COMET • Vol. 1, No. 13 – 10 May 2000


(1) Congratulations Presidentail Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching Recipients

Congratulations to Diana Herrington (Clovis High School math teacher and a member of the San Joaquin Valley Mathematics Project’s Class of ’89) and to Cynthia Duskin Hausheer (Montevideo Elementary School, Mission Viejo), California’s secondary and elementary mathematics recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching for 1999 (see announcement below under “National Focus”). For a list this year’s awardees see

(2) “School Officials Debate Rival Math Teaching Approaches”

by David R. Baker
Source: Los Angeles Daily News – 3 May 2000

The math wars erupted Tuesday at the Los Angeles school board as dueling parents, students and professors argued over a proposed shift back to a more traditional way of teaching the subject.

Both sides of the debate — traditionalists and those favoring a reform program called “integrated math” — bombarded the board with statistics and expert opinions. And board members, who will vote on the changes next month, showed no clear agreement on how to proceed.

Board member David Tokofsky said that while high school students may benefit from having access to both approaches, elementary school students needed more rigorous training in basic skills.

Integrated math emphasizes understanding the concepts underlying basic math principles while the traditional approach stresses practicing skills through drills and repetition.

“I’m into practicing the fundamentals,” said Tokofsky, who worried that the district is acting too slowly on the changes. “Let’s go ahead and move on the elementary schools. The kids can’t wait.”

But board President Genethia Hayes, who has expressed support for integrated math, said she is loathe to ditch a program that some credit with raising the number of African-American and Latino kids taking college-prep math.

“I am not interested in the politics of exclusion,” she said.

The proposed changes are designed to keep the district’s math program in step with new state guidelines. But those guidelines only spell out what students need to learn, not how they should learn it.

Under the Los Angeles Unified proposal, teachers would still be able to use some of the techniques of integrated math. But they would also have to place a greater emphasis on mastering basic skills.

The fight over how to teach math has raged in school districts across the country, and both sides came well prepared for Tuesday’s discussion. The president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics urged the board not to drop integrated programs, which he said could reach more students than could the traditional approach.

“Back to basics is moving backward,” said Lee V. Stiff, who is also a math education professor at the University of North Carolina, Raleigh. “If you think back to when you were in school, if you didn’t get it the way it was taught, you didn’t get it.”

But David [Klein], a math professor at California State University, Northridge, argued that integrated programs do a poor job of teaching math fundamentals. He likened integrated math to “whole language,” a once popular means of teaching English that has now been rejected by many school districts.

“I hope board members reject the view that inferior, anti-arithmetic programs are needed by minorities,” [Klein] said. “Arithmetic has become a dirty word among the Los Angeles Unified School District’s math cadre.”

(3) “The Mysterious Stanford”

Source: The NASSMC Briefing Service (NBS) bulletin #109
Original Source: Los Angeles Times (Sunday Magazine) – 5 March 2000

California’s Stanford 9 has become the Big Brother test for every public school kid in the state. The scores will be used to rank students individually. And it will dictate everything from assignment of teachers to opportunities for gifted programs. But even as the standardized test stakes have been raised to an all-time high, the content and style of the Stanford 9 remains shrouded in mystery. Its contents are hidden from all but a few bureaucrats.

However, there are a couple of reasons why sample tests should be made available. First, without the ability to scrutinize the test, parents can’t know what parts of the curriculum it emphasizes and what it does not. Second, without a practice version of the test, students are denied an opportunity to get comfortable with it. In Texas, each year’s achievement tests are posted on the state’s education Web site shortly after they are administered.

But making each year’s test available is costly. The estimated cost of producing new tests every year for California would be $10-$12 million annually. The test’s publisher, Harcourt, won’t sell test prep materials because, says a spokesman, “we don’t believe in selling products that are only designed to improve performance on tests.” The truth is most students benefit from such preparation. And preparing for a standardized test is no less ethical than preparing for a history test. The cost of making tests available every year to help students prepare would be “a bargain for high achievement.”


(1) “White House Names K-12 Science And Mathematics Teaching Award Winners”

Media contact: Charles Drum; (703) 306-1070;
Program contact: Janice M. Earle; (703) 306-1613;

President Clinton today named 200 teachers to receive the 1999 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST), the nation’s highest honor for mathematics and science teachers in grades K through 12.

The awardees hail from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, U.S. Territories, and schools operated in the U.S. and overseas by the Department of Defense. They teach in public and private schools and in urban, suburban, and rural school districts. The National Science Foundation (NSF) administers PAEMST on behalf of the White House. The program was established in 1983.

“America’s continuing success in the international technological revolution depends heavily upon building our strength in mathematics and science education,” says Rita Colwell, NSF director. “The teachers we honor here are educating those who will lead this country–and the world–in creating, developing, and putting to work new ideas and new technologies.”

