Academic ‘Participation Trophies’ – Good or Bad?

Diane Tirado, an eighth-grade history teacher at Westgate K-8 School in Port St. Lucie, Florida, gave her students two weeks to complete an assignment. Students who failed to turn in any work received a zero in her grade book.

Diane, who had been teaching for 17 years prior to starting at Port St. Lucie in 2018, believes she was fired for refusing to comply with the school’s alleged policy of no grade lower than a 50%. Admin claims, however, that Diane was released from her duties for substandard performance.

A school spokesperson said the school’s grading policy does not prohibit a teacher from recording a zero for work not turned in. However, a document to the contrary, alleged to be taken from the school handbook, later surfaced:


Whether or not Diane was fired due to poor job performance or simply for refusing to comply with a No Zero policy is beyond the scope/focus of this Discussion Board. The incident, however, does illustrate two distinctly polarized philosophies…

Awarding kids credit for just showing up to class is an example of a trend known as the Participation Trophy. The premise claims that rewarding kids for participating on any level will boost their self-esteem and self-confidence. Those who support Participation Trophies believe zeros contribute to a “loser” stigma, while Participation Trophies allow kids the recognition needed to foster motivation to improve. Opponents of Participation Trophies maintain that giving credit for just showing up sends a message contrary to how the real world works, and furthermore unfavorably dishonors those students who do the honest work to earn grades.

ISR asks:  What’s YOUR take on Participation Trophies in regard to academic achievement? In your opinion, do Participation Trophies for simply occupying a classroom seat, foster self-esteem and future motivation? Or do they demotivate kids into doing little to no work? Showing up and participating in a 5-K run comes with a T-shirt and/or a Participation Trophy, and rightly so. Should sitting idle in a classroom, refusing to do any work at all, fall into the same category?

Comments? Please scroll down participate in this ISR Discussion

30 thoughts on “Academic ‘Participation Trophies’ – Good or Bad?

  1. This article is missing significant portions of the story. Yes, she gave students zeroes. Yes, she was in violation of the policy. Yes, she was let go. All true.

    However, she was a teacher in her first year of her contract on probation. She could have been let go for any reason whatsoever. She was not fired, she was released from her contract because the district could do that. Call it fired if you want, the district wouldn’t.

    Yes, the policy is a poor one. But the story here blends it all together. 50% is still failing, but mitigates the issue of a failing student and isn’t as damaging as a zero. The policy is poor, period.

    But this isn’t a participation trophy. The students still failed at 50%. They had a chance to redeem it, but it is a failure. A participation trophy is given for showing up. This is not the same thing.

    As for the participation trophy, I am opposed to them. They do not support student growth and development. They do not support effort.


  2. I think many people including many teachers (including the writer of this article) confuse the two things together. Recognizing risk taking vs cheating for students when recording grades are two different things. I’m assuming many of you are IB teachers. Is bravery when risking embarrassment and failure not a desirable trait? Faking grades so a student passes is completely a different thing altogether.


  3. It is an insult to the students who work hard to achieve.
    Meaning always follows the grade received. Students will understand that 50% is equivalent to a fail. So 50 is the new 0!


  4. Has no one heard of the phrase ‘tough love’?
    Yes, we have to care for our students. Yes we have yo be role models. Yes, we have to support them to do their best. But NO – we MUST show them that it is THEIR efforts that will get them through life – to be successful. Participation trophies are self defeating. We need to show those in our care how to be successful, not shield them from failure. Educate them for the teal tough and wonderful world out there.


  5. Why allow anyone to get a zero? All work must be completed. Incomplete in unacceptable – stay in at lunch, recess, or after school and hand in the completed assignment.


    1. Your plan would punish the teacher…IF…they can even do that to/with a student ! Re-design the assignment to include individual, pair and group work with ‘differentiated’ (students choose how to represent their learning) work product and for heavens sake DO during a portion of supervised class time ! Anything else is just make work-which may also be irrelevant-for the student and their parents (who often do the work for their child at home) ! If something is relevant to a student and they do in small chunks during class time with peers and their teacher-most will do something worth at least 50%…otherwise why send your child to class? By the way…before I am criticized…I base this on 30+ years of teaching and a Masters in Curriculum Development …

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The elephant in the room is NOT whether the grading of zero is counter-productive or the minimum 50% for existing is promoting ¨self-esteem¨ but rather is the concept of giving a fixed number to represent a student’s mastery of the subject inherently spurious and fallacious!

    This debate has been going on since James’ treatise in 1917 decrying the ¨factory¨ model of education. What is a fair,representative and easily understood system that offers clarity,accuracy, predictability and reliability?

