’s easy for students to blame others for their mistakes and students can’t learn unless they recognize their mistakes. I always felt sorry for those who did the work on time and then watched as others handed it in later with no penalty. I also think it’s a little too late to teach work habits and deadlines when students enter university.


  4. Matt — I agree that learning about penalties in university is long past the time to learn. But, yes, I did run into those types of problems when I was teaching at the undergrad level.

    However, the issue at that level is not zeros because universities have rules that one assignment cannot be a whole grade. In fact, if I remember right, we had to have at least three assignments. In one of the full-credit courses I taught on curriculum design and development, I usually had five assignments — two written, one test and two seminar presentations — plus 10% for effort and participation (which included attendance).

    The reality was if I didn’t have the 10% participation, many students simply wouldn’t show up for lectures or seminars. The other thing I had to do was make sure the test wasn’t based on textbook readings, for the same reason. If they missed class, then they didn’t know what was going to be on the test. Hey, it worked! I had almost 98% attendance!

    But, think about it, that was in a third year course — in a four year concurrent program, or an elective just before graduation or going on to teacher’s college consecutively.

    The other thing was that since the concurrent students had to maintain a 75% average to remain in the program, I would allow them to redo assignments if they did badly the first time.

    In my opinion, it’s not just about giving zeros and failing young people but teaching them how to be successful. By the time my students redid assignments or whatever, they had learned a lot!

    But, of course, the point of this “new” policy is about personal responsibility and that getting a mark, especially a good mark, is about hard work and perseverance — just like in the real world.

    I think I have mentioned this before, I can recall a young woman crying in my office because “I” was failing her. I spent a great deal of time explaining that “I” wasn’t failing her — she was failing herself. Then, she said she worked very hard on the assignment, as though effort was enough. I explained to her that I had already given her a good mark for “effort.” But, since the bulk of all her marks were low because she missed 75% of her classes, she would have to do a paper that covered all the material she missed.

    Then, I had her mother call me. Then, the mother went to the Dean. If I had given in, which I didn’t, what would she have learned? In the end, she did the make-up assignment. The most important result, however, was that the other 150 students heard what happened via the grapevine and many thanked me for being “fair.”

    So, I am very glad that you and your fellow teachers will have the responsibility back for how you mark assignments.


  5. Guess who did all the heavy lifting in the fight against these policies? The Federations, particularly OSSTF. They have been fighting the Fullan-Leven namby-pamby approach since almost 2003. Teachers believe that many more students can graduate and must graduate but “drive-by” diplomas as we call them are not the answer for anyone.

    Conservative just want to make school “rigorous” and damn the consequences which is an inevitably lower graduation rate. Liberals want a high graduation rate so they simply want to make school “easier”. Neither approach makes any sense and neither is good for Canada. The correct approach is to keep the level of difficulty where is was before 2003 AND graduate far more students.

    This approach requires 1) Much smaller classes, 2) More support staff, 3) Much more comprehensive ELP, 4) Retsore full students grants (not con ed.) for adult students, 5) Much more rigorour teacher training, 6) Reduced and eventually free tuition in college and university as is common in norther Europe, 7) More and higher quality in-service PD for teachers, 8) Excusing teachers from all non-teaching duties.


  6. Doug — I am not anti-teachers’ union. In fact, I recently became aware of a non-union situation that makes me realize why unions are still necessary in our society. The negatives come in when union officials become the same type of overbearing and intimidating people as management.

    I am considering running for trustee. However, I haven’t handed in my nomination papers (I have ten more days to do so) because I still haven’t been able to articulate how one trustee out of 11 in a geographic area of 500,000 people, can make a difference. Also, since there are about double that number running, it will likely be the incumbents who win. However, I would do it as a challenge if I thought I could make a difference if elected.

    I disagree that conservatives just want to make the schools rigorous and damn the consequences. When have you ever read where I said that? Never. I want the curriculum rigorous but with make up activities (as I discussed in my reply to Matt) possible. The point is not simply to fail kids, but to help them realize that failure is part of life and to overcome it, we just have to work harder sometimes.

    We used to call it “natural consequences” and they weren’t proposed by conservatives — they were in the Hall-Dennis report’s recommendations.

    You really have to stop trying to classify everyone who says they are conservative as some type of right wing extremist. It simply isn’t that way at all. The reality is that both sides of the spectrum have extremists.

    I am against free post-secondary education because, in my experience, no one appreciates what they get for nothing — apart from scholarships which they have already “earned.” However, I am in favour of the OSAP forgiveness program which was in place when Harris was in power. Oh, the irony! If a student got a 75% average in their last ten courses, their loans were “forgiven.” In that way, they have something to work towards. I would also be in favour of partial forgiveness since not everyone can end up with a 75% average. But, free, for no other reason that they just have to show up? No way.

    It has been a few years since I taught teacher education, but the Brock program was very rigorous. Of course, I can’t speak for all B.Ed programs.


  7. The road to a zero shouldn’t be it’s due one day and the next day it’s a zero. My high school life was usually 10 percent a day. For a high school student, that may be two weeks before a zero is assigned as a mark. There are also the reasonable circumstances why something is late.

    That story about the university student continues to concern me. By being able to assign zeros in high school, students and their parents will know that deadlines matter. I give you credit Sandy for working with the student to help her understand how she caused her situation. Having a mom who would go to the dean on behave of her twenty something daughter is doing a disservice to that daughter. It also reminds me of an article last year where a soon to be graduate complained that she could not find an entry level job that would allow her to continue to live the lifestyle she was used to living.

