CHICAGO, JAN. 2 -- A public school program designed to take some of the misery out of mathematics will provide free pocket calculators to students this week, but some critics warn it could add up to learning problems.

Children in grades four through eight in the nation's third-largest public school district will spend

less time on pencil-and-paper

calculations, city school officials said.

Instead, they will spend more time learning math concepts and solving challenging problems using the calculators, school officials say, adding that they hope students will improve their skills while having fun.

"Calculators take some of the fear out of math," said Mamie Scott, a fifth-grade teacher at Horace Mann School.

"I think we've hit upon a gold mine," said Dorothy Strong, math director for the city Board of Education.

"We have something now that will allow us to compete with TV," she added.

But others contend students won't learn the fundamentals of mathematics.

"Calculators will cause permanent damage," said John Saxon, a publisher of mathematics books. "Kids won't learn the fundamental skills of arithmetic. It will be like having eighth-graders who can't read."

Although the Chicago school board is strapped for cash, it decided to give away the calculators to ensure that every student, regardless of income, has one. The distribution to 167,000 students starts Monday.

Students in grades four and five will receive calculators that perform basic arithmetic, including addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, percentages and square roots.

Children in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades will receive "scientific" calculators that can help them solve problems in arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry and algebra, officials said.

Students still will be required to memorize multiplication tables in old-fashioned oral drills, school officials said, and they will be tested on basic arithmetic skills four times a year without a calculator.

Students will have to know how to divide two-digit numbers with pencil and paper, officials added. When problems involve numbers larger than 99, they'll use calculators.

"It doesn't make sense to do long division by hand with large numbers," said Paul Sally, an educator with the University of Chicago's school math project. "There's no learning process in that activity.

"I don't have any doubts Chi- cago is doing the right thing," Sally said.