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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,203
Registered: 12/3/04
Calculators the wrong answer?
Posted: Dec 15, 2000 8:30 PM
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From the Wall Street Journal, Friday, December 15, 2000, p. 1 [Front page]. See

Calculators May Be the Wrong Answer As a 'Digital Divide' Widens in Schools

By Daniel Golden

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Rick Martin's fifth graders get flummoxed
subtracting two-digit numbers. Hardly any know their multiplication

But in his class, they don't have to.

"Go ahead and get your calculators out," the teacher tells his
students at Hazelwood Elementary
School one morning. Then, he assigns this problem: The Voyager 2
satellite was launched in
August 1977 and reached Neptune in August 1989. How many months did
the journey take?

Mr. Martin's 24 students -- 11 are black and 17 live in a nearby
public-housing project -- start punching numbers on calculators that
the school bought for them. But most flounder, not
understanding that they have to subtract 1977 from 1989 and then
multiply the difference by 12. Several students shout wrong answers
before11-year-old Rodney Murphy provides the correct one: 144.

Mr. Martin flicks on the overhead projector for some review work. But
what he illuminates on the screen isn't a multiplication table. It's
a special transparent calculator for teaching. "Let's do this one
together," he says.

A digital divide has appeared in U.S. elementary schools, but it's
the reverse of what you might think.

There is widespread concern about a lack of computers for poor
minority students and a widening racial gap in math achievement. But
low-income and minority elementary school students are actually more
likely to use one form of technology than their better-off, white
counterparts: the calculator.

Affordable Machines

Unlike computers, calculators are so inexpensive that any school can
afford them. Elementary schools typically buy their calculators for
roughly $5 each from wholesale distributors for Texas Instruments
Inc. and smaller manufacturers. In states such as Kentucky, which let
students use calculators on standardized tests, some struggling
schools aim to raise scores by emphasizing calculator-based

Teachers like Mr. Martin favor calculators as motivational tools.
These instructors hope the machines will boost the confidence of
students whose computational skills are shaky and help introduce them
to concepts such as time and distance.

But more calculator use in inner-city schools generally hasn't added
up to higher test scores. The majority of experts on
elementary-school learning maintain that, for students who lack basic
number proficiency, calculators may provide only the illusion of
progress. "Kids get to use calculators as a substitute for practice,
and they never really understand arithmetic," says Sandra Stotsky,
deputy education commissioner in Massachusetts, a state that has
taken a back-to-basics approach.

An increasing number of teachers in harried urban schools take a
different view. "For at-risk children, a calculator is a valuable
tool" that can boost self-esteem and stir curiosity, says Brenda
Stokes, a third-grade teacher at Hazelwood Elementary.

Stirring Controversy

Regular calculator use in elementary school has stirred controversy
since the 1980s. Calculator manufacturers and certain education
groups have pushed the idea. Suburban parents in some areas have
rallied against it.

But now, evidence of a calculator divergence based on race and wealth
suggests that technology may sometimes reinforce inequities in
scholastic achievement, rather than narrow them.

The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, issued a
study in September that found that half of black fourth graders
nationwide and 44% of Hispanics use calculators every day, compared
to only 27% of whites. Analyzing data from the National Assessment of
Educational Progress, a federal standardized exam, Brookings found
that the every-day calculator users scored lower than less-frequent
users, both overall and within each racial group. Students are
allowed to use calculators on the test.

"This raises a troubling new perspective on the 'digital divide' that
deserves serious attention," Brookings concluded.

The think tank limited its analysis to race. But the same test data
indicate that poor students and those whose parents have relatively
little education also are more likely to use calculators more
frequently. Among fourth graders qualifying for government-subsidized
lunches, 45% reported using calculators every day in class, compared
to 29% of students from better-off families. Among children who
reported that their parents didn't finish high school, 42% said they
use calculators every day, compared to 28% of children of college
graduates. Public-school students were more than twice as likely to
use calculators every day in class as those attending private school.

Roughly similar patterns exist here in Kentucky, where an
elementary-school student who is black and poor is more likely than a
wealthier white student to be encouraged to use a calculator, rather
than figure out problems mentally or with pencil and paper. On a
survey that accompanied a statewide math test in April, 43% of fifth
graders in Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, reported
using calculators almost every day in math class. The statewide
figure was only 33%. Jefferson County schools are 30% black, compared
to 10% statewide.