    This issue of responsibility and how children are being raised is not a conservative or liberal issue, but a societal issue. Education is one example, but similar issues of responsibility exist in sports and other extra-curricular activities.


  8. Actually Matt, you have hit on something that has been bothering me for quite awhile. I don’t think what is presented or discussed on this blog as progressive versus conservative. It is just common sense. Some might consider some ideas progressive, others conservative, others simply as human or societal issues. In other words, I think that we are wrong to equate everything in education with the political spectrum.

    I did my Ph.D disseration on the John (Jack) Miller curriculum orientations, paradigms that explain why teachers teach as they do, why they value certain aims and objectives, instructional methods and evaluation techniques. No doubt you know them: Transmission, Transaction, and Transformation. Jack always said there was no right way, that Transformational was a bit of the best of the other two plus the holistic/critical pedagogy components.

    Well, that is where I see my commentary as well. Sometimes I like some ideas that might be considered transmission or conservative, other times transaction — which is multi-disciplinary, co-operative and problem-based. However, someone like Doug is almost entirely on the transformational paradigm and what is referred to as “critical pedagogy” (neo Marxist and Paulo Friere come to mind).

    Yet, according to the man who developed the orientations, transformational also included some aspects of the other two paradigms to be fully balanced. Interestingly, that is what my research found. Even when teachers thought they were teaching transformationally, they were not doing so 100% of the time.

    So, maybe we should discuss ideas and values here instead of right versus left politics. I know I am getting fed up with being labelled a right wing extremist. I suspect many of my former students would find that hard to believe.


  9. If you run I will send you $50. LOL. The secret is name recognition. Put out one simple brochure that says what you mean, no too dense, spend any other money on signs. If the budget is limited restrict them to high traffic areas. A good slogan helps and keep it simple. Mine was “PUT THE KIDS FIRST”.


  10. I like your slogan Doug. Just might use it but modified:

    Crux of the matter is kids first!

    Putting kids first — the crux of the matter.

    What do you think?


  11. Good slogan. However, sad as it may sound, I’ll bet 95% of the general population have no idea what the word “crux” means…


  12. George — You’re probably right. So, I’ll stick with “putting kids first.” If boards want to close schools, is it putting kids first? If yes, as in the building is falling down, then fine. If it isn’t putting them first, then lets look at other options.

    Doug — The strange thing is I didn’t steal your slogan. I had been brainstorming with my husband a few days ago and believe it or not, that motto was in the bunch.


  13. Well, I have done the deed. I went into St. Catharines and submitted my nomination papers. They are now signed, sealed and delivered. There are 11 trustees for the District School Board of Niagara (DSBN), four of which represent all of St. Catharines/Niagara-on-the-Lake by population. There are three incumbents running, all with names that start with “C.” If voters just go down the list, I will be elected. In other words, out of 8 candidates, five of us are new candidates. So, as Doug says, it will be name recognition. The good thing is that Crux is an uncommon name and both my husband and I have had a high community profile over the years. I will have 50 signs made up — in bright pink. Since St. Catharines allows signs only on private property, I will have to find some strategic locations somehow. Plus ads in the daily, The Standard and the weeky in NOTL, The Advance. And, I will attend functions were there are a lot of people where I will hand out a card/brochure – as well as the all-candidates meetings. It will be busy but I will give it my best shot. I am not dead yet and am still healthy, so why not?


  14. This blog will become my campaign blog as soon as I open an election bank account. Then, I will put up a post announcing my plans. Hopefully, I can get local people to visit and get involved in local issues.


  15. Don’t worry about stealing a slogan, I stole it from a city politician in Toronto who ran on “put the neighbourhoods first” I said to myself, hmmmm, what should I put first, finally I came up with the kids. My manager said “I like it, all the words are short so it will fit on a lawn sign better.


  16. Thanks Doug. I ended up deciding not to run as trustee due to some family priorities. I will, however, try to take part in the local campaign and be at the all candidate meetings, etc.


  17. I came across your site after hearing that the ‘Grade Doctor’ , Ken O’Connor is coming to my school in New York State. I’m sure you know of him. A couple of administrators in our district our in support of “no zeros”. Most of the staff is not. I searched and came across your site because I read online that Ontario has reversed its “no zero” policy, which may prove that the grade doctor’s ideas are wrong.

    Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks!


  18. sorry — are instead of “our” — sometimes after reading 100 middle school essays, you start to spell like the kids!!


  19. Wendell — Ken responded to a post I had up on how the Sask gov’t wasn’t taking the plagiarism issue seriously and he took me to task. Thought giving zeros or holding kids accountable would hurt their self-esteem. I said, as I always do about any no-fail policy is that it is far worse on someone’s selfesteem when they discover in university and adulthood that cheating or doing the least is not acceptable.

    Here is the thread with his comment. Click on his name to find his website. If you are having him as a guest speaker, he will likely tell you, on the one hand, that kids need to be held accountable, while on the other, never ever give zeroes.

    How he thinks teachers can hold kids accountable without being held accountable, I don’t know.

    The reality is that there are three paradigms in education (also referred to as the curriculum orientations) and Ken represents the holistic/tranformational approach. However, I did my Ph.D thesis on those paradigms and my adviser was Jack Miller, the one who came up with the model in the first place. Miller clearly says that the tranformational approach to evaluation is the best of traditional and transactional — some defined summative tests, some problem solving and some authentic. Never would Miller suggest that kids not be held accountable for their actions. If they get zero, it is their behaviour.

    Oh, and Ken, like so many “specialists” these days, try to separate behaviour from learning. I am a learning specialist. You can’t. Cognition is the inner reaction to an outer behaviour. They go together like a horse and carriage.

    Hope this helps.


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