Friday, June 8, 2012

No-zero grading policies and workplace safety

I usually try to keep these blog posts to employment issues, but I find myself compelled to comment on the “no zero” policy debate currently going on within (and around) the Edmonton Public School Board.

The gist is that a high-school teacher was suspended for failing to comply with a policy prohibiting him from giving a student a zero on an incomplete assignment, even after giving the student multiple opportunities to hand in the assignment.

Cue public outrage and a spirited debate.

An interesting dynamic I see is that there are really two discussions going on. One discusses the technical merits of the policy. This debate focuses on whether a zero is an accurate (rather than adequate) response to failing to complete an assignment. That is to say, experts are defending the policy as an effort to distinguish intellectual achievement from behaviour. 

Defenders also emphasize the are multiple reasons why students might not turn in an assignment. For example, in today’s Journal, a defender of the no-zero policy discusses a good student, driven by family poverty to work and thus consider dropping out because she could never complete all of the assignments.  This is a sympathetic story. Yet, I don’t think the solution to family poverty lies with child labour and a “no zero” grading policy… .

The other side of the debate is effectively a political discussion about public support for a policy that appears to not hold students accountable for failing to complete assigned work. The gist is that, in “the real world”, if you don’t do your work, you get canned (unless you're a CEO...).  Employers don’t bother to distinguish between achievement and behaviour and we should acculturate students to that reality.

There are merits to both sides of this argument (I give zeros, for what it is worth).

My sense is that this policy is going to go down in flames, in large part because the EPSB has ignored that policy making is both a technical act and a political one. Often technically optimal decisions are political disasters. In a small group of like-minded people, such political considerations can be overlooked (or dismissed, often with distain).

This happens all the time in employment situations. My own employer offers a good (or bad) example. We’re a distributed workplace (i.e. most of us work from home). This aids in recruitment, saves about $3500 per year per person in office space, and I can wear my bath… errr… “academic robe” to work.

The university recently announced all teleworkers would need to sign a new “home office checklist” that focuses on workplace safety. Those who don’t comply (presumably) will jeopardize their teleworking status (although where would the university put us all if we decided to come to work?).

The checklist is fascinating. On the surface, it appears quite reasonable (i.e., makes technical sense to an HR person who doesn’t work from home). But some thought immediately identifies a number of issues. In no particular order:
  1. Workers are expected to post emergency numbers and an evacuation plan in their home offices. Do I really need to write down the number for 911? Do I really need to diagram an evacuation plan that is “go out the front door” (which I can see from my desk)?
  2. Workers are expected to have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors as well as fire extinguishers in their offices. I have these things in my house, but the detectors are near the bedrooms (because smoke and the effects of CO are evident if you are awake) and the fire extinguisher is near the stove (the primary fire hazard in the house).  The policy requires me to either buy additional equipment (which the employer will not pay for) or move existing equipment (making my home less safe!).
  3.  I am required to have a Type 1 first aid kit in my home. The key difference between a Personal and a Type 1 kit is a resuscitation mouth-piece with one-way valve. Teleworkers work alone and cannot resuscitate themselves (unless my understanding of anatomy is out of date).
  4.  I must periodically contact my supervisor to tell her I’m not dead. For those home workers who live alone, there is some merit to this. The majority of home workers, though, live with someone. Having me phone my supervisor during each shift to say “I’m not dead yet” is a ridiculous requirement. If I don't call in, is she going to mount a rescue (from her home office)? If I'm truly dead, what will it matter? And the list goes on… .

Setting aside the practical issues I’ve raised, this policy makes good technical sense for the employer. We sign it and the employer limits its liability for injury.

Politically, though, this is new policy is a disaster. While the employer is telling us safety is important, the employer is also telling us that our safety is not important enough for the employer to pay for it (listen carefully for the sound of morale dropping--it's the screaming sound you hear). 

Coupled with the impractical requirements, the vast majority of my colleagues are simply ignoring this requirement. Issuing orders that people won’t follow is stupid because it weakens the employer’s authority--which is already pretty shaky.

In this way, my employer has made the same mistake as the EPSB—it has implemented a policy that almost anyone could have predicted would be rejected by those whom it affects. Such public bumbling damaged the organization’s credibility. This is an important lesson for HR and policy wonks everywhere.

-- Bob Barnetson


  1. The no-zero policy reaction could be viewed as a "Change" issue more than anything, outside of given ZEROs has no know proven educational value. When I was in school, way back when, and, in the good old days, all great one liners but as useless as a 0, in anything other that a pay check or math equation. You cannot mark what you do not get, so saying the work is worth nothing, assumes you have seen the work and determined it does not meet any learning outcome, of course, hat means you saw something. Giving a zero for not handed in, is impossible as it assumesan appraisal of value without actually having the work to evaluate

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