COMET • Vol. 1, No. 17 – 5 July 2000


“A City Rebels Against State Standards” by Richard Rothstein

Source: New York Times – 21 June 2000

Although “local control” means little for huge districts like New York City’s, most American schools are run by elected boards that are expected to reflect community goals. But if states set standards, as they are now doing, the most important role of local boards disappears.

In Pasadena, Calif., a school board has bucked the trend, voting defiantly last week to adopt its own science standards rather than the state’s.

Local control has its downside. Boards may set low standards, or learning may take a back seat to job protection. But local control also has benefits. Districts can pioneer better methods that get copied nationwide. Schools benefit if a state-imposed curriculum is wise. But they can suffer if standards are flawed or unsuited to local need.

Pasadena’s vote is noteworthy because experts often depict American science education as a mile wide and an inch deep, with students memorizing disconnected facts. While standards in some states address that concern, those in others do not. California, for example, now expects third graders to know that matter consists of more than 100 types of atoms listed on the periodic table, and that energy comes from the sun as light.

Eight-year-olds can “know” facts like these, but few can understand them. Yet California considers the standards high, because pupils could not previously regurgitate such information.

Pasadena is a Los Angeles suburb with mostly minority and poor students. But it is also home to the California Institute of Technology, where 15 years ago the faculty began to develop for the district a curriculum that teaches children to “think like scientists” rather than memorize facts they don’t understand.

Discarding textbooks, Pasadena uses kits of material for experiments. While one fifth-grade class creates electric circuits to light a bulb, another investigates crayfish. These lead to teaching about conductivity and anatomy. Students write their observations and hypotheses, and describe their experiments in journals…

The curriculum is nationally admired. Urging Pasadena to maintain its approach even if it differs from state standards, Dr. Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, contrasted Caltech’s methods with usual teaching that asks only for word recognition that is easy to test on multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank exams.

And in “Teaching the New Basic Skills” (Free Press, 1996), Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy praise Pasadena as teaching true scientific method. At the meeting last week where the school board adopted its own science standards, students and teachers testified of coming to love and learn science from “inquiry-based” lessons, and parents described how children linked writing, math and science…

But Pasadena is not the only innovative district that believes state standards limit learning. If other districts also rebel, they could challenge the faulty notion that combining local control, high standards and more state accountability is an easy matter.


(1) “Relating Research and Practice” by Judy Sowder

Source: Paper presented at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ Research Presession, April 2000, and available at

I would venture to say that everyone in this room tonight believes that the primary value of mathematics education research is the extent to which it ultimately affects classroom practices and students’ learning. However, the fact is that little of this research is ever translated into practice. Why is this the case?

In a 1997 Educational Researcher article, Mary Kennedy tried to answer this question by discussing what she called the “apparent failure” of research to influence teaching. She hypothesized four reasons for the disjuncture between research and practice:

1. The research itself is not sufficiently persuasive or authoritative;

2. The research has not been relevant to practice. It has not been sufficiently practical, it has not addressed teachers’ questions, nor has it adequately acknowledged their constraints.

3. Ideas from research have not been accessible to teachers. Findings have not been expressed in ways that are comprehensible to teachers.

4. The education system itself is intractable and unable to change, or it is conversely inherently unstable, overly susceptive to fads, and consequently unable to engage in systematic change…

Her discussion of these four points is illuminating, and I recommend reading the original article. I will return to some of what she has to say as I proceed. I will use her four points, with some rewording, to structure this presentation on connecting mathematics education research and practice….

(2) “Teachers Union Chiefs Assail ‘Testing Mania'” by Jodi Wilgoren (New York Times)

Source: Contra Costa Times — 4 July 2000

PHILADELPHIA — The leaders of the nation’s two teachers unions harshly criticized the movement to raise academic standards in public schools Monday, saying in separate speeches that politicians and educators should focus more on developing a challenging curriculum and less on testing students.

Opening the American Federation of Teachers biennial convention here Monday morning, Sandra Feldman, the president, said her members were the only professionals expected to invent “their most basic tools” while practicing their craft, and she called for a national consortium to develop curriculum on all subjects.

Nearly 800 miles away in Chicago, Robert Chase, the president of the National Education Association, told some 10,000 convention delegates that enactment of standards had been “absurd” and “perverse” in some cases and urged “a massive infusion of common sense — common sense based on real classroom experience.”

Chase and Feldman said they continued to support the drive for higher standards that has swept statehouses and schoolhouses in the past decade. But they also said they have begun to worry about a backlash against the high-stakes standardized tests meant to monitor progress.

“State standards do not curricula make,” Feldman told some 4,000 school employees gathered at the gleaming Pennsylvania Convention Center. “No test, no matter how good — and all too many of them are not — can possibly capture the sum of education, let alone be a substitute for real education.”

Acknowledging that the federal government is prohibited by law from writing curriculum, Feldman proposed that the Department of Education invite states into a consortium that would solicit plans to develop and evaluate curriculum and educational software.

