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In 'Bold Stroke,' Chicago To Issue Calculators to All 4th-8th Graders

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In a move that math experts around the country are calling "a bold stroke," school officials in Chicago will begin implementing this month a plan to distribute calculators to all 200,000 students in grades 4 through 8.

The effort, which is expected to cost almost $10 per pupil, is the largest program of its kind in the country. It is aimed, officials say, at improving mathematics instruction by enabling all students to advance from simple computation to the mastery of more complex problem-solving skills.

"This allows us to teach students what math is all about," said Dorothy S. Strong, director of the Chicago Public Schools' bureau of mathematics. "We can teach concepts, rather than the computation around concepts."

"All of math has degenerated into how you can compute," she said. ''We have forgotten what math was about."

Ms. Strong added that the program would promote equity by ensuring that all students, regardless of income, have access to the mathematical tool. Students will also be able to take the calculators home, she said, and "enjoy" them with their parents.

"In Chicago, you cannot assume that every child has a calculator unless you provide it," said Ms. Strong.

The Chicago program is the first effort by a large metropolitan district to distrib4lute calculators to students, noted John A. Dossey, president of the National Council of,3lTeachers of Mathematics. The council has recommended the use of,3lcalculators by students in all grades. The only other systematic attempt to provide students with the tools, he said, is in Connecticut, where the department of education has distributed calculators to 8th graders for use on the state's mastery-learning tests.

The calculator program is part of a larger effort to overhaul the math curriculum in Chicago schools, according to Ms. Strong.

That effort, which also got under way last week as teachers returned to classes after a four-week strike, is based largely on the recommendations of "The Underachieving Curriculum," the report of the second international mathematics study of the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement.

As the report proposed, district officials are shifting from an "arithmetic-driven" curriculum to one that allows students to move to more advanced topics more quickly.

To facilitate the shift, the district conducted workshops with about 2,000 teachers--including at least five from each school--this summer. And according to Ms. Strong, officials are planning additional staff-development measures.

Under the program, students in the 4th and 5th grades and those in special-education programs will receive simple calculators to enable them to perform basic arithmetic functions. Students in grades 6-8 will receive more sophisticated scientific calculators, Ms. Strong said.

To ensure that they retain both computational and problem-solving skills, students in all five grades will be tested quarterly--without calculators, to test computation, and with calculators, to assess more complex skills.

"Most classes [in Chicago] are at national norms in computation," Ms. Strong said. "But problem-solving--that is a problem."

"We will be looking for, and expecting, a dramatic increase in test results," she added.

Most math educators contacted last week expressed strong support for the Chicago program.

'Terribly Foolish'

"It's a bold stroke, one we think is positive," said Shirley M. Frye, president-elect of the nctm

"As adults, we don't do three-digit division. We rely on what I call a 'fast pencil."'

"This allows kids to explore real-world problems," added Mr. Dossey. "They can use numbers found in everyday life, not just those concocted by a textbook so they would work out."

But a prominent critic of the use of calculators in schools called the new policy "terribly foolish and irresponsible," and suggested that district officials "ought to be thrown in jail."

"In the Chicago public schools, of all places, what we need to do is teach children fundamental skills," said John Saxon, a Norman, Okla.-based textbook publisher.

Mr. Saxon, who led a demonstration at the 1986 annual meeting of the nctm to protest the group's endorsement of calculators, noted that in the second international math study, Japanese youths, who do not use calculators, far out-performed Americans.

"Our children are so poorly prepared in fundamental areas of math, they are not equipped to carry the books of their Japanese peers," he said. "The Japanese don't permit calculators in class."

But Anthony Ralston, professor of computer science and mathematics at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said numerous studies have found that calculator use does not adversely affect students' basic skills.

"The overwhelming body of evidence suggests that calculators do not harm arithmetic skills," said Mr. Ralston, who is chairman of the curriculum task force of the Mathematical Sciences Education Board, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences.

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