## Calculator use: a catastrophe

**Our comment**: Global Education considers the school use of calculators over the past 20 years to be the greatest single catastrophe to ever befall mathematics education. There must be no room for calculator use in elementary school mathematics education; there must be very little room for it in middle school mathematics education.

From the Wall Street Journal, Friday, December 15, 2000, p. 1 [Front page]. See

http://interactive.wsj.com/articles/SB976838326811281152.htm

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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

tables.

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

instruction.

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

hundreds.

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

Instruments.

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

says.

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

exam.

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

facts.”

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

calculators.

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.

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Write to Daniel Golden at dan.golden@wsj.com

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