“No Zeros Until…”

zeroSeveral months ago, after much reflection, examination of school data, and conversations with a few teachers, I asked my teachers to not assign a zero to any student until they intervene in some way; talk with the student to find out why they did not turn in the assignment, call a parent to let them know an assignment was missed, do something before recording a zero in the grade book.
There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth, meetings after the meeting, some cheers and head nods, and every other emotion imaginable. I should not have been surprised because the timing of my proclamation was bad (criticism well deserved), but I was. I was surprised because we’ve had some high quality professional development over the last decade or so that includes Total Quality Management by David Langford, Differentiated Instruction, Understanding by Design, Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships, and Professional Learning Communities including the Pyramid of Intervention all in addition to creating common assessments and learning targets. With all that knowledge, I figured we were ready to look more closely at why we still automatically assign zeros for missed assignments. Well, like most things, some were ready and thankful while others were… not so much. Ah, the controversy of grades continues.

Doug Reeves, Thomas Guskey, David Langford, and Ken O’Conner among others have researched this for years and have thoroughly explained why zeros create a huge hole for students to dig themselves out of. So why assign them, especially on a 100 point scale. It’s not as damaging if using a 4 or 5 point scale. However, the point is to find out why a student did not turn in an assignment and if the assignment is important to their learning, then why wouldn’t we want it turned in? Just intervene…

Some of the arguments against this reasoning have been:
“We are not teaching students to be responsible if we allow them to turn in work late.”
“They are not going to be prepared for college and the real world because deadlines are deadlines. Period.”
“We are teaching students to be lazy and to procrastinate.”

I understand these arguments, but I don’t necessarily agree with them. Learning is a continuous process and real world deadlines are flexible. There are deadlines and penalties, but companies want their payments regardless if it’s on time or not. A deadline is a deadline, but they want to be paid.

Okay, back to my point. Once the dust settled and there was further clarification, many teachers began extending deadlines, talking with students about missed assignments, and examining the assignments they were giving to students. As a result, we had the largest number of incompletes at the end of each quarter than ever before. This may not sound like a point to celebrate, but it is because teachers were giving students chances and many responded.
After recently talking with a couple of my teachers while at a workshop I can see that there is still a need for more clarification about the expectations. For example, incompletes should not go on forever. After the teacher has intervened by talking with the student, contacting a parent, and/or assigning the student to the PASS Room for additional help, etc. and there has been no effort to complete the assignment, then a zero is warranted and it’s time to move on.
We are still working through a number of questions and concerns about the “No Zero Until…” guideline and I’m very excited that we are able to discuss this openly and honestly as a staff. Many agree, many disagree, and many are intervening with creative ideas. What are your thoughts about zeros for work not turned in? How do you handle this as a teacher or administrator?

Be Great,


10 thoughts on ““No Zeros Until…”

  1. First saw this over at Connected Principals. I’m very fond of this and have become a huge fan of the work of Danny Hill and Jayson Nave, The Power of ICU (http://poweroficu.com/). It’s drop dead, simple powerful – which is just one reason I’m a proponent of it. For another, it’s real world. I’ve run successful multi-million dollar businesses for over 30 years and I’ve hired hundreds of people, some of them having never learned to be accountable. I believe the no zeros rule is a step in the right direction in a world full of idealists who think by giving every kid a trophy, or by failing a kid who is disengaged – that some how, we’re serving them. We’re not. We’re only contributing to making matters worse. I applaud your direction.

  2. Dwight,

    This is a very progressive move you are making, and I really think it’s in the best interests of students…having said that, here are a few comments:

    – Any assignment worth assigning, should be completed…otherwise it wasn’t worth assigning.

    – By giving a zero we are allowing students to take the easy way out…they deserve better from us.

    – Irrelevant homework with no meaning or context is busy work…teachers need to evaluate the homework they are assigning.

    – A grade for completing homework says nothing about a student’s ability or content knowledge…what does the grade actually mean?

