[Note: Received from the East and West Coasts ... with thanks.]
San Francisco Chronicle, Tuesday, February 16, 1999, p. A12
WITH JUST A PUSH OF A BUTTON
Teachers can't figure how miracle device has been declared the devil's tool
By Steve Rubenstein, Staff Writer
Pocket calculators are bad again, the school pooh-bahs have decreed from on high.
Once, pocket calculators were good. Then they were bad. Then they became good again. Now, once more, they are bad. You almost need a pocket calculator to keep track of how the CA state Board of Education feels about pocket calculators.
In its new guidelines for public school teachers, the state has declared that pocket calculators are preventing students from learning basic math skills.
Although the formula doesn't seem to add up for many Bay Area elementary students and teachers, the state now recommends that students not use calculators until sixth grade.
"It is imperative that students in the early grades be given every opportunity to develop a facility with basic arithmetic skills without reliance on calculators," say the new guidelines, formally called the Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools.
"Evidence has accumulated showing the ill-effects of calculator usage in the schools."
If there is any such evidence, the third-grade students in Room 206 at Jefferson School in San Francisco don't know what it is.
They had their red-and-blue calculators out this week, in defiance of the new decree. Fortunately, none was expelled for calculator possession, and teacher Lynne Zolli, an earnest and imaginative veteran of the chalkboard, was not sent to the corner by the principal, who was observing the heresy from a seat in the front row.
Zolli's math lesson involved pencils, calculators, chalkboards, numbers and a whole lot of thinking.
For the better part of an hour, her students tried to figure out how to go about adding up the total number of letters in the names of all the class members.
There were 32 names on the board, and some of them had 10 letters in them. The answer was going to be a big number, the students realized. Some students arranged the names in groups and added the groups. Some found pairs of names that added up to 10 letters, and counted by tens. Some added the total in their heads. Some used calculators.
"I like them," said Susan Kane, 9, pressing the keys on her standard issue TI-108. "They're good for some things and not so good for some things. And sometimes you get messed up and press the wrong key and have to start over."
Karalan Morthole, 9, said a kid has to remember that a calculator doesn't know what it's doing.
"You're the one punching in the numbers," she said. "You have to know when you punched in 54 instead of 45, or you'll get the wrong answer."
After all the letters in the students' names were added, the answer was 182 on the chalkboard, on paper and on the calculator screens. There were no apparent injuries.
Then Zolli asked her students how they would make "100" appear on their calculators if various keys were broken, such as the 1 key or the 0 key or the + key. More dangerous thinking ensued.
As the recess bell sounded, Zolli rounded up the calculators and put them on a shelf with the plastic cubes and the paints and other contraband.
"Calculators are part of the culture," she said. "They're everywhere. They're built into phones and watches. Keeping them away from kids seems draconian and ridiculous."
Another math problem that Zolli's calculators can solve is 1999 minus 1992. The answer is seven, which means that it was only seven years ago that the state issued its 1992 math framework hailing calculators as demigods, manna, salvation and the wave of the future.
"Calculators," said the 1992 framework, "are the electronic pencils of today's world. In every grade, calculators can be issued to students just as textbooks are."
Calculators, those guidelines said, should be "made available for homework, in class activities and tests."
When the gadgets first caught on, in the late 1960s and early '70s, they cost $100 or so and were regarded as a minor miracle in an age when students still toted slide rules in leather hip holsters. In the ensuing years, they were banned from many classrooms for making calculations too easy.
As their price fell to practically nothing, calculators returned to favor. Today, most Bay Area curriculum experts seem to be on the side of the gizmos.
"You have to learn to use them," said Victor Gee, math curriculum coordinator for the Oakland school district. "The controversy revolves over to what degree you use it. But it's stupid not to use them."
"To make a blanket (ban), what kind of dumb statement is that? There is a lot of politics in it," he said.
Cheryl Lilhanand, in charge of math curriculum for West Contra Costa County schools, said it appears that the "pendulum has swung again."
All teachers know there is more to teaching math than teaching numbers, she said.
"You don't want to use them too early, but at some point in time you have to get down to reality. Calculators are what people use today," she said.
Math experts, who often arrive at the same answer when doing their times tables, were unable to agree about the use of calculators.
The president of the Mathematics Council, representing thousands of California teachers, called the new framework "narrow, biased and backward."
But the new framework, approved recently by the board of education on a 10-to-0 vote, is part of a back-to-basics backlash spawned by declining test scores.
Board member Janet Nicholas said the guidelines were "about more than basic skills."
The state board has approved a tough list of grade-by-grade benchmarks, or minimum skills, that students should learn in each grade. Second-graders are supposed to memorize their times tables, and the board now believes that calculator use interferes with that task.
Despite the decree from Sacramento, teachers and school districts are unlikely to make any immediate changes in their math teaching, or to conduct any mass roundups and burnings of calculators in school lunch yards.
But the framework casts dire warnings about "the possibility of doing immense, perhaps incalculable harm" with calculator use. And, in an eerie passage, the framework recalls that "some went so far as to recommend that in every grade calculators can be issued to students just as textbooks are" without mentioning that it was the previous state framework that made just such a recommendation.
"The extensive reliance on calculators runs counter to the goal of having students practice using . . . basic arithmetic skills," the new framework said. "For example, it should not be the case that the simple addition 5/11 + 3/5 can only be done with the help of a calculator."
For the record, the answer without a calculator is 1 and 3/55, which is the same as the answer with a calculator.
CALCULATORS: GOOD OR BAD?
The new California guidelines for math recommend that calculators not be used in the classroom before sixth grade because:
-- Understanding basic math concepts such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division requires that students be fluent in basic computational skills. For example, fifth-grade students should be able to add 5/11 + 3/5 without the use of a calculator.
********************************************** * Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: email@example.com