November 02, 1997|By BRIAN SULLAM

MY EIGHTH-GRADER exposed my ignorance last Tuesday when she asked for help with her math homework.

The problem involved finding the temperature where Fahrenheit and Celsius measurements coincide.

I set up the algebraic equation that I thought would answer the question, but quickly ran into problems. I had too many unknown variables and not enough constants.

Meanwhile, her older sister, a junior in high school, wandered in and grabbed the graphing calculator sitting on the desk. She punched in some numbers, plotted the graph and announced the answer was minus 40 degrees.

This little domestic drama illustrates a couple of different lessons with wider implications.

The first is that I have found that my math skills have atrophied over the years. Whatever I learned in high school and college, I've forgotten. Thanks to calculators and computers, I can still manage family finances and cope with math problems at work. I must confess, however, that I am now unable to handle eighth-grade homework.

The second is that certain tools -- such as graphing calculators and computers -- are as necessary to the education process today as slide rules and typewriters were when I was a student.

Since the beginning of this school year, some parents in Anne Arundel County have been complaining that their children enrolled in advanced algebra and calculus classes have had to purchase graphing calculators that cost between $85 and $120 each.

If they are complaining that this piece of equipment is unnecessary or that the school system is making an unrealistic demand on parents, they are dead wrong.

Horseback minus the horse

The high school graduate who hasn't taken mathematics courses that require the use of a graphing calculator will have trouble getting into college. Universities and colleges routinely require students to have taken calculus in high school. If they haven't, they will take a year of it as a requirement for a bachelor's degree. Taking calculus without a graphing calculator is like taking horseback riding lessons without a horse.

Even those students who don't go on to college need higher-level math skills than their parents did.

A good knowledge of trigonometry, plane geometry and algebra are prerequisites for jobs with Anne Arundel's largest private employers, such as Northrop Grumman, ARINC and Computer Sciences Corp. Government employers such as the National Security Agency and the Naval Surface Warfare Center want employees with high-level math skills. A school system that does not provide good mathematics instruction for all of its students isn't serving the community well.

If parents concede graphing calculators are necessary but cost too much money, they should also be even more livid when they purchase a pair of $125 sneakers. They are an unnecessary extravagance, yet how many parents quietly shell out money for high-priced footwear?

I find all this hand-wringing over the cost puzzling.

Don't balk at a ballgame

How many families don't think twice about spending $11 for an upper reserved seat at the ballpark? For a family of four, a night at a baseball game costs $44 for tickets alone. Eating, drinking and souvenirs could easily add another $30. That's close to the $80 needed to buy an electronic device that will provide more than just one evening of entertainment.

Indeed, there are families who can't afford these calculators. If anyone has a right to complain, they do.

They are also the families where education -- particularly one that leads to well-paying jobs -- can be the ticket out of poverty. If they are denied opportunities because they can't purchase graphing calculators, we have an obligation to provide them.

The school system says it doesn't have money to purchase textbooks, let alone pricey calculators. There are ways around this.

Schools or parents can create a market for used calculators.

If bake sales and car washes can raise money so that sports teams and marching bands can travel out of state, they can also be used to finance purchases of calculators that could be leased.

In addition, plenty of companies in this community would be willing to donate the calculators or the money to purchase them.

Education has always involved a degree of sacrifice on the part of families and the community. Perhaps families may have to scrimp to purchase a graphing calculator or taxpayers will have to pay a few more dollars a year to provide them to students.

The point is that the public education system must keep pace with technology. Falling behind could mean that graduates from county high schools are no longer competitive with those from communities willing to invest in technology.

If, for want of a graphing calculator, Anne Arundel graduates can't enroll in colleges of their choice or find work with local companies, the answer is obvious: Buy the calculators.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 11/02/97