At Hazelwood Elementary, where nearly half of the students are black
and almost all qualify for subsidized school lunches, 76% of fifth
graders said on the statewide survey that they use calculators almost
every day. By contrast, at Greathouse/Shryock, a suburban Louisville
school with a predominantly white, upper-middle class student body,
only 16% of fifth graders said they use calculators so frequently.

On the statewide math test, which allows students to use calculators,
fifth graders at Greathouse scored an average of 104, exceeding the
"proficiency" level of 100, on a scale of 0 to 140. The statewide
average was 67. Hazelwood fifth graders scored only 40.

The Chicago Fiasco

Initially, some urban teachers were wary of calculators. When Chicago
in 1988 became the first large city to buy them for all students in
grades four through eight, the experiment turned into a fiasco.
Teachers didn't receive adequate training on how to use the devices
in class. Calculators remained in their boxes and were stolen by the

But with a nudge from manufacturers and some major education groups,
inner-city teachers have embraced calculators. Texas Instruments,
which makes 80% of the calculators used in U.S. schools, has promoted
its product with textbook publishers and teachers of all grades. The
company this year gave nearly $500,000 to the National Council of
Teachers of Mathematics for the professional group's training
academy, and has occasionally paid for bringing teachers from abroad
to speak at the council's conferences.

In 1989, the influential math-teachers organization had said it found
"no evidence to suggest that the availability of calculators makes
students dependent on them" and urged their use starting in
kindergarten. This year, before it received the Texas Instruments
donation, the group revised its guidelines to extend the endorsement
of calculators to pre-kindergarten.

Texas Instruments, based in Dallas, gives calculators to textbook
publishers and authors for testing, and the company produces its own
classroom texts. Ms. Stokes, the third-grade Hazelwood teacher,
supplements her Houghton-Mifflin textbook, which calls for moderate
calculator use, with games and exercises provided by Texas

Thomas Ferrio, a Texas Instruments vice president, says he doesn't
know whether it sells more calculators per student to urban
districts, because it doesn't track sales that way. He does assert
that calculators can spur low-achieving students to acquire basic
skills. "I see teachers using the technology as a motivational tool
for students to keep them interested," he explains.

Hazelwood Elementary's Mr. Martin, who once dressed up as Julius
Caesar for a history lesson, says calculators can "broaden
[students'] horizons." But some of his fifth-graders seem overly
dependent on the devices.

Asked to subtract 27 from 35 without electronic aid, 10-year-old
Tarrell Holstein takes a pass. "Oh, man, I hate subtraction," he says.

Invited to multiply nine times six the old-fashioned way, Steven
Coleman shakes his head. "I can't do it mentally," the 11-year-old

At Shelby Elementary School in Louisville, which like Hazelwood is
about half black and mostly poor, students traditionally had to share
calculators. Then, last year, the Kentucky state accountants' board
donated calculators left over from its state licensing exam, so that
every Shelby student could have one. The proportion of fifth graders
using calculators almost every day in math class soared to 53% this
spring, from 33% a year earlier. But fifth-grade math scores on the
statewide test dropped to 48, from 49.

Is it 'Cheating'?

Kristen Spetz, a Shelby fifth-grade teacher, used to drill her
students on multiplication facts for most of the year. Now she's a
calculator convert. Memorization "was stressing these kids out," she
says. "They couldn't get past it. Now we hit multiplication, we
practice our tables, and we move on. The calculator takes away a lot
of stress."

"A lot of kids think it's cheating," the teacher says. But she
assures them: "It isn't [cheating] if it helps you."

Some fifth graders in Louisville seem to lack the numbers sense to
employ calculators effectively. One morning, Ms. Spetz assigns the
following problem: One student is paid $5 a day to clean the
hallways. Another student is paid only one cent the first day, but
his wages double on each succeeding day. After 21 days, which student
has made more money?

The 29 fifth graders set to work with their calculators. While most
of them correctly figure that the first student would earn $105, all
of them understate the second student's income ($10,485.76 on the
21st day alone). Their error isn't computational but conceptual. They
don't know what doubling means. Instead of continually multiplying by
two, they add by twos, or ones.

