kitchen table math, the sequel: Voices from the Classroom: Mrs. Bluebird and the Calculator Rant

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Voices from the Classroom: Mrs. Bluebird and the Calculator Rant

Mrs. Bluebird teaches middle school science in the southern US. I believe she has both general ed students and some in special ed. I really enjoy her blog, as she is funny, practical, and honest about the challenges. I've condensed this post ( .... indicates edited text) and I've also added emphasis

So what do you do, as a teacher, in middle school if your students are lacking essential skills that they should have mastered in previous grades? Here's her take.

My Calculator Rant, or My Kids Can't Do Math Without One

Next week we take our Very Big Deal Government Mandated Tests. Oh yipee....

We're pretty confident they have a fairly good grasp (as far as seventh graders with the puberty brain freeze can grasp) of most of the basic science concepts.

However, the math is going to kill us.

Part of our new standards this year include Newton's Laws of Motion and simple machines, and fun little things like acceleration, velocity, work, force and all that wonderful little physical science stuff which I find really cool. However, there's a lot of math and calculations involved, such as figuring out that work equals force times distance, and power is work divided by time, and momentum is mass times velocity. ...

We're talking simple math here - multiplying and dividing. That's it. However, we began to notice on our quizzes, our tests, and our Benchmarks that our kids can't do math without a calculator. They can punch in numbers and solve math problems until the cows come home, but ask them to do math with a pencil and paper (and their brain) and they go into shut down mode. Heck, they're not even sure how to set up a math problem without a calculator. They would read a question, say, Power = work/time, and they'd write it out and then MULTIPLY IT. Not just a handful of kids, but huge numbers of kids. Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Hummingbird and I were shocked...and promptly ran to our math teachers.

"Do you mean to tell me," I asked Mr. Math, "that without a calculator, these kids can't do math?"

"Pretty much," he said. "Welcome to my world. They don't know their multiplication tables by heart, and they depend on a calculator for everything. They may have learned their multiplication tables in fourth grade, but then they stuck a calculator in their hands and they promptly forgot everything. And we're encouraged to have them use calculators."

Oh good gracious. They don't even remember that a line between two numbers means to divide.....

So, we have the kids learn their multiplication tables, and then give them a calculator. How stupid is that?

About as stupid as the State Department of Education's Decree that No Calculators Will be Allowed on Any Test Except for Math. Period.

We tried, when this first became apparent to us earlier in the year, to see if we could get the Special Ed kids that have "use of calculator" written into their IEP's permission to use calculators. Not only was the answer NO, it was a Big Fat NO.

I have kids who, quite honestly, cannot tell you how many times 3 goes into 24, who need calculators as a life skill because 2 times 6 is a challenge. These kids will be forced, along with all my other kids, to do math problems on the Very Big Deal Government Mandated Science Test, without a calculator. Even though they use calculators every freaking day in math class. And this year, about 20% of that test will be math. (I do have a few good special ed parents who are annoyed at this and asked me what to do - I suggested that as parents the state may listen to them a bit more than they listen to us teachers. Perhaps if they complained loud and long, we'd see a change.)

When we did our datachat for our last Benchmark, the kids did really well. Except for the standards that were math-based. They, bluntly, sucked. Badly. Why? They lack the basic math skills to do basic problems. And it's not just my kids, but apparently it's an issue across the entire district. And I'd guess, across the state, and most likely the country.

So, when Mrs. Eagle and I went and judged the science fair at the local elementary school a few months ago, and we found out that they'd spent some grant money buying calculators for their 2nd and 3rd graders, we pretty much told them to send them back and get a refund. They were appalled when we told them the issues that we were having with the lack of basic math skills. Again, if you don't use a skill, like doing math with a pencil, paper and your brain, you aren't going to be good at it.

Which is why our team remediation class has been doing multiplication practice, just like they did in fourth grade, several times a week (and grading those is frightening, they're so awful.) Hopefully, this practice will help a few of them.

However, I'm still incensed, that my kids are going to be, in a way, penalized because they don't have the ability to do math without a calculator. And at the same time, we stick a calculator in their hands and encourage them to use it. It makes no sense to me that they can use one for the math part of the test, but not the science part which also has math.

The politics of testing just irritates the bloody hell out of me.

So there you have it. What are teachers in the higher grades to do, if the students in their prior education have been handicapped in this way?


momof4 said...

When a relative was teaching third grade in a small Northeastern city, less than 10 years ago, almost all of the kids learned their multiplication tables that year, with a handful who struggled. A new, young teacher took over third grade and she moved to fifth. Kids from the first class she had not taught as third-graders were clueless on multiplication tables, corroborated by the other fifth-grade teacher. When they questioned the newest third-grade teacher, she assured them that she had not expected kids to learn the times tables, because she had been taught in ed school that "drill and kill" was terrible and would destroy their interet in math. Both fifth-grade teachers told her that was unacceptable, and why. Better yet, the principal backed them! No calculators.