    When I taught, I used a system of progressive challenges with no grades but graduated challenges to a student, whose progress was ¨measured¨ in their displaying mastery of increasingly difficult and complex assignments. For example, in maths, every student would start out with the basic number functions (addition,subtraction etc.) and progress to the next step with complex multiplications and divisions) and then the next step mastering fractions,percentages and


  7. I ask my reachers to record a “zero” for work not submitted. It lets students and parents know immediately the effect of not submitting an assignment or project, or not completing an assessment. The immediately recorded zero (which can be amended when the task is turned in/completed) has improved student follow up and follow through at my school.


  8. The issue of giving zeros is more complicated than it appears on its surface. Many “grading and homework” authors (Wormeli, Vatterott, etc.) and researchers (Guskey, Erikson, O’Connor, Reeves, etc.) clearly point this out and demonstrate the inherent unfairness, punitive outcomes, and academic disconnect related to giving zeros. Simply put, if points associated with letter grades were on a 5-point, 12-point, or 50-point scale, then zeros for F carry the same weight as A, B, C,and D (A+, A, A-, B+…respectively). A 100 point scale that gives Fs a weight of 0-59 points versus the 10 point weight of A,B,C, and D is faulty; therein lay the punitive and inherent unfairness of zeros.

    Why is this so difficult to understand and/or accept? Perhaps some old school teachers and administrators don’t like to give up their archaic grading system because that’s how they were graded, that’s how they always graded, and can’t admit they perhaps are wrong. Perhaps some teachers and administrators don’t read and/or understand research, think they know better, or want to “teach” kids life lessons. Perhaps human nature adapts to change ever so slowly. Let’s examine the research showing the increased risk of lung cancer and smoking as an example. Despite multiple years of study and conclusions, people STILL choose to smoke..I’d giver them a big fat zero on that behavior.

    Perhaps if the grading policy shown in the article would have been a 50-point scale, this particular controversy could have been avoided. On a larger scale, the need for collaborative, thoughtful, research-based discussions and decision-making with regard to grading, homework, attendance, and instructional expectations needs to continue.

    Lastly, perhaps it is a life lesson to discover if you ignore policy, you may pay a price. One that earns you a zero in salary.


    1. I think the argument is that a 0% weighs more than a 100% on an A,B,C,D,F grading scale. If you get a 0% and then get 5 75% scores, you fail with a 62.5%. That is not reflective of the student’s abilities. The student obviously has partial mastery or basic understandings, but the 62.5% indicates they have not mastered the content at all. If the student has a 50% plus 5 75%, they pass with a 70%.

      You cannot assess something that hasn’t been submitted. At most, you are assessing participation, irresponsibility, or defiance, but that’s not content and a grade should reflect mastery of conflict. Give a different grade for participation. It’s important in terms of the whole child and their development, but it muddies the waters to include it in the content mastery score.

      There are also good arguments against using homework to assess mastery. I wouldn’t do it because I don’t know how much help the tutor has given. Back home, some of my students were in situations where doing homework was not conducive to learning or demonstrating learning. For example, one girl once came to school with no books or supplies because her apartment was a crime scene and she was not allowed entry to retrieve her book bag. She’d had to leave in the middle of the night when shots were fired in her home and her uncle had been injured. (The fact that she came to school the next day reveals a lot about the sort of life she regularly lived and how school was the only respite from that.)

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Sorry. I misread your question. I don’t think this was meant to be an argument for awarding a zero. I read it as an argument not to award a zero, hence my previous reply.


    3. I was clearly more tired than I thought. I meant I didn’t understand the argument against awarding a zero. I do now!


  9. When a school Handbook misuses apostrophes and evidently is printed in varying font-sizes within the same subtitle, any teacher should be instantly concerned about who they are dealing with in the Administration sector…!
    Participation rewards are anathema to motivation. If people – especially kids – can receive something for doing nothing more than showing up (and in some cases not even that) – a culture of entitlement develops and we are seeing that displayed loud and true in recent years.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. My current school so sugarcoats school reports that many primary students hit secondary school unable to read, write, do math, etc. Every child is a gifted star performing fantastically beyond anything humanly possible. Failure to participate in this charade results in non-renewal of contract. Yes there is credit for being a live body, paying the expensive tuition or having wealthy, powerful parents. Teachers must always smile. Everything must be stated the way it would be ideally instead of reflecting reality. If little Johnny is hitting someone we must say, “Johnny nice job standing in line with your hands to yourself.” The report would read “Johnny is learning to explore the environment around him by using his hands working in collaboration with peers.” I kid you not. Ridiculous and when contract is completed I am leaving.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I prefer standards based reporting. Letter or numerical marks are outdated/ A numerical/letter mark does not give the full picture-period.


  12. 50% is still an F and results in the same GPA calculation as a 0. This was an issue of policy vs pride. While I don’t agree with the schools decision, it’s a shame she was unwilling to compromise. I don’t consider a 50% a participation trophy award because it still results in the same outcome as no credit at all.


