The pocket calculator, the pint-sized electronic whiz kid born in the 1970s, has been the target of critics who fear that its use in the classroom will render generations of children dependent on batteries instead of brains.
In most of the Washington area, however, math educators and professionals have sanctioned the tiny tool as a way to help students verify results, get through complex computations and learn practical skills. Calculators are used on a wide range of educational levels, from counting exercises for kindergartners to the complex computations of advanced math students.
In Arlington County, however, the use of calculators is unofficially prohibited.
"We are behind the times," says Carl Fisher, head of Arlington's Mathematics Advisory Committee. "I've got two kids in the Arlington school system, and I want them living in the 20th century."
Early this fall the county school board will decide whether it's time for a change. The five-member board will consider recommendations by Fisher's committee that it adopt a policy encouraging the use of calculators. The board will also be asked to purchase some calculators so that all students will have access to calculators.
Two years ago, the county school board killed a similar proposal. "There was a general feeling that the students would rely on calculators and not give critical thinking that we thought was needed for math computation," said Arlington School Board member Evelyn Syphax. "I think the climate has changed somewhat. I do think that this time it will probably pass."
In 1980, The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommended that school districts supply calculators to students in elementary and secondary schools and integrate them into the core math curriculum. The recommendations were based on studies that found them to be useful in studying basic and complex mathematical concepts. Studies also showed that calculators do not erode basic arithmetical skills such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division once they had been learned.
The teachers council stresses that calculators should not be used as a substitute for teaching and learning such basic skills.
However, Jed Babbit, a member of the Arlington committee and an attorney with a degree in chemical engineering, says some parents and citizens with math backgrounds are concerned that use of calculators would wind up as substitution for the learning of basic arithmetic skills. "I'm concerned that this could be done at anytime," he said recently.
Babbitt said the proposal to be presented to the school board is a compromise that takes into account such concerns.
Under the policy proposed by the committee, calculators would not be used as a substitute for teaching or testing basic arithmetic skills in elementary schools.
Calculators could be used, however, by elementary school students studying mathematic concepts beyond the basic skills as well as for testing the ability to use calculators and in testing more advanced mathematical skills.
A class trying to determine the average weight of its students, for example, could use calculators, Fisher said, explaining, "Adding a column of 25 digits by hand is kind of hard to do."
The teachers council supports the use of calculators as a time-saver, spokesman Jane Hill said. "Why spend hours on it when they can do it in seconds, fractions of seconds," said Hill, a former math teacher in Washington.
Still, many are skeptical of what Babbit calls "an easy out."
"In the early years, practice, even the drudgery of math chores, is useful," he says.
Of those who oppose using calculators in schools, many note that their use is forbidden on professional and standardized tests. They contend that the benefits for advanced math students could backfire. "What do you do when you get to the SAT, LSAT,or CPA exam where speed counts?" Babbit asked.
In most area school systems, calculators are used widely in advanced math and science classes, during tests and homework assignments. Similar use in elementary and intermediate schools varies based on teachers' discretions, according to school spokesmen.
In Prince George's County the use of calculators is discouraged in most elementary school classes, a spokesman said. In the District, however, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade gifted and talented students took a three-week course on calculators this summer.
Montgomery County schools permit the use of calculators in elementary school classrooms only for specific activities.
"We have a general agreement with teachers at all levels that students won't be allowed to use calculators unless all students have access to them," said Tom Rowan, elementary mathematics coordinator for the county. "In some cases we do use calculators in elementary classrooms, but it's strictly under the direction of the teacher for special activities designed to use the calculator. The calculator is never used to replace the student being able to do computation on his or her own, especially at the elementary level."
In Alexandria, the use of calculators in kindergarten through third grade is banned, a spokesman said, but fourth and fifth graders work with textbooks that incorporate calculators into the lessons.
Alexandria and Fairfax schools provide calculators for students. Fairfax Schools Math Coordinator Mary Harley Jones said calculators are used in elementary school classes when it is appropriate.
"Suppose we're trying to focus on balancing a check book," Jones said. "Does anybody in this world do that without a calculator these days?"