A few hours after Feldman’s speech, Richard Riley, the secretary of education, told a group at the convention that he would host a national forum to address the alignment of curriculum with the new standards and tests.

Riley also expressed support for Feldman’s proposal, made public today, to create a “transitional” year of high school to help teen-agers who lack basic skills in reading and math.

Feldman said states and local districts have abandoned curriculum development, handing teachers thick sets of “frameworks” with guidelines of what children should know, but no map to get there. She said there should be more uniformity in what is taught nationally…

He quoted a teacher who wrote to him, saying, “I have never been so overwhelmed in my 32 years of teaching,” adding that “testing mania” was overtaking schools “like some education-eating bacteria”…

(3) “Teachers Union Boss Derides Schools’ ‘Test Mania'” by Vanessa Gezari

Source: Chicago Tribune — 3 July 2000,2669,CTT-20544424,FF.html

The head of the country’s largest teachers union Monday lambasted a test-driven educational culture that he said sets students up for failure.

Speaking to 9,500 teachers and educational support employees at the National Education Association’s Annual Representative Assembly at McCormick Place, union President Bob Chase said the current “testing mania” does a disservice to students because it ignores inequalities between rich and poor school districts. Struggling students who fall short of standards don’t get enough chances to catch up, he said…

“Days, even weeks, of valuable class time are now being consumed by test drills. Material that’s not on the tests, especially in the arts and sciences, is being tossed out.”

Though Chase said he supports high standards for students, he said the current standardized testing system would benefit from a generous dose of common sense.

In an interview, he praised a proposal issued Monday by the American Federation of Teachers that would allow students who have trouble meeting standards to tack on an extra year of high school.

“I think it has a lot of merit,” he said. “I’d like to see programs in place to [help students] achieve standards. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.”

Gov. George Ryan, who also addressed the gathering, said the five-year high school option “would be something I’d look at”…

Chase called on members to endorse Vice President Al Gore for president, and delegates were expected to vote on the endorsement Tuesday. Gore is scheduled to address the convention Thursday.

(4) “Poll: High-stakes School Tests Fail to Make Grade” by Rob Hotakainen

Source: Sacramento Bee — 20 June 2000

A backlash against the high-stakes testing movement in American education intensified Monday when the nation’s school administrators released a survey that says the public “profoundly disagrees” that a student’s academic progress can be summarized by a single test.

“Only on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ can people rise to the top by rote memorization and answers to multiple-choice questions,” said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, which includes 14,000 educational leaders.

At a jammed news conference on Capitol Hill, the group said it is supporting a bill in Congress that would allow students to receive diplomas or advance to another grade even if they can’t pass a state-mandated exit test.

The bill, proposed by Sen. Paul Wellstone and Rep. Robert Scott, would stop states from giving “determinative weight” to such a test and would instead require them to use other indicators, such as grades or attendance.

Even though at least 26 states have passed laws requiring exit exams, Wellstone called the testing movement “bumper-sticker politics at its very worst,” while Scott said that a simple reliance on testing isn’t improving schools.

Using a farm analogy, Scott, D-Va., a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said: “Weighing the pig doesn’t fatten the pig.”

In California, developing a high school exit exam has been a key element of school reform pushed by Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature. Passing the new exam will be required of all students seeking a high school diploma in the spring of 2004. Ninth-graders can begin taking the exam this fall and will be able to retake it until they pass…

Wellstone said he supports schools that deny diplomas to flunking students, but only if it is proven the tests actually measure what the students are taught and students are given multiple opportunities to pass.

“I’m not saying that everyone should graduate,” he said. “You don’t give up on rigor”…

Wellstone has been working on the bill since last fall, when he disclosed that he has a learning disability that makes it difficult for him to read charts and graphs. He struggled with standardized tests in high school and college, even though he received a doctorate degree at age 24.

Wellstone intends to offer his bill as an amendment when the Senate resumes deliberations on a stalled education bill later this year. In a Republican-led Congress, it appears to have little chance of passing, but Wellstone has stepped up his promotional efforts, most recently going to New York City last week to pitch the plan at a school in the Bronx…

“We know, for example, that Albert Einstein — who was dyslexic — did not perform well on tests as a child, yet had one of the best minds in our history,” Houston said. “The idea that every child should be treated the same is a profoundly un-American idea.”

(5) “In School, Changes at the Top” by David Nakamura and Christina A. Samuels

Source: Washington Post — 25 June 2000

School principals across the Washington region are protesting, resigning and, in some cases, retiring in the face of increased accountability for higher test scores and better schools–a trend that will bring a wave of leadership changes.

Increasingly, impatient parents and reform-minded superintendents are measuring principals by the achievement gains in their schools. That’s led to demotions, promotions, even firings. And, with a batch of baby boom-era administrators reaching the 30-year mark, it’s meant retirements…

“All the principals in this county feel insecure, and they’re angry,” said Linda Waples, president of the Prince George’s school administrators union, which staged a protest march outside Board of Education headquarters last week.

