COMET • Vol. 1, No. 16 – 15 June 2000


(1) IMAP and CRP Members Approved

The State Board of Education has approved 64 individuals to serve on the Mathematics Instructional Materials Advisory Panel and 15 to serve on the Content Review Panel for California1s 2001 mathematics textbook adoption. A list of members is available by calling the California Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources office at (916) 657-3023. Following are the last names of the members selected for the CRP: Beer, Bishop, Friedman, Gamelin, Haimo, Jennings, Kerckhoff, Klein, Milgram, Poon, Stein, Thompson, Valdes, White, and Wu. (Congratulations to SJVMP members Lisa Kernaghan, Sally Macy, Samantha Tate, and Sue Wallace-Sims on their selection for the IMAP.)

(2) “Illinois Experiment Puts Teaching Methods to Test” by Richard Lee Colvin

Source: Los Angeles Times – 4 June 2000 (expired; now in archives)

As the nation’s public schools cast about for ways to bolster student achievement, a small group of affluent school districts in suburban Chicago is delivering some lessons on what it takes to improve.

The 18 districts on Chicago’s North Shore, already among the best in the country, have spent the last five years and well over $1 million trying to figure out how to get even better. And, if their experience is any guide, California may be heading down the wrong path by building its reform program around rapid improvements in test scores.

First, the consortium had its students in grades 4, 8 and 12 participate in an international math and science test against 41 countries. Then, educators spent years analyzing what, when and how they teach each topic and comparing what they do with the methods of those who bested them. Then they began looking last fall in painstaking detail at how their students answered hundreds of questions, combing the data for strengths, weaknesses and clues on how to improve.

Among their conclusions, so far: Assign less homework. Throw out the overhead projector. Teach lessons well the first time and stop reviewing them year after year. Give teachers more time away from the classroom to improve their skills. Videotape teachers’ lessons and critique their performance.

A key element of the [test] data is a question-by-question breakdown of how the performance of consortium students compares with that of students nationally and internationally.

The standardized tests used by California and other states produce far less specific information–how well a school’s students read compared with national averages, for example. The specificity is limited because the questions and answers are kept secret so the tests can be used for several years.

As a result, the Stanford 9, the guidepost for California’s multibillion-dollar school reform drive, is not very useful in suggesting how to improve learning. Instead, it is used largely as a scorecard for charting progress.

“We did really well on TIMSS [the international study] so it has to be that there were good things here,” said Winski, who teaches eighth-graders at Field Junior High School in Northbrook. “But there were things that we were not so good at. So, I had to think, ‘What could I do to improve?'”

That kind of reflection has changed her teaching in ways small and profound. She’s tossed out the overhead projector. Instead, she uses the whole chalkboard. That allows her lessons to unfold as one connected story, instead of being flashed a snippet at a time on a pull-down screen.

More important, she has de-emphasized the kind of repetitive homework assignments typical of the United States. Higher-scoring countries tend to assign less homework. That frees up classroom time previously spent correcting homework, time she uses to try to engage students in thinking.

But Winski said it’s hard to change, especially for veterans like her. That’s clear from a journal she kept for two years, during which she scrutinized her lessons for what worked and what didn’t.

Making the leap from the conference room to the classroom has always been difficult for American public education. And never more so than today. Policymakers have laid out their expectations for what students should know, but many critics say not enough is being done to help teachers meet those expectations.

The research underway in Illinois is aimed at helping teachers connect those dots.

(3) “Preserving Magic in the Rush for Accountability” by Martha Groves

Source: Los Angeles Times – 14 June 2000

In many classrooms, one casualty of the nationwide push toward higher academic standards and more school accountability has been the “teachable moment.”

A teachable moment is a wondrous time that many teachers live for, when children demonstrate that they are ready to learn something right then and there–though not necessarily what the teacher had in mind. A student’s impromptu question might lead the class down an exciting, unexpected path, with the teacher serving as eager facilitator and co-learner.

For far too many educators, however, seizing that moment of readiness is a luxury they feel they can ill afford, pressed as they are to teach rigorous curricula in too few school days and to boost pupils’ scores on standardized achievement exams.

Teaching experts say it is unusual to find the combination of adaptability, flexibility, creativity and responsiveness needed to take advantage of teachable moments. “To know a teachable moment, a teacher has to be secure,” said Seeds UES Principal Margaret Heritage.

“You must figure out how to make the child’s interest and the curriculum come together,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University who directs the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

“You can’t be concerned about the teachable moment when the important thing is not learning but a test score,” said Jacqueline Ancess, associate director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching at Columbia University.

Darling-Hammond said she fears that California “is going too far in the direction of overprescription” of standards and curricula that often depend on too much memorization of information rather than the creativity and critical thinking needed for the Information Age.

“In some ways the accountability movement is going to make public schools worse,” Darling-Hammond said. “Parents will flee to private schools that can still offer [spontaneous learning].