  13. Participation Trophy is loaded language, and this article completely misrepresents the trend. Grades are meant to represent content mastery. Nonparticipation is a behavioral issue, not a reflection of content mastery, and should be addressed as such. The 50 “free” points at issue here are just a scale adjustment so no one unit or term letter grade (mastery indicator) dominates the overall grade average. Notice if a student has the unit grades 0 (F), 70 (C-), 94 (A), 92 (A), 89 (B+), the mean (69/D+) is wildly different than the median (B+) and mode (A); it does not accurately reflect the student’s overall performance. If you change that 0 to a 50 (still F), the mean comes closer to median and mode, at 79/C+. Ideally grades would be replaced by descriptors, but such a major change is difficult in practice. Scale correction is a step in the right direction.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. According to all the press accounts of this old story, Tirado wrote the following on her classroom whiteboard before walking out: “Bye kids. Mrs. Tirado loves you and wishes you the best in life! I have been fired for refusing to give you a 50 percent for not handing anything in. Mrs. Tirado.”

    I can’t imagine a happier group of children when they walked in and saw that note! Her whole story is a lesson on the differences between having a professional educator in the room and a “teacher”. If one reads everything Tirado said, it makes total sense why the school board had to get rid of her.


    1. Hmmm, an International Educator for 25 years eh? And, looking at your comment, someone who thinks all is well and dandy in ‘international’ teaching. Others, no doubt in your eyes people much less worthy than yourself, might well disagree with you!


  15. I’m torn on this issue. I don’t teach in a school where we give percentage grades, so it doesn’t come up here. Certainly there are times when a student does not submit the summative task and therefore cannot receive a grade on it, but as we do not average grades in my current school. Rather we apply descriptions to the student’s performance on various criteria. That we can still give a grade that reflects the student’s abilities and effectiveness based on what they have demonstrated throughout the marking period. So even with a 0 on one assessment, if we have evidence of the student’s level of mastery of that criteria, we can assign a grade accordingly. It’s a “best fit” scenario.

    But, in my first school 30 years ago, we did give the traditional percentage scores. We based reports on an average of grades, and we had a similar policy. At first I was horrified. How could I give a student 60% (our lowest threshold) for doing nothing!?! But it made sense on some level. The way grades were figured, if a student made below a 60% in the first semester of a course, it was impossible to bring that grade up to a passing score for the year. Therefore, the student need not make any effort. They had already failed for the year. Talk about potential behavior problems in a school where behavior problems were already the stuff of nightmares. (Think of a Hollywood movie about a teacher overcoming the negative influences on her students to motivate them to achieve beyond anyone’s expectations. Think about the behaviors of those students. Now forget it because those students were angels compared to the students at my first school and several subsequent schools.)

    I think the problem is in the way the school assesses students. In light of the above, descriptors make so much more sense, but they are also way more subjective, and that’s another issue. Having said that, all assessments are arbitrary to some extent, so always subjective on some level. Even standardized multiple-choice tests are subjective in what understanding they assess.


  16. When I asked our admin what was the difference between someone who took an assessment and scored a 50% and someone who did none of the work and scored the same they backed off. I do a lot of project based summative assessments so if a student chooses not to do it, I have nothing to assess, which means a 0. Furthermore, we do not accept any late formative assessments after the summative assessment because that would just be compliance for a grade rather than a serious effort at learning.


    1. What would a college professor award for not completing/handing in an assignment?

      I would imagine that learning to fail in a K-12 environment and bouncing back, would be far more beneficial than learning those life lessons in college!


    2. “I would imagine that learning to fail in a K-12 environment and bouncing back, would be far more beneficial than learning those life lessons in college!”

      Learning to fail? Surely you did not mean this. Nobody learns to fail unless we teach them to do so. How about we teach responsibility by refusing to accept not completing work/assignments? Giving a 0 or an F for not turning something in is the easy solution and doesn’t require the teacher to follow up with what they thought was important enough to assign.

      “Bouncing back?” If a child didn’t understand the assignment in the first place, if the home environment is s#it, if the reason for not turning in the assignment is learning disability-related, etc., how does a child “bounce back” without teacher guidance? Teachers who give Fs and 0s without regard to giving a child a chance to recover from this, to relearn (or learn for the first time) the material, who just move on with a “that will teach them what happens in real life” attitude do an excellent job of teaching students to fail.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Making one piece of work such high stakes in terms of assessment is never good educational practice in any case but awarding a grade of 50% for no work is not either. Schools that adhere to assessment policies and procedures such as this have not moved with the times in terms of ongoing assessment and if they insist that there be only one culminating piece of work without any formative assessment, then they are creating a situation where teachers may be forced to give ‘zeros’. One question, before this grade went out, what did the Head of Department say when they checked the reports and/or was there any checking of student progress during the task and/or parents informed that there was a risk of failure? All goes back to the school’s assessment practices.


    1. …and ridiculous. What do the first 50 points mean? Nothing. At a minimum the work should be marked out of 50 if the first 50% is just for showing up.


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