    – Does homework add value to the class? The answer might not be as obvious as many would think…

    Great post and good job of keeping us on our toes!

  3. Hi Randy,

    Thanks for the recommendation and for your comments. I will definitely get the book. It sounds very interesting. Grading is very personal and creates a great deal of passion when discussed. I do commend my teachers for being open to discussing and examining our practices. What I found was that many were already giving chances and basically not letting students off the hook with an zero!

    Be Great,


  4. Hi Justin,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment and for sharing your points. It has been quite the journey with a number of bumps and successes along the way.

    What I found is that many teachers have been doing this for years so it was not shock at all. In fact, they appreciated the move. Thanks again Justin! I really appreciate.

    Be Great,


  5. Deadlines are simply arbitrary dates set by the teacher. We all know that students learn at different rates so establishing inflexible deadlines fails to allow students more time if they require it. Assigning zeroes provides students an excuse for not completing work. As mentioned above, if a teacher assigns something it must be important an must b completed.
    I have heard many teachers say that deadlines are necessary in order to increase student responsibility. Interestingly enough, when a student receives a zero it does nothing to encourage them to complete the work. Inflexible deadlines and assigning zeros is all about ensuring compliance. What we should striving for is increased levels of engagement, higher levels of intrinsic motivation combined with students taking ownership of their learning.

    Dwight, good for you that you’re having these conversations with your staff. We are having similar conversations as well!


  6. A letter grade is intended to report on student achievement relative to a specific curriculum. To assign a zero for a late or missing assignment means the student knows nothing. That’s ridiculous. We also want to teach students good work habits and that they must live with the consequences of their actions but assigning a zero for late or missing assignments, or even for cheating, is the wrong consequence. Achievement and behaviour must be distinguished. Marks are not a reward, they are the teacher’s professional judgement about what has been learned. If the assignment is late that does not change what has been learned. It its missing then you have no idea what has been learned. In either case, assigning a zero is illogical and suggests that marks are a reward for behaviour instead of a measure of achievement. Late and missing assignments are a real problem that require a response and a consequence, but assigning a mark of zero is not it.

  7. I think it shows a great deal about the strong relationships that you have created with your staff members that you are even able to have these conversations with them (us). I am sure it will continue in August 🙂

  8. I love what you are doing. My admin is starting talks about grading too and I am excited. I like the 4 point scale with .5 steps. This allows me to give points that relate to letter grades and I can still give zeros. My zeros will not be as bad as those on a 100 point scale. I am starting this year grading with a 4 point scale in my algebra classes in a SBG system. If it works for me, I plan on using it with all my classes the following school year. Best of luck!

  9. Wow…I am really happy to have found this blog. I teach 7th grade ELA in a small middle school (+/-200 students). We are beginning this year with the ICU program. I anticipate the biggest conflict coming between the teachers who want to “teach them a lesson” and those that want them to learn. I am interested in the “flow” of the program at your school…from missing assignment to completion. Thanks.

  10. Hi Suzanne,

    Good luck with the implementation of the ICU program. Our philosophy about zeros is still a work in progress. No policies have been formally change, which creates some conflict. However, I believe it’s becoming more of a way we do business as opposed to something driven by rules and policies. I have to restate that we are not there yet. When a student does not turn in an assignment, some teachers will talk with the student, give the parent a call, and accept the assignment when it’s turned in. We also have an intervention in place called the PASS Room (Positive Assistance for Student Success) that administrators will assign to a student who is repeatedly missing assignments. It’s not punitive, but another way to assist students with completing assignments. Teachers are paid to facilitate the PASS Room a couple of days a week before school, after school, or on Saturdays. This took the place of our Study Table for athletics because we wanted to include all students. This will be our second year and one my teachers created some pretty cool Google Forms to help streamline the process and make us all more accountable to catching students before they fall through the cracks. We spend some time at the beginning of this school year exploring the Google Forms so that we are all familiar with the process. I think it’s going to be a huge success! I’ll keep you posted.

    Be Great,


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