How to Motivate High School Students?

Washington Post Story

We've obviously talked a lot in the Rockmann household about this new policy of not giving zeros in the classroom.  One of the claims that is made in favor of this policy is that it helps give students hope to improve when they get a 50% rather than a zero because a zero makes them think that it is mathematically impossible for them to pass.  

Here's one problem with that statement - there is no evidence that this represents the cognitions of a significant number of high school students.  That is, how realistic is it that students miss an assignment (getting a zero), and subsequently "give up" when they begin to do math in their head?  To me this is incredibly far-fetched.  High school kids hate math!  

Second, even if this unconscious calculation were to take place in a kid's mind, it presumes that the child is a motivated actor who would in fact do the work were they to believe that doing the work would result in a pass.  In motivation theory we call this instrumentality - the belief that if I do the work at a certain level (complete the assignment) I will get the reward (passing grade).  The gaping hole in this new policy, however, is that teachers are already managing instrumentality for the kids that are motivated by helping them to see that if they do the work they will be rewarded.  Are teachers really saying "Hey Joey, just forget about that zero assignment - you're probably doomed anyway because of the math?"  I simply find it hard to believe that teachers are not already encouraging those kids that are motivated to not only complete assignments where zeros were earned, but rewarding those kids for their persistence!  That is, this new policy is aimed at fixing a problem which likely doesn't exist!  

Third, as noted in the article, there are major perverse incentives in this policy, namely that kids can game the system by doing far less work and "passing" as long as they show "reasonable effort" on assignments and rack up the 50 percents. Is this the lesson we want our kids to learn?  

I find it a bit unnerving that this is the problem we are trying to solve instead of the problem of why the kids aren't doing the assignments in the first place.  Whether a kid gets a zero or a 50% is in some ways irrelevant - what is more important is that the parent along with the teacher or the counselor are asking that kid what is going on and providing some attention to diagnose why the child is not completing his or her work.  I fear that with more 50 percents instead of zeros parents will be less likely to notice problems and will not intervene.