Calculator-Free Classes

Engelhard Elementary in downtown Louisville has found a different
solution to math woes. At the school, where half of the students are
black and 80% are low-income, only 14% of fifth graders in April
reported using calculators almost every day. Yet Engelhard's
fifth-grade math score rose to an average of 60, from 56, an
improvement that helped earn the school extra state funding.

Engelhard benefits from the involvement of volunteers from local
colleges, but it also emphasizes mental math. Every Monday, these
student teachers lead calculator-free math lessons for fourth and
fifth graders, concentrating on strategies for memorizing
multiplication tables.

Surveys in other states indicate varying degrees of racial and
economic gaps in calculator use. In Pennsylvania, for example, only
5% of fifth graders taking the statewide math test in February and
March reported using a calculator almost every day for math class or
homework. But for black fifth graders, the figure was 9%, compared to
8.6% for Hispanics, 4.4% of white students and 4.1% of Asians.

Maine, a state whose population is 98% white, also has asked students
about calculator use. Of fourth graders who reported using
calculators almost every day, 47% didn't meet state math standards on
a test in March, on which they were allowed to use calculators. In
contrast, of students using calculators two or three times a month,
only 23% fell below standards. Maine officials declined to provide
data on the race and economic status of its calculator users.

Many educational authorities agree that occasional calculator use is
appropriate in elementary school -- to check answers, for instance,
or add long columns of numbers for a science project. By high-school
algebra and calculus classes, students of every race and income level
depend on more-sophisticated graphing calculators, which have
replaced the slide rule and are permitted on the SAT college-entrance

At least one school in Louisville credits calculators for boosting
test scores. When Michael Suttles took over last year as principal of
inner-city Atkinson Elementary, he pushed teachers to incorporate
calculators in their lessons. The proportion of fifth graders who
reported using calculators almost every day nearly doubled, to 51%,
by this April. And the school's average test score rose two points,
to 41, although it remains among Kentucky's lowest.

Influential Endorsements

Educators have debated the proper role of calculators in elementary
school for two decades, but by the early 1990s, Kentucky and some
other states had taken action to encourage use of the devices in
class and on standardized tests. This move was strongly supported by
the 1989 endorsement of the National Council of Teachers of
Mathematics and a similarly enthusiastic statement in 1990 by the
National Research Council, a quasipublic organization that advises
the government and scientific community on policy issues. At the same
time, the National Science Foundation, a federal grant-giving agency,
began pouring millions of dollars into concept-oriented,
calculator-friendly curricula.

Asked about the Brookings Institution's new findings about the racial
disparity in calculator use and the indication that calculator
dependency may hurt test performance, Lee V. Stiff, president of the
math-teachers council, questions the validity of the sort of student
survey relied upon in the Brookings study.

Mr. Stiff contends that more than 100 studies -- based on testing
students with and without calculators, as well as classroom
observation -- show that calculators can improve student
achievement, problem-solving, and understanding of mathematical
ideas. He adds that when award-winning teachers are surveyed, they
overwhelmingly favor use of calculators in elementary grades.
However, Tom Loveless, who wrote the Brookings report, says that most
of the pro-calculator studies were poorly designed, lasted only a few
weeks, and lacked adequate controls.

John S. Bradley, a program manager with the National Science
Foundation, maintains that calculators generally improve student
scores, although he adds that they shouldn't be allowed to become a
crutch. "People worry now that kids are going to use calculators
instead of learning basic number facts," Mr. Bradley says. "We used
to worry they would count on their fingers and not learn basic number

The move by states in the early 1990s to promote calculator use
quickly provoked a backlash led by university math professors and
suburban middle-class parents. In response, some states, such as
California, adopted a back-to-basics approach and discouraged
calculator use prior to sixth grade. Kansas recently expelled
calculators from its fourth-grade math test.

The anticalculator reaction has largely bypassed larger cities,
however. Under pressure from suburban parents, the Massachusetts
Department of Education now emphasizes basic math skills. It
prohibits calculator use on its fourth-grade and sixth-grade math
tests. But the city of Boston recently adopted a curriculum backed by
the National Science Foundation that encourages fourth graders to use

Some of Mr. Martin's charges at the Hazelwood school say they even
take their calculators shopping. Jamisha Thomas, 10, says she likes
to buy potato chips for 50 cents and popsicles for $1.25. Asked for
the sum, she enters the numbers in her calculator -- but forgets a
decimal point. "Fifty-one dollars and 25 cents," she says.
Write to Daniel Golden at
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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