(4) “Board Selects Romer as Chief of L.A. Schools” by Louis Sahagun and Doug Smith

Source: Los Angeles Times – 7 June 2000

The Board of Education on Tuesday unanimously agreed to appoint former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer superintendent of the Los Angeles school district, which would make him the first non-educator to lead the huge and beleaguered district.

Looking relaxed and confident, the 71-year-old Romer said at a news conference that he relishes the opportunity to rebuild the district and lift the educational prospects of its 711,000 students.

“This is one of the toughest jobs a guy could find,” said Romer, flanked by the seven board members. “And if you do it right, it can be one of the most rewarding. You have a history of excellence. But it’s obviously been lost to some degree. Our job is to reclaim it.”

Romer also said he would resign immediately as chairman of the Democratic National Convention Committee. “I’ll not be operating here in a partisan sense.”

His immediate priorities include helping interim Supt. Ramon C. Cortines select leaders of 11 minidistricts being created through a massive reorganization of the district. The reorganization takes effect the first week of July, the same time Romer takes over.

Romer said he intends to quickly develop a system to assess the educational needs of each student every three months, and then prescribe a remedy.

“That way we can intervene early and get these youngsters on track,” he said.

(5) “State Schools Officials Greet New L.A. District Chief” by Jenifer Warren

Source: Los Angeles Times – 8 June 2000

SACRAMENTO–One day after being named Los Angeles schools superintendent, Roy Romer hopped a morning plane for Sacramento, where he received a warm welcome from a state board that pledged its support in helping him turn the district around.

Romer told the board that he had spent the last decade thinking about standards-based school reform and had grown eager to dig in and put his ideas to work.

Citing Massachusetts as a cautionary example, he urged members not to put accountability–including popular tools such as exit exams–ahead “of our capacity to deliver a good learning experience.”

“Massachusetts has been at accountability–exit exams, high standards–and has really put money on the table for about eight years,” Romer said. “But they have not made substantial progress. . . . And what it’s pointing to is that we can’t get to where we want to get by the ordinary practices.”

Instead, Romer said, the state ought to focus on the quality of instruction. That, he said, will take “the kind of professional development we’ve never committed to nor been willing to fund.”

Noting that 25% of L.A. Unified’s teachers are on emergency credentials, Romer called the issue particularly acute for Los Angeles: “When we get at the problem of how do you raise achievement levels, the quality of the instruction is critical.”

He also said the annual Stanford 9 test is not a sufficient yardstick to gauge students’ progress.

“You need to have something periodically during the course of the year, a diagnostic of where that youngster is, so you’ll know to what degree they’re behind, why they’re behind, so you can develop a plan to bring them back,” he said.


(1) “When Teachers Are Cheaters” by Barbara Kantrowitz and Daniel McGinn

Source: Newsweek – 19 June 2000

It’s bad enough when kids get kicked out for cheating. But as the school year ends, an alarming number of teachers and principals face charges of fixing the numbers on high-stakes tests that determine everything from whether an individual kid gets promoted to an entire district’s annual budget. Although there are no firm statistics, school officials agree that the problem has become much worse in the past few years as more states have adopted testing as a way to audit national and state educational standards.

In theory, the exams ensure that teachers pass on the right lessons. The problem is that high scores -not high standards -have become the holy grail.

Even the best tests are designed with much more modest goals. They’re supposed to be diagnostic tools -to help pinpoint gaps in learning. They don’t provide a full picture of a child’s -or a school’s -accomplishments any more than a single blood test can supply all the data a doctor needs to treat a patient. And they can have a significant error rate, says George Madaus, a professor of education and public policy at Boston College. “You can’t use these tests by themselves to make any decisions,” he says.

That hasn’t stopped policymakers from trying to use tests as a quick fix for all that ails public schools. And the pressure quickly trickles down to principals and teachers -who are supposed to be role models. No one’s condoning cheating, but test critics see it as the inevitable side effect of score mania. “Cheating is simply one more piece of a dangerous fallout from the politicians and bureaucrats placing too much emphasis on standardized tests,” says Peter Sacks, the author of “Standardized Minds,” a critical look at the testing movement.

“Teaching to the test” is a far more serious threat than outright cheating, according to some experts. Renzulli calls this the “ram, remember, regurgitate” curriculum, a new version of the three R’s. “It’s nonsense content,” says Linda McNeil, a professor of education at Rice University and author of “Contradictions of School Reform: The Educational Costs of Standardized Tests.” In Texas, she says, some kids spend months doing nothing but preparing for the test. “It’s like you’re mentally teaching kids to hit the delete key,” she says. “You’re training them to forget. The real cheating is of a solid academic curriculum.”

Other educators worry that all the publicity about cheating could trigger more than just a backlash against tests. “We may find ourselves in a position where the standards movement may die, and I think that would be a tragedy,” says Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association. A better solution is to de-emphasize tests and focus on more sophisticated assessments like student portfolios and classroom performance. That may not entirely eliminate cheating, but it certainly would make it a lot harder to play with the numbers.