Each year, after an initial selection process at the state or territorial level, a national panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians and educators recommends teachers to receive a presidential award – one elementary and one secondary math teacher and one elementary and one secondary science teacher from each jurisdiction. The 1999 recipients were selected from among 648 finalists.

“Awardees each receive a $7,500 educational grant for his or her school, a presidential citation and a trip to Washington, D.C. for a series of recognition events.

(2) “Algebra Textbooks Come Up Short in Project 2061 Review”

by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
Source: Education Week – 3 May 2000

Several of the most widely used algebra textbooks provide an inadequate framework for teaching the mathematical system and have little potential for helping students learn it, a study released last week concludes. Most others, though adequate, have major shortcomings, it says.

The review of 12 textbooks is the latest conducted by Project 2061, an initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to improve mathematics and science education. Seven of the books have the potential to help students learn algebra, the evaluators determined, while five were found to have little potential to do so.

“Algebra is a ‘gatekeeper’ course for many students and the key for going on to learn higher mathematics,” George D. Nelson, the Project 2061 director, said in releasing the results here last week. “But the vast majority of students aren’t learning algebra, due in large part to the nature of instruction used by teachers as outlined in textbooks.”

Evolution in Math

The textbooks were selected from more than two dozen now on the market because they are the best sellers or the most current. They were rated according to how well they: identify a sense of purpose for studying and using algebra; build on student ideas and engage students in math; develop mathematical ideas; promote student thinking about the subject; and assess student progress.

Most of the texts were found to be “poor” or “fair” in building on students’ existing knowledge of mathematics. Those books deemed “adequate” generally did a satisfactory or good job of building a sequence of activities, providing practice, and meeting some of the benchmarks outlined in the newly revised standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. But to be effective, the review says, they must be supplemented with teacher professional development and other resources.

While the books present a broad range of content, they are not effective at building a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts, said Gerald Kulm, a researcher at Texas A&M University in College Station and the director of the evaluation.

“There are a lot of operations and procedures in these texts … but they are not building on the central ideas [of algebra],” Mr. Kulm contended.

The program that received the highest ratings, the Interactive Mathematics Program, a text written with money from the National Science Foundation and published by Key Curriculum Press, was considered “excellent” in two categories and “good” in five others. The text was endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education last year as an exemplary program.

Interactive Mathematics and several other NSF-financed texts included in the evaluation are considered integrated programs, meaning they incorporate several areas of mathematics, including geometry, in one volume.

Inclusion of those programs in the evaluation points to an evolution in math education, according to Eric Robinson, an associate professor of mathematics at Ithaca College in New York, and the director of the COMPASS project, which provides information to schools about integrated-math programs subsidized by the NSF.

“We are one of the few countries, as the [Third International Mathematics and Science Study] suggests that still thinks of mathematics education as a list of topics,” said Mr. Robinson, who endorses a more inclusive approach to math education. “Just the fact that [integrated programs] were included in this evaluation and are becoming more popular means we are a country in transition.”

Guide for Selection

Math experts praised the report, saying it provided a strong guide for schools, districts, and textbook-adoption committees seeking the best instructional materials for their students.

“Millions of dollars are spent on textbooks, and there really needs to be some guidance,” said Jacqueline Mitchell, the state math supervisor for Maine and the president of the Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics. “Schools and districts don’t have time to do this type of analysis themselves.”

Mr. Nelson attributed some of the textbooks’ weaknesses to the constraints of the textbook-adoption processes that guide selection in some 20 states, and the challenges faced by publishers in meeting the detailed standards laid out by those states.

But publishing officials say they face a dilemma in deciding whether to publish what textbook critics say schools should buy, or what school systems say they will buy.

“Academic studies of textbooks and reports critiquing them are useful tools in identifying key components in teaching a particular discipline,” Stephen D. Driesler, the executive director of the Washington-based school division of the Association of American Publishers, said in a statement. “But without addressing the multiplicity of state standards, the legitimate needs of classroom teachers, and other issues, achieving ongoing improvement in the quality of classroom instructional materials, an objective we are all striving for, will be far more difficult.”

Teacher Knowledge

John A. Thorpe, the executive director of the NCTM, said that textbooks are only one tool in improving math education.

“Having teachers who have the appropriate knowledge to do their work well is perhaps more important than textbooks,” Mr. Thorpe said, “and they need professional-development opportunities to get there.”

Project 2061 expects to release a review of high school biology textbooks this summer.

[See related story below.]

(3) “Experts Say Few Algebra Books Enter Real Life Into The Equation”

Source: – 26 April 26 2000

Why can’t the kids learn algebra? Because the books they use don’t explain how algebra calculations will relate to everyday life, a panel of scientists said Wednesday…

“We’re not drilling kids,” Sherry Fraser, director of the Interactive Mathematics Program, a textbook deemed adequate by the group and used by 500 schools in 28 states. “If they are just mimicking the teacher, they do not see the usefulness of it.”

