Alberta’s most unlikely hero, Physics teacher Lynden Dorval, has finally been vindicated. Two years after he was fired in September 2012 by the Edmonton Public Schools for giving his high school students zeros for incomplete work, an Alberta appeal tribunal ruled on August 29, 2014 that he was “unfairly dismissed” and restored his lost salary and pension. There is justice, it seems, in the education world. The bigger question is – how did it happen and will it encourage more teachers to stand-up against eroding educational standards?
The Physics teacher at Ross Sheppard High School, was a 33-year veteran with an “unblemished” teaching record. He stood his ground when a new Principal arrived and intervened to end the common practice of teaching students a valuable life lesson – failing to hand in an assignment or missing a test without a valid reason – would result in a mark of zero. In Dorval’s case, he even gave students fair warning and a second chance before taking that step. It worked because Dorval , according to the tribunal, had “the best record in the school and perhaps the province for completion rates.”
The “no zeros” issue came to a head when the school’s computer generated reports were programmed to substitute “blanks” for zeros, eliminating the practice. Dorval considered banning zeros “a stupid idea” and said he “simply couldn’t follow it.” Two other teachers did the same but escaped any repercussions.
The Alberta tribunal’s decision supported Dorval because he had raised very legitimate questions about whether the policy was good for students. In the wording of the decision, “the school board did not act reasonably in suspending the teacher. The implementation of the new assessment policy has several demonstrable problems.” Specifically, since there was “no accountability or penalty for missing assignments in the new policy, there was little incentive for a student to actually complete the assignment.”
The written ruling was particularly harsh in its criticism of the principal and former superintendent Edgar Schmidt. It agreed that Dorval was made an example for challenging the principal’s authority and found that the policy was imposed without proper consultation with teachers, students, or parents. Even more telling, the tribunal was very critical of the Edmonton board for denying Dorval due process during its September 2012 dismissal hearing.
The sheer idiocy of the Edmonton Public Schools student assessment policy was clear to most outside the system. Faced with a groundswell of resistance, the Edmonton board of elected trustees itself backtracked, approving a revised student assessment policy (protecting the Lynden Dorvals) and explicitly allowing zero as a possible mark.
School system Student Evaluation policy remains a total mystery to most parents and to tuned-in high school students. Over the past two decades, provincial testing programs and school-based student evaluation have been moving in opposite directions.
Provincial tests such as the Ontario EQAO assessments hold students accountable for measuring up to criteria-referenced standards, while school board consultants promote the new “Assessment for Learning” (AfL) theories, pushing-up graduation rates through a combination of “no fail” and “do-over” student evaluation practices. Defenders of such ‘soft, pass everyone’ practices like AfL consultant Damian Cooper tend to see enforcing higher standards as a dire threat to student self-esteem.
Public school authorities have a way of silencing independently-minded teachers and many pay a professional price for openly expressing dissenting views. A small number of those educators stumble upon Canadian independent schools which generally thrive on giving teachers the freedom to challenge students and to actually teach. Thousands of public school teachers just accept the limits on freedom of expression, soldier on and mutter, below their breath, “I’m a teacher, so I’m not allowed to have an opinion.”
Why did Lynden Dorval become an Alberta teacher hero? It comes down to this: He said “No” to further erosion of teacher autonomy and standards.