= “Bitter Lessons” The kids were the heroes in the scandal at Potomac Elementary. What happens when role models teach dishonesty.

= “Don’t Let Scandal Scuttle Standards” Tests and accountability there’s no way to know whether kids are learning. The case for doing it right.

= “Do Tests Hurt Poor Kids?” A noted reformer argues against high-stakes exams Higher standards. More testing. It’s the mantra that school reformers hear in every state. But acclaimed educator Deborah Meier, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winner who has opened schools in some of the toughest neighborhoods of New York and Massachusetts, urges a rethinking of this strategy. In a conversation with NEWSWEEK’s Pat Wingert, Meier lays out her fears of this wave of reform, as detailed in her new book, “Will Standards Save Public Education?” (Beacon Press. $12).

(2) “Turning ‘C’ Students into Mathematicians” – Interview with Bill Handley

Source: Christian Science Monitor – 6 June 2000

Bill Handley, an Australia-based educator, has made a reputation for himself as something of a math liberator. His methods for quick mental calculation and his way of teaching young children to use them have transformed math skeptics into confident problem-solvers. He is author of “Teach Your Children Tables” (a bestseller in Australia), and the new “Speed Mathematics,” which builds on the calculation strategies of his first text and also includes an easy method for calculating square roots.

He spends the bulk of his time teaching in a variety of Australian schools and helping other teachers improve their methods. On periodic visits to the United States and Canada, he helps schools interested in adopting his techniques. Following are excerpts from a recent interview with the Monitor’s Stacy Teicher.

“When I first learned algebra, I thought this was great because I enjoyed puzzles and logical reasoning, and here is logical reasoning and problem-solving made a science or an art. I still dislike people talking about rules of algebra. I like to understand – it makes sense if you do it this way”.

The basic formula came to me by reading a book by Martin Gardner on mathematical prodigies…. He had a formula for squaring numbers, and I wondered, could it be adapted to multiplying any numbers? And so I came up with a formula, and then discovered it’s been known for centuries.



“EXTEND is a national Internet forum on mathematics education intended to involve new constituencies, to engage new voices, and to examine new perspectives. Major topics will be explored through forum reports, position papers, and reader commentary.” Although this web site has not been updated in the past several years, it contains a very useful, extensive list of links to resources related to mathematics education at



“The goal of this web site is to help grade school children improve their math problem-solving and critical thinking skills. It has 4000 math word problems for children to enjoy!STeachers, we will be providing over 300 problem-of-the-week, open-ended and critical thinking math problems for grade 1 through 8 in August, 2000 on our web site. You will be able to download and print them. If your school or district is interested in subscribing to it, please contact Editor for details S Parents and Homeschoolers, paper version of critical thinking and open-ended math problems would be available to you in August. Thank you.”


(3) PBS TeacherSource for Math

A source of information about math grants, conferences, recommended books and web sites, Mathline, plus dozens of math lessons.


(1) Announcement for ICME-9 (TOKYO/MAKUHARI 2000)

The National Organizing Committee for the 9th International Congress on Mathematics Education (ICME9) on behalf of the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction (ICMI), is pleased to announce that ICME9 will be held in Tokyo/Makuhari, Japan, from July 31 to August 6, 2000. Makuhari is located between the center of Tokyo and Tokyo International Airport (Narita).

The URL for the 9th International Congress on Mathematics Education

(ICME-9) is:

(2) Publication opportunity in Teaching & Change:

From Barbara Pape: I am looking for several articles by teachers of mathematics for an upcoming issue of Teaching & Change, a quarterly journal jointly published by Corwin Press and the National Education Association. The articles could take one of many perspectives. For example, a teacher could discuss comprehensive changes in their school’s math program (curriculum, professional development, etc.) that improved student achievement. Or, an article could examine the positive changes math standards have made, discuss obstacles encountered and recommend changes. A teacher also could write about what resources he or she needs to implement math standards. For anyone anxious about writing a lengthy piece, I can offer advice and extensive editingS We would consider other topics that are relevant to the current debate over math instruction. The purpose of the journal is not to take sides on any topic, but to incorporate diverse viewpoints.

Please let me know if you can recommend any teachers – or professors — who would consider writing an article for Teaching & Change. Each article should be no longer than 20 pages double-spaced. Authors need to include an abstract and a brief bio. Hard copies and disk should be sent to:

Barbara Pape; Managing Editor; Teaching & Change; 4715 Essex Avenue; Chevy Chase, Md. 20815.

Please offer my phone number to anyone who may have additional questions:

301-907-3883. The deadline for submission is in August.

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 typically compiled and distributed via COMET every 1-2 weeks during the regular academic year. 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). Because COMET is based at California State University, Fresno, mathematics education opportunities in Central California are also included.