Recently, an Orlando middle school teacher went viral for posting her goodbye letter to students in dramatic fashion on a whiteboard. She says she was fired for giving students zeros for homework not turned in (which was reportedly against district policy), while the district maintains her performance was subpar and has alleged physical abuse. No matter who you believe, the news has captured the attention of many.

The debate has been reignited: are zeros appropriate? 

And if we’re not handing out zeros, what, exactly, ARE we handing out? 

As a teacher myself, let me give you the lowdown: schools in America are changing. I know you’re wildly surprised to hear this, but kids just aren’t the same as we were growing up. Learning styles have evolved, and research—true, real, good research—has shown that perhaps we’ve had it wrong all along.

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We all managed to survive a school system that had the traditional 0-100 percent grading scale with correlating letter grades A-F. But what if we shifted our perspective from numerical grading to standards grading? A quick Google search of standards-based grading will show this model is being adopted in many school districts across the United States. 

The focus is beginning to shift away from numbers, and more importance is being placed on actual student learning. Which, you know, is why they’re in their chairs to begin with. 

To learn.

Somewhere, in a meeting with provided water and stale grocery store cookies, a group of well-educated people got together and decided what the standard of learning should be for each content area. In Nebraska, the State Department allowed teachers to sit in on these meetings. Each grade level, and each core content area (math, science, reading, etc.) has it’s own set of standards. 

In a standards-based school system, your child is graded on these standards. A scale system will be in place—like a 1, 2, 3, or 4. Four is “advanced” and 1 is “needs improvement” or “still learning”. 

What does that mean? Your child could sit at a 2 all semester long, trying, trying, practicing, and practicing. Then, magically before Christmas, his brain development might catch up—and maybe multiplication will finally click. Then, the teacher would afford your student a 3 or 4. 

Do you see what happened there? Less emphasis was placed on the grade, and more emphasis was placed on whether or not the student actually understood

Now, before you get angry in the comments, there are some killer kinks to work out, just like with any new system. Mostly, people are concerned about effort. And more often than not, that argument sounds a whole bunch like this: if a kid doesn’t turn something in, he doesn’t get a zero? So why would he turn ANYTHING in? 

Educators hear you. Loud and clear, we hear you. 

Here’s the deal though: standards-based grading cuts out a ton of crap. You remember those color-by-numbers? Word searches? Crosswords? Do those have any real educational value? Not really. Does a child’s grade need to plummet because he or she doesn’t find all of the words in a Halloween word search?

That’s a definite no.

Because we’ve got real, true standards to base our learning on, the copious amounts of filler work (worksheets, mainly) get pushed to the recycle bin. Instead, we go right to the heart of the matter—and to what should’ve been important all along: 

Learning.

The things students ARE turning in are important, necessary artifacts that prove they have mastered concepts. That means Suzy and Timmy and whomever else don’t get to NOT turn something in. It’s simply unacceptable. 

You heard me.

Unacceptable

Because we’ve cut out the word searches and other hoopla from our classrooms, we’ve got a little more time to focus on what truly matters: learning.

Our expectations have effectively been raised. 

Some schools have even gone as far as adopting a citizenship grade. This scale covers positivity in the classroom, self-control, manners, and punctuality. Things like kindness, humility, and yes, even effort are found within the descriptors of the 1-4 point rubric. 

Maybe the Orlando teacher was fired because she refused to submit to the no zero grading policy of the district (which is somewhat ironic, if you think about it). Or maybe there really is a deeper story there. Regardless, the conversations between stakeholders (that’s you, parents), teachers, administrators, and the people who that make all the laws need to continue.

Education is an ever-changing landscape, but one thing will always be certain: your child’s learning will be the top priority in every teacher’s classroom.

Rebecca Cooper

Rebecca Cooper-Thumann is an English teacher in a sleepy town in the midwest. She has published four novels and is currently working on a fifth. She has a precocious four-year-old son, she loves nachos and Jesus, and she tries to live her life every day rooted in courage and joy.