BTW, a connection with an engineering degree and two master's (math, finance) recommends NO calculator use until the pre-calc/honors physics year, for graphing functions.

SteveH said...

"What are teachers in the higher grades to do, if the students in their prior education have been handicapped in this way?"

Fix the lower grades. It is educational incompetence. We're not talking about doing two digit multiplication or long division by hand. We're talking about the times table. How much clearer can it be?

If you don't have any influence on the situation, then create your own influence. Discuss the problem with parents. It's that important. It is not a solution for the upper grade teachers to just do the best they can to fix the problems in their own classroom.

"Better yet, the principal backed them! No calculators."

Great! But even if you don't get support from the principal, you have to fight and not just be happy with remediation.

Independent George said...

Hold on... why is the decree that no calculators are allowed stupid, when that very rule is exactly what is letting you know they can't do math? It seems to be working pretty damned well to me.

Why is she upset with the 'politics of testing' when the real culprits are the educators who preceded her? All the test is doing is proving that fact.

Niels Henrik Abel said...

The math-without-a-calculator phobia isn't confined to junior and senior high students; I see it at the post-secondary level as well. I've had otherwise reasonably intelligent students turn their brain off and reach for a calculator to find something as innocuous as the square root of 9; students have expressed consternation when I insisted they take a quiz despite their neglecting to bring a calculator to class that day (paper and pencil computation was inconceivable to them, despite the quiz using easy numbers to work with), and I wouldn't permit a calculator substitute such as a cell phone.

A couple of times I administered a "basics" quiz (which didn't count toward their overall course grade) at the beginning of a semester, in an attempt to gather some data to determine if there was a correlation between students' facility with basic math and their ultimate grade in the course. Although the prerequisites for the course were such that students needed proficiency in intermediate algebra, most of them could not do basic math. One of the things I remember was that a number of them would perform a long division problem and put the remainder as a decimal (e.g., if they had to do 217/36, they'd give an answer like 6.1, rather than 6 R 1. The results were so discouraging, I eventually gave up administering the quiz.

Allison said...

--BTW, a connection with an engineering degree and two master's (math, finance) recommends NO calculator use until the pre-calc/honors physics year, for graphing functions.

The fixation on graphing calculators is, bluntly, ludicrous too, even in high school or higher.

High schoolers should be able to graph with paper and pen. You look at the function and you know the shape; you solve the roots and you know the zeros. Done. Same in college.

Graphing calculators are another way to turn off the brain of someone who should by inspection be able to tell if their equation is right. How? By checking the endpoints/boundary conditions.

Linda said...

I taught middle school math and if the kids don't know the facts by then, there isn't any really enough time to teach them and also do middle school content. I didn't allow calculators until Algebra and the CA state tests don't allow them either. The 6th and 7th graders had to get by without and I felt that more kids there knew their facts with that system. Imagine my horror moving to PA and becoming an elementary math specialist and finding out that 4th graders have to answer only 4!!! questions on the state tests without a calculator. Everything else is calculator allowed! There is also almost no computation on the tests, but there are graphs like you wouldn't believe. I feel enormous pressure to spend more time on things that I don't think are important and less on things that really are, because the state rewards the fluff. My 4th graders can all do long division, but they are going to look less proficient than some other schools' kids because we didn't spend a ton of time on obscure shapes and superficial probability.

LynnG said...

I agree with the teacher's rant -- if the calculator is allowed for math, it should be permitted for science. Otherwise you end up with the science teachers doing remedial math instead of science.

It's stupid to allow calculators for either subject, but until you can get the math people to shun calculator use, you can't expect the science teachers to do both jobs (math and science).

Exo said...

I teach physical science (high school fershmen) to kids who come from middle schools that didn't teach science (Paterson, NJ)and math is not there either - calculator or not. But I get them do all the physics problems (motion, gas laws etc) in format - I think I shared it, the way to write up the problems in science and do the necessary work on the formula first, before solving). I allow calculators, but I don't give credit for the numerical answer only. I give credit for the demonstrated logic of the solution in format/units. It took me since September... But yesterday, finally, all 75 of my Phys. sci. students were able to find velocity when given mass and momentum by re-working the formula p=mv.Oh. (I was taught the format starting in 2grade math to solve word problems)

momof4 said...

Allison: my connection didn't say that calculators HAD to be allowed in precalc; only that they should be forbidden before then.