Murray Siegel Maricopa
Murray Siegel [File]

Readers of this column may remember a primary academic goal in elementary school was learning the three R’s – Readin’, Ritin’ and Rithmetic. Today, a fourth R is requiredResponsibilitySeveral educators with vast experience in the elementary grades were queried and asked to detail problems they had observed and what can be done to improve student responsibility. 

One respondent mentioned her concern about a grading policy that mandated a grade of 50 be given to a student who submitted nothing for a graded assignment, allowing a student who failed to do anything to receive the same grade as a student who tried but failed. She feels this rule instructs students that it is OK to do no work, thus removing from the student any feeling of personal responsibility.

Another educator wrote about students failing to be responsible for work missed when absent from class, feeling that absence is a valid excuse for not making up missed work. She is also concerned about students not taking responsibility for completing homework assignments.  

Readers may ask why we should be concerned about student responsibility in these early grades. Is there not time for proper behavior to be developed in middle and high school? Since elementary school should be where the foundations of learning are developed (think the three Rs, which are the key to future education), it is proven failure to begin the sense of personal accountability will not improve as the child grows up. 

What follows is my observations while regularly teaching Calculus I for Engineers at Arizona State University. Students struggled due to a failure to master the algebraic and trigonometric skills needed for success. On the first day, students received a note outlining the skills needed. I provided eight specific problems that students must be able to solve this first day. 

The note explained the free, on-campus tutoring center was aware of the needed skills and would help students upgrade their knowledge. Three weeks into the course, I gave a quiz with those same eight problems. Each semester, the quiz grades were consistently below 40 (out of 100). When I checked with the tutoring center, only one or two students had visited to get help.  

The failure of students to take responsibility for their learning led most of the class to withdraw or get a grade of D or F. Had they learned to accept responsibility in elementary school, these failures would have been minimal.  

Murray Siegel, Ph.D., has more than 40 years teaching math up to the collegiate level and volunteers at Butterfield Elementary School.

This column appears in the November issue of InMaricopa magazine.