The Zero Hero | By Graeme Archibald

You could call it the summer of the zero. There are only a handful of issues that seemingly everyone has an opinion on – this was one of them. It turned an average high school science teacher into a folk hero. It spread across social media, lighting up Facebook walls and bringing a big debate to the #yeg hash-tag on Twitter. Any updates to the story always seem to make the top stories on the local news.

It all started because of a few zeroes.

By now, you’ve probably heard of Lynden Dorval. Mr. Dorval was a physics teacher at Ross Sheppard High School in west Edmonton with 35 years of teaching experience. This past May, Mr. Dorval was abruptly suspended from his teaching duties. His suspension was due to not adhering to Ross Shep’s so-called “no-zero” grading policy, in which students are no longer assigned zeroes for incomplete or missed work. Rather, ‘behaviour codes’ that do not affect the student’s overall mark are assigned in their place (the official assessment policy can be found here). At the request of Principal Ron Bradley, who instituted the policy, Edmonton Public Schools superintendent Edgar Schmidt issued a letter of suspension to Mr. Dorval, removing him from the classroom for the remainder of the year and banning him from school property. This past Friday, he was terminated from Edmonton Public Schools at the request of Principal Bradley.

I have been troubled by this story, and as such I have followed it closely. In September 2006, I began my high school career at Ross Shep. It was a big change, going from my ‘ghetto’ junior high school in northeast Edmonton to a large west-end high school with a reputation for being the stomping grounds of the city’s “rich kids”. My Science 10 teacher was Mr. Dorval. He was somewhat robotic and emotionless, with a tendency to break equipment and set things on fire, but a good teacher nonetheless. I was shocked when I heard of his suspension – mild-mannered Dorval seemed like the last person who would be on the receiving end of such punishment.

When the media caught a hold of the story, there was a public outcry. Many people, myself included, found the assessment policy to be highly detrimental to the education of high school-aged youth. In the interviews that followed, Mr. Dorval voiced his complaints over the no-zero grading regime, believing it to be ineffective. Ross Sheppard’s administration and the EPSB attempted to frame the matter as one of insubordination – which it undoubtedly was – but they were unable to avoid a discussion of the grading policy. And the public was certainly not siding with the school – an Edmonton Journal online poll on the issue garnered almost 12,000 votes, with about 97% of respondents siding with Dorval. Many began to identify Mr. Dorval as a hero for standing up for higher standings in grading practices – the “zero hero”.

Proponents of the no-zero grading practice argue that giving zero grades can be disastrous for a student’s self-esteem, and can discourage them from working hard at their education. Opponents to the policy, myself included, believe that the no-zero policy is nothing but coddling, and sheltering students from the realities that await them outside of the safety of their high school. University professors give zeroes, no questions asked. Employers don’t issue behaviour codes for incomplete work. Despite the claims by EPSB that high school is not the “adult world”, I believe that it is a fundamental failure of our education system to not educate our students on these hard realities. Not giving zeroes only promotes a lack of personal responsibility and leaves the onus on teachers to chase after students. When teachers in Edmonton schools likely have to look after about 100 students, this can be a daunting task for already overworked teachers.

Interestingly, there is no empirical evidence for the no-zero policy. The Calgary-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy recently published a paper, Zero Support for No Zero Policies, which outlines the alleged support for no-zero practices is almost entirely anecdotal and based upon circular referencing within the field of educational theory. Ken O’Connor, one of the biggest advocates of the no-zero grading practice, openly admits that there is no research to back his position up.

One of the ramifications of no-zero grading is that it promotes grade inflation and pushes more students towards graduation – whether deserved or not. According to the Fraser Institute’s 2012 report on Alberta high schools, the difference between the school-awarded grade at Ross Sheppard versus the standardized diploma grade has increased – from 3.6% in 2007 (before the no-zero policy was instituted under Bradley) to 5.8% in 2011 (after the policy was in place). This might be a concern to some, but in a province where school funding is tied to graduation rates, and the EPSB superintendent has pledged to reach a 100% graduation rate, it is not surprising that administrators do not see a problem.

Mike Tachynski, another Shep teacher currently facing disciplinary action for giving zeroes rather than following Mr. Bradley’s grading scheme, told Edmonton trustees that he had 45 students make up 164 different assignments when he reverted back to zeroes, whereas only 2 students did when behaviour codes were handed out. Retired Shep teacher Doug Senuik has also voiced disapproval at the policy, saying he too faced disciplinary action prior to his retirement.

It is unfortunate to see my former high school dragged through the mud, to have its reputation tarnished in both the local and national media. I and other former Shep students have kept in touch with our teachers there – morale is dangerously low, and many teachers are attempting to transfer to other schools. It dismays me that the superintendent has punished Mr. Dorval, when the focus should in fact be upon Principal Bradley for implementing a fundamentally wrong policy with an iron fist with no input from a teaching staff with years of experience, while punishing any dissent.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story, and one not often reported, is the huge amount of public support that has gathered around Dorval and against the no-zero policy. It has repeatedly become a trending topic for Edmonton on Twitter, and became a widely-shared story on Facebook. James Hoffman, my close friend and valedictorian of our graduating class, started a petition website, www.bringbackdorval.com, which garnered over 1,000 signatures in only 24 hours. Jacob Garber, a current Ross Shep student, started his own petition within the school last year. A new Facebook group, created explicitly about removing the no-zero policy, has gained the support of nearly 500 people, many of whom are students. I must say that it gives me some faith in today’s high school students that they are actually standing up for a higher standard of education.

As for Mr. Dorval, he’s just been hired to teach at Tempo School, an elite private school in Riverbend that does give zeroes. Unfortunately, the no-zero policy remains in effect at Ross Sheppard and a handful of other Edmonton high schools. The board of trustees for Edmonton public is currently in the midst of a multi-month review of assessment practices. One can hope that they realize that it is better to mark accurately than on unfounded and untested theories.

What do you think about this contentious topic? Zeroes or no zeroes? Voice your opinion in the comments section below.

Graeme Archibald is a fourth-year Political Science Honors student who once watched Mr. Dorval light his bench on fire. You can follow him on Twitter at @gajarchibald to see him retweet other people because he’s not creative to come up with his own tweets.

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  • There should be zero grading to begin with.

  • Elliot Rose

    Teachers can’t give 100’s and they can’t give 0’s..