“They hold principals accountable for test scores, yet we don’t have the power to hire and fire teachers,” Waples said. “A principal is required to be the instructional leader, the social worker, do administrative tasks–there are just so many things we’re responsible for doing. But the general feeling is that we’re not getting the support from central administration.”

Indeed, a national survey of 400 superintendents showed that half of them believe they had too few candidates for principals’ jobs. The top three reasons superintendents cited for the declining interest in the job: the imbalance between responsibility and salary, the stress of the job and its time-consuming nature…

“The pressure that has been placed on us by using those tests as a single measure is ludicrous,” said Emery, 58, whose students performed well on Virginia’s Standards of Learning exams. “I think the pressure is tremendous. It’s much too strong.”

The stress of the job is so high that some experts say younger educators are shying away from the top posts…

(6) “Don’t Try Algebra Too Soon, State Told” by David Nakamura

By David Nakamura Washington Post — 15 June 2000

Maryland school systems should not require middle school students to take Algebra I because most of them are not ready for the concepts of what has traditionally been a high school curriculum, a state task force has determined.

The push to offer algebra at a younger age has intensified over the past decade. Although Maryland does not require it, many school systems are considering making the course mandatory for eighth-graders.

But that’s a mistake, said Francis “Skip” Fennell, a Western Maryland College professor and chairman of the 35-member task force that is studying ways to improve the state’s math scores.

Not only are the concepts in Algebra I confusing for younger students, but it also takes time away from traditional middle school math that stresses the basics of computation skills and problem-solving, he said.

“I’m not saying algebra is not important. It is. I’m saying the underpinnings of algebra should flow through the curriculum,” Fennell said. “Is it appropriate to take a high school course and plop middle schoolers into it and say it’s appropriate for all kids? No, it’s not.”

Fennell said that school systems must come up with middle school math courses that introduce students to algebraic concepts but do not require complete mastery of algebra by year’s end.

“Taking a high school course heavy with symbolic manipulation and dropping it down to [the] seventh or eighth grades will do nothing more than frustrate a lot of good students,” he said. “We have to be careful. There are lots of other ways to approach algebra.”

The recommendation is one of many that the task force will present to the state Board of Education in the next two months, Fennell said. Other recommendations likely will include requiring that high school students take math all four years instead of three, and that students in all grades receive an average of an hour of math instruction daily.

The task force would like middle school math teachers to be certified in their subject matter, Fennell said. Now they need only general teaching certification for any subject in kindergarten through eighth grade…

While the task force will offer these specific recommendations, it will also stress that the state do more to “market math” as being fun, challenging and exciting…

(7) “Montclair Shows a Talent For Teaching” by Christina A. Samuels

Source: Washington Post — 24 June 2000

…Montclair Elementary School, which opened in 1991, teaches the standard Prince William County curriculum using the philosophy of “multiple intelligences” espoused by Harvard education professor Howard Gardner…

Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has been criticized by University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch. Hirsch’s concept of “core knowledge,” which forms the basis of the SOLs, suggests that students learn best through more traditional forms of instruction and when they share a common foundation of facts.

Whitehead-Scanlon said she thinks other educators will be interested in seeing how Montclair has melded the Hirsch-style curriculum with Gardner’s theory. At least 24 principals visited last year, said Whitehead-Scanlon, who thinks Montclair might be the only public school to have fully adopted multiple intelligences as a learning tool. Private schools also use the theory…

Visitors to Montclair learn how teachers create lesson plans that touch on at least one and often several of the eight intelligences. Physical education class, given three times a week, includes a healthy dose of math as students measure off distances using standard and metric measurements…

On the Prince William proficiency tests, given in third and fifth grades, Montclair has scored consistently higher than the county average. Although children of wealthier parents tend to do well on standardized tests, Whitehead-Scanlon is quick to note about 67 percent of Montclair’s students come primarily from outside the affluent Montclair neighborhood.

In 1998-99, about 34 percent of Montclair’s students were minorities and 15 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, compared with 38 percent and 20 percent of the county.

School Board members lauded the program when it was first presented to them earlier this month. Parents have done the same, saying that it should be adopted by other schools…


“Math On Call” in Fresno County

The Fresno County Office of Education (FCOE) has started “Math On Call,” a free Mathematics Homework Hotline. FCOE is currently piloting the program with four County schools, with hopes of taking it onto PBS in the fall. “Math on Call” is a call-in show that is accessed through toll-free telephone calls, with a live broadcast available to be viewed over ITFS. K-14 students can ask credentialed math teachers for help on homework problems.

The pilot is running from 12:30 – 1:30 Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays through the 13th of July. If you are working with a Fresno County school that is currently in session and would like to access “Math On Call” for a couple of weeks, please contact Lori Hamada at Lori adds, “If you know a student who might benefit from our help, feel free to share our phone number(s): 559-497-3776, or for outside of our calling area, the toll free number is (888) 567-MATH. Even if they cannot see the broadcast, our tutors can talk them through their problem over the telephone!”

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.