Should We Give "Zero" As A Grade?

"How does allowing a student to opt out of a program to provide him or her with assistance teach responsibility? If a student is truly going to enter a sink-or-swim situation in higher education, the best preparation is to teach the student to swim — to provide the student with the knowledge, skills and habits essential to success in that situation — rather than allow the student to sink first in high school", Richard DuFour writes in his book In Praise of American Educators: And How They Can Become Even Better. Jay Mathews of the Washington Post took notice of this statement and called it "brilliant" in his column on education. But there is one comment that caught my attention on Mathews' article. Part of it says "We make too many excuses in modern America, we give too many second chances. Penalties and consequences exist for a reason. Carrots alone don't work, you need the stick too. And sometimes people need to hit bottom before they get better. There is nothing more pernicious in education than this self-esteem crap and we need to get rid of that and start making our kids stronger by telling them the truth when they're messing up." Hitting rock bottom is one of those sound bites often used by some to give advice for recovery. It is a wrong advice. Even with drug addiction, David Sheff says, "Waiting for someone to hit rock bottom is a dangerous concept. Experts advise parents of it, but the reality is that studies show people who are coerced into treatment by way of their parents or even the legal system have an equal chance of doing well as those who ‘choose’ to be there." Hope presupposes a glimpse of success and can not emanate from unmitigated darkness.

Above copied from Solution Tree
Basic education is an appropriate place for second chances, even third or fourth ones. Skills required to overcome challenges in later life need to be developed in the elementary and high school years. Most of these skills are not acquired the first time they are taught. DuFour is correct in emphasizing that opportunities should be given to students to foster these skills. Giving a student a "zero" does not teach anything especially if all it does is to close doors of opportunity. The fact is some students do sink in college. And research shows that at this stage of education, interventions designed to help struggling students often do not work.

In a paper published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, researchers find that neither self-esteem bolstering nor boosting self-control and responsibility help students struggling in college.

Above copied from Forsyth et al.
As the above abstract suggests, such interventions actually correlate with even lower academic performance. But what is important to see in this work is that the correlation between a positive attitude, responsibility, and self control, and good academic performance is most probably a cause and effect relationship, but not in the direction we normally presume. The reason behind the correlation is that good academic performance often boosts one's self-esteem, sense of responsibility, and self control. And perhaps, only when this happens at least once in this direction that the reverse direction, self-esteem boosting academic performance work can occur. DuFour is correct in emphasizing that we give elementary and high school students ample opportunities to develop habits, skills and knowledge to overcome setbacks. This, of course, is possible only with second chances.