But, the books also do a poor job of helping teachers build on what children already understand or dealing with their misconceptions, said Gerald Kulm, a Texas A&M professor who directed the evaluation. “In algebra, we tend to jump in and say, `OK kids, you’re grown up, so now we’re going to start throwing abstractions at you,'” Kulm said.

On the Net: Algebra textbook review:

(4) “Montgomery Tries to Solve Math Problem”

by Brigid Schulte
Source: Washington Post – 8 May 2000

…Algebra is the gateway to college and higher-paying careers in a new technical world. Thus, in the name of equity, more school districts throughout the country…are pushing more students, particularly minority students, into algebra classes earlier.

But increasing the number of students who struggle or have limited skills in algebra is translating–at least initially–into lower test scores, unhappy parents and fears of reinforcing stereotypes that public schools don’t work.

“The same thing happened in Milwaukee, in North Carolina and other districts,” said Lee V. Smith, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “But the important thing to remember is that, even with the higher failure rate, more kids are passing the test now than even took the course five or 10 years ago. It is opening doors. Algebra is the civil rights issue of the new millennium, because it’s that critical.”

Twenty years ago, about 20 percent of high school students took algebra, and most were white, according to the NCTM. In 1994, the latest year for which figures were available, the 66 percent who studied algebra were a far more diverse group.

The trend is apparent in Virginia, where 60 percent of the students taking the state Standards of Learning algebra exam failed in 1998. Last year, 44 percent did. And in the District, where more students have been funneled into algebra, school officials will be piloting a district-wide algebra final this spring.

In the age of high-stakes testing and accountability, Montgomery County offers a cautionary tale: Success cannot simply be mandated….

The biggest factor is also the most problematic: Students were pushed too fast too soon. Many had limited skills or weren’t expected to take algebra…

Teachers applaud the goal of getting more students into algebra. But, they say, start early and do more to prepare students before they walk into a ninth-grade algebra class. Weast hopes to promote such goals with his early childhood initiative and curriculum revision to include algebra concepts in elementary school math classes.

“We want students to take Algebra I, but not if it means putting them in ninth grade when they don’t have a very good chance of passing. They’ll learn to hate math,” said one math teacher who asked not to be named. “Saying algebra might be better later is not closing a door on a student. I don’t want to deny them access to algebra, but I don’t want to deny them a math class where they could be successful.”

But, something seems to be working at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville. Although one-third of the diverse school is relatively poor, the school ranked just behind the more affluent schools of Churchill, Whitman and Wootton in the percentage of students passing the algebra final. At Churchill, Whitman and Wootton, 81, 78 and 76 percent of students passed the January exam. At Paint Branch, 65 percent did, many with high scores.

There is no magic wand; math teachers said. Just hard work. They meet before and after school to tutor students. They teach struggling students two periods of algebra a day. They make up to 600 calls a year to parents of algebra students, asking why they missed class or didn’t do their homework.

“We make sure the student knows they’re going to be accountable,” said math department head Lauren Duff. “It’s harder to cut class if you know your teacher is going to call. We make sure parents know it’s important, too”…

(5) “Parents’ Push Gives Students More SAT Time”

by Jay Mathews
Source: Washington Post – 8 May 2000

…So many SAT-takers are receiving the longer clock. The number of high school seniors who were allowed to take the SAT with extra time surged from 12,259 in 1993 to 24,016 last year–an increase of 96 percent. The total number of SAT-takers rose by only 17 percent over the same period…

“We think there are kids out there that could apply for extra time on the SAT and are not applying, and that is where the problem is,” said Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, which administers the SAT and rules on such requests.

The inequity exists for a number of reasons, experts say. As early as elementary school, affluent, college-educated parents whose children have problems in school often push to have them classified as learning-disabled so they can receive help. “More affluent citizens are more aware of the services there are for children and are more likely to fight for those services,” said Lynda Van Kuren, spokeswoman for the Reston-based Council for Exceptional Children, which represents special education teachers. “And in poor neighborhoods, parents often have a lack of knowledge and not a good working relationship with the school”…

The College Board has offered special SAT arrangements for students with disabilities since 1939. Depending on their disability, students may take a Braille test, a tape-recorded test or a test in which they tell someone how to mark their answers.

Students who receive extended time usually receive an extra 90 minutes on the three-hour SAT, although some receive as much as three extra hours for serious disabilities…


COMET is an online newsletter that seeks to provide timely information in a digest format about state (California) and national news, articles, events, opportunities, and web resources related to mathematics education. Information from a variety of print and online sources is compiled and distributed via COMET approximately once a week. The target audience includes California PreK-12 teachers of mathematics and school/district administrators, as well as university faculty throughout the nation who are interested in issues related to mathematics education (with a focus on California news).