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Why Are Calculators Always the Scapegoats?

The July 10 (2012) issue of USA Today included a commentary by Patrick Welsh on "Why Our Kids Hate Math."

The gist of the article in Welsh's words: "We're pushing many kids to grasp math at higher levels before they are ready. When they struggle, they begin to dread math, and eventually we lose thousands of students who could be the scientists and engineers of tomorrow. If we held back and took more time to ground them in the basics, we could turn them on to math."

The biggest culprit is enrolling (i.e. pushing) middle-school students in algebra classes. And the guilty parties: administrators, parents, teachers, and the students themselves...all are sold the bill-of-goods that they need to rush through math because .....

As expected, the reactions to Walsh's commentary are both volatile and often interesting. For example, the paper version of USA Today labeled its letters section: "Banning Calculator Use in Schools will Improve Math Skills." My first reaction (after reading a meandering letter) was: Why blame the calculator? It is a ready scapegoat but not the guilty party! Rather, look at curriculum, the teachers, the parents, administrators, and the students themselves.

One letter (by William Manthorpe) raised a reasonable concern. First, he notes that "academic studies show that 21% of eighth-graders think that math is often too easy and 54% think it is sometimes too easy...[yet} more students are in remedial math than any other subject because of a high failure rate in math classes." The calculator is not the guilty party underlying such claims!

And, the response letters on-line at USA Today suggest these as the causes:

  • "Many elementary school teachers are not strong in math themselves" [Tori Skidori]
  • "Many teachers teach straight from the book and don't take the time to make it fun or applicable to everyday situations" [Cheryl Rockwood]
  • "We emphasize the "fun" more than the subject itself. We try to make them feel good about the subject rather than just stress that the knowledge is necessary. [Heather Gunn Haskell]
  • "...algebra is taught backwards...Students are given an expression and told to solve for another expression. That's not how the real world normally works. The real world is composed of data that can be modeled using an expression (not the other way around)." [Laura Jones]
  • "A teacher isn't free to change the curriculum to try it out....In our public school system, courses are designed by bureaucrats and politicians. [Doug Tree]
  • "We need to group students according to their abilities; let the higher students conceptualize, work w/applied math w/the middle group, and pound basic facts w/the low group and its application to basic life.[Ed U Cate]
  • "Separate the kids who want to learn from those who don't want to be there. They just cause disruptions in the classroom that interfere with the learning opportunities for the students who do want to learn. [David Dodson]
  • "Algebra is algebra. You can't make it fun. The learning process is rigorous...The solution is if you don't understand algebra, don't take it, or take a class that is not accelerated. Allow the teacher to go back many times until the student gets it or gets so bored he drops it." [David Leung]
  • "The huge elephant in the room with failing math students is the incoherent curriculum that has been produced since the advent of the 1989 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' Curriculum and Standards document. [Niki Hayes}
  • "Get rid of Algebra, Trigonometry, and/or Geometry. Teach the students with a new course called Practical Math -- a rudimentary course that utilize numbers, facts, and figures in life-application purposes. [Tristan Francis]
  • "We blame practically everything around us but refuse to look at ourselves as teachers and college professors. You can teach kids anything you want if we teach in a manner that is effective with children, or even with college adults. It is not what we teach, but how we teach that really matters." [Daryao Khatri]
  • "Let us go back to concentrating on really understanding concepts instead of rote skill drill younger and younger. It's a waste of good minds." [Judy Saint]
  • "Getting mathematics is like eating Brussels sprouts. It will make you cry before you become addicted to it." [elrado Ramsay]
Anything new in this? No...just another opportunity to feel good by venting, rather than focusing on the real problems underlying the situation...and what do you think those problems are?