The great calculator debate. Educators disagree over their place in the classroom

Diane Harvey recalls the time the electronic cash registers went down in the restaurant where her son works. ``The kids panicked,'' Mrs. Harvey says. ``They couldn't figure up the customers' bills. They almost shut the place.'' Mrs. Harvey is a high school math teacher in Hillsborough, Ohio (pop. 6,000), and she worries about the way her students ``get hooked'' on calculators. Last month, she joined a number of colleagues from across the country in picketing a meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Washington, D.C. The purpose of their protest: a new NCTM position statement that urges ``the integration of the calculator into the school mathematics program at all grade levels in classwork, homework, and evaluation.''

Should children use calculators in elementary school? Or should they learn their arithmetic the old-fashioned way?

This issue has been simmering ever since pocket calculators became less expensive than textbooks. To date, math teachers have resisted the trend. Less than half use calculators in teaching -- and then, often only for checking answers -- even though the NCTM leadership has been advocating them since at least 1980.

Now, however, influential people in the math education field are pressing harder than ever. By reaffirming its own position, the prestigious NCTM has strengthened the hand of like-minded educators all over the country. The California Department of Education, for example, has followed suit, and there was even talk in the state of requiring textbook publishers to include calculators in book jackets. ``I couldn't have done as much as I have, if the NCTM hadn't advocated even more,'' says Steve Leinwald, a consultant with the state of Connecticut, which moved this year to include a calculator section on its statewide eighth-grade tests.

This is alarming talk to people like John Saxon, the retired Air Force test-pilot-turned-math-teacher who led the demonstration in Washington. Based in Norman, Okla., Mr. Saxon publishes a series of no-frills textbooks that stress regular drilling in fundamentals and have won glowing reviews from teachers. A frequent critic of the NCTM, Saxon thinks that the organization's leaders have their heads in the sand on the calculator issue. ``There is a tremendous potential for destruction'' of student math skills, he says.

NCTM supporters, on the other hand, tend to dismiss Saxon as a publicity hound, and those who raise questions about calculators as reactionary and uninformed. ``All along it has been an emotional issue,'' says Marilyn Suydam, who teaches at Ohio State University.

At issue is a fundamental question for the high-tech age: Are there times when easier is not necessarily better?

The pro-calculator camp points to such advantages as the instant feedback the devices provide, and the way they enable slower students to reach higher levels of math. Most important, they say, calculators free students from the drudgery of ``paper and pencil'' math, so they can spend more time solving problems.

``We need to give kids more practice in thinking, instead of working on computations that take them 10 or 15 minutes,'' says Gerald Tirozzi, the Connecticut Commissioner of Education.

Advocates acknowledge that a certain amount of hard mental work is good for its own sake. But they argue that once a child has learned how to, say, divide one three-digit number by another, there is no reason to make that student do it over and over again. ``It's much faster if you can avoid the tediousness of the process,'' Ms. Suydam says.

Saxon and others, however, aren't convinced. They say that, just as shortstops and pianists practice basic skills throughout their careers, so students in the early grades can benefit from doing computations over and over until they become second nature. ``You don't learn about the process of mathematics by pushing buttons on the calculator,'' says Jed Babbin, member of a math advisory committee for the Arlington,Va. public schools.

``We'd like to free them [for more problem-solving] another way, by making them so adept at doing numbers that they don't even have to think about the numbers,'' says Steve Hake, a junior-high math teacher in El Monte, Calif.

Most people in this camp are not total abolitionists. They only say that the NCTM is too gung-ho, and that more caution is needed in the early grades. ``The risk is, once you have a crutch, you rely on it more and more,'' says Evie Andrews, a first-grade teacher who was Oregon teacher of the year in 1984. Arlington County. Va., adopted a fairly strict policy on calculators in the early grades, but Mr. Babbin thinks they could have gone further. ``It would have pleased me to say the calculator won't be used until grade six,'' he says.

In response, the pro-calculator group cites a host of studies showing that students who had calculators in their classrooms do at least as well on tests as those who didn't, except in the fourth grade. ``All the evidence suggests it doesn't hurt achievement,'' Suydam says. Besides, they say, it's not a question of ``either/or.''

``The use of calculators must not replace the development of the student's understanding,'' asserts the new ``Mathematics Framework'' of the California Department of Education. The idea rather is for students to use the devices only to apply the skills they have already mastered.

``If I were a student, I would have said, `Hot dog!' '' Saxon counters with characteristic flair. ``I would have gone in the corner [to use the calculator]. I would have gone into the cloakroom. I would have gone behind the building.''

``I can't watch 30 youngsters and say, `You can use it here but not here,' '' Diane Harvey adds.

They caution, moreover, that the available research measures only the short term. Nobody knows what will happen over time as calculators become a habit. Diane Harvey recalls a teacher at the NCTM convention who said, ``Why bother?'' when she spoke of the importance of children learning how to multiply and divide.

``I want kids to learn how to walk before they ride around in golf carts all day,'' she says.

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