Skip to main content

A funny thing happened to Lynden Dorval, a mild-mannered physics teacher at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton.

He's become a folk hero.

Mr. Dorval, 61, has spent 35 years in the classroom. He has a reputation as an able and respected teacher. His principal and his school board, on the other hand, regard him as a troublemaker. A week and a half ago, the school board, at the principal's request, took the highly unusual step of suspending him for unprofessional behaviour and for "negatively impacting student achievement."

Did they catch him smoking dope with students? Letting them skip class? Slipping neo-Nazi propaganda into the lesson plan? No, no, and no. What he did was worse than that. He gave them zeroes. Zero on a quiz if they missed it without a good excuse; zero on assignments they never handed in.

A zero-tolerance policy toward zeroes is among the many fads that have swept the education system. This progressive notion holds that students should be graded only on the work they do, and not be penalized for the work they don't do. The theory is that if you punish them for bad behaviour, they might get too demoralized and just give up. The reality, argues Mr. Dorval, is that students respond to incentives just like the rest of us. Once they realize there are no consequences for slacking off, a certain number will slack off.

Mr. Dorval's principal, Ron Bradley, brought in the no-zeroes policy a year and a half ago. Mr. Dorval disagreed with it, so he kept dispensing zeroes. Students could erase them by simply completing the work. This grading policy has been amazingly effective. "If I give someone a zero I show how it will affect his final mark. They come up to me and say, 'Please, when can I make up this quiz?' I put the onus on them. By the end of the year, my zeroes are almost non-existent."

The physics teacher says a lot of other teachers also disagreed with the new marking policy. But they were too intimidated to speak up. He's nearing retirement so he figured he has less to lose. Despite repeated reprimands, he persisted, until he was summoned to a meeting with the school board and sent home to await his fate. He says he expects to be terminated.

No-fail grading policies (which have been tried, and abandoned, in many other places) arose from the same self-esteem movement that brought us prizes for all. The idea is that kids who feel good about themselves will succeed. The problem is that they will eventually encounter the real world, where self-esteem won't get you far if you don't show up or do the work. Politicians and school boards also like no-fail policies because they are desperate to improve graduation rates. That's a real problem in Edmonton, where young men have a habit of dropping out to take lucrative jobs in the oil patch. Edmonton's education superintendent has boasted that his goal is to increase graduation rates to 100 per cent.

Fortunately, the public doesn't want Mr. Dorval fired. They want to give him a medal. After he went public with his story last week, talk-show phone lines began ringing off the hook. School trustees and the Education Minister were flooded with angry e-mail. The response shows just how out of touch the education establishment is with public opinion. When the Edmonton Journal ran an online poll asking readers whether teachers should be allowed to give zeroes, it was deluged with votes – more than 12,000 at last count. Nearly 97 per cent of respondents said yes.