Friday, April 09, 2010

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.

Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Hummingbird and I have taught like madwomen this year and managed, despite nearly twice as many standards as last year and those seven snow days, to actually get everything done by the time the VBDGMT showed up. We've spent the past two weeks reviewing like mad, but since our review tends to be something like a cross between a game show and a relay race, it's been fun for the kids and exhausting for us. 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. (Are your eyes glazed over yet?)

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.

Math is one of those skills that you need to use to keep up with. When I was waitressing during my first round of college, I could add huge columns of numbers in my head and calculate a tip with incredible accuracy. I used math all the time and was darn good at it. Even today, I do a lot of math in my head and I was not - WAS NOT - a strong math student. (Algebra and I were not friends - it wasn't until I discovered physics that it finally clicked. Go figure.)

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.


Sneaker Teacher said...

I get the value of knowing math facts and being able to do mental math and solve problems, however in the real world, people have access to calculators. They can even whip out a cell phone and use apps to figure stuff out. It's not like we should rely on technology as a crutch but I don't see the harm in being able to use a calculator as a tool during the test. You still have to have the knowledge to figure out what numbers you need and to punch them in correctly with the correct operation in order to get the right answer...

Elaine said...

@Sneaker - The harm is that the kids become so dependent on the tech, they don't know how to do it themselves. The tech becomes a "magic box" where you punch stuff in, and a number comes out, and you assume it's right with no understanding of what it means.

@Bluebird - Have you tried teaching them to count by multiples, and use their fingers to keep track of the numbers? I require all my math students (MS in the past, HS now) to work w/o calculators, and teach this trick to the ones who can't handle doing the basics in their heads. (if you want specific details on this, let me know! It's fast, and easy for the kids to pick up on, and reinforces the concepts behind mult and div.)

Sorry for any typos/shorthand - I'm nursing my daughter, so typing one-handed!

teachergirl said...

Speak it, Mrs. Bluebird. I have 153 standards to teach in Math alone (hello, bureaucracy!) and who, in his right mind thinks a 5th grader needs to learn how to find the area of a circle if he or she can't multiply? Since multiplication facts aren't one of those standards, we are caught between a rock and a hard place. We're trying so hard to "become schools of excellence" we aren't willing to do anything well. We're cramming things into young minds that aren't ready for them. Our second graders are supposed to know their multiplication facts, when they can't add or subtract with regrouping. the more we push, the farther behind we get.

Darren said...

I don't see much utility in manually calculating square roots, but other than that, I cannot for the life of me figure out why calculators are needed in math classes before Algebra 2.

Kirsten said...

I agree that the children should be doing their math without calculators up until Trig.

Kris said...

I am a Middle School special ed teacher. I agree with you 100%. My kids, who have a hard time subtracting, don't stand a chance.

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? That stupid decree seems to be performing a very vital role here - namely, it's telling you that those kids were never taught properly.

The problem is not that the Very Big Deal Government Mandated Science Test requires math without a calculator. The problem is that the kids have never been taught math without a calculator.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

I obviously didn't make myself clear. I don't teach math. I teach science. I find it silly that there is an inconsistency in the rules - that for the math test kids can use a calculator but for science they cannot. The math test, not the science test, is the test that should, in theory, tell you whether or not they can do math. But they're using a calculator. The science test should be, and does for the most part, test science. The decree should be the same for both and frankly, I'd rather it was no calculator for both...

Unknown said...

You should live in our state where they are not allowed to use a calculator on the math test - yet students are given calculators right after they learn their multiplication tables in 2nd grade. The kids have no clue how to even punch in numbers or set up complex problems. My science standards are not as math based - except we have graphs, and the students have no clue how to read and interpret a graph. Of course, our standards are very aptly named here - SOL (standards of learning). If you don't know the alternate meaning, ask a military brat like myself.