COMET • Vol. 1, No. 19 – 3 August 2000

* I will be on vacation from 10-20 August 2000. – Editor *


“Middle Schools the Next Front in Reform Battle” by Martha Groves

Source: Los Angeles Times — 30 July 2000

With California’s youngest students showing progress, state officials and education experts say the state’s middle schools, which have stagnated, need to be the next focus of school reform. The need for change is evident in this year’s Stanford 9 scores. Results for primary school students showed significant gains, whereas scores in the middle grades only inched up…

Middle schools have missed out on many of the key reforms designed to reverse the decline in California’s public schools. That may be about to change. The state Department of Education plans in September to issue its first round of suggestions in more than a decade for lifting middle school achievement. The report will call for stepped-up teacher training, smaller classes, wiser use of classroom computers, longer school days and a longer school year.

In recent years, the state has put significant new money into the lower grades to restore an emphasis on phonics and math fundamentals and, particularly, to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. But in middle schools, classes of 35 to 42 students are common in many districts….

Any effort to reform middle schools, however, faces serious obstacles…

Raising the stakes, these under-prepared middle schoolers will be among the first to face a key component of the state’s fledgling accountability movement: the new exam that students entering high school this year will eventually need to pass to secure diplomas. The exit exam will be taken first by the Class of 2004, this fall’s incoming freshmen.

“These kids went through some years when the state was in the worst financial shape,” said state Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), head of the legislative body’s education committee. “And now we’re saying, ‘Guess what: You guys are going to be the first ones to take the high school exit exam.’ No doubt they’re going to need extra support.”

Although officials at all levels agree that there is a problem, it remains to be seen whether California can muster the political will to open a new front in its four-year battle to improve schools.

The state is flush with cash, but its legislative mandate to reduce class sizes in primary grades and in some high school subjects–and the resulting depletion of teachers and space–could stifle any drive to bring similar programs to middle schools….

A spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis’ administration declined to comment, noting that the governor’s top education aides had not yet seen the middle school proposal prepared by the Education Department, which reports to Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction…

Sonia Hernandez, deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction at the state Department of Education, expressed concern about “flatlined” reading scores and so-so math performance in the 2000 scores for the middle grades.

Middle school students get only passable marks in the basic arithmetic featured on the Stanford 9, she noted, a situation that bodes poorly for results on the more challenging high school exit exam, with its heavy dose of algebra. (Also troubling: Math scores this year fell off sharply in seventh grade from sixth.)

“It’s not enough for what’s coming,” she said. “This is where the big gains need to be made.”

The state now calls for students to complete algebra by the end of middle school. Under old practices, one-quarter or more of all students did not take algebra at all.

The algebra change caught many middle schools short-handed. Davis approved extra funds last year for training middle school instructors to teach algebra, but the state has a long way to go….


(1) “High Stakes are for Tomatoes” by Peter Schrag

Source: The Atlantic Monthly — August 2000

In state after state, legislatures, governors, and state boards, supported by business leaders, have imposed tougher requirements in math, English, science, and other fields, together with new tests by which the performance of both students and schools is to be judged. In some places students have already been denied diplomas or held back in grade if they failed these tests. In some states funding for individual schools and for teachers’ and principals’ salaries — and in some, such as Virginia, the accreditation of schools — will depend on how well students do on the tests. More than half the states now require tests for student promotion or graduation.

But a backlash has begun…

The backlash, touching virtually every state that has instituted high-stakes testing, arises from a spectrum of complaints: that the focus on testing and obsessive test preparation, sometimes beginning in kindergarten, is killing innovative teaching and curricula and driving out good teachers; that (conversely) the standards on which the tests are based are too vague, or that students have not been taught the material on which the tests are based; that the tests are unfair to poor and minority students, or to others who lack test-taking skills; that the tests overstress young children, or that they are too long (in Massachusetts they can take thirteen to seventeen hours) or too tough or simply not good enough….”Testing season is upon us,” says Mickey VanDerwerker, a leader of Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOL, “and a lot of kids are so nervous they’re throwing up.” In Oakland, California, a protest organizer named Susan Harman is selling T-shirts proclaiming High stakes are for tomatoes….

Many … of the protesters — parents, teachers, and school administrators — are education liberals: progressive followers of John Dewey, who believe that children should be allowed to discover things for themselves and not be constrained by “drill-and-kill” rote learning. They worry that the tests are stifling students and teachers. Most come from suburbs with good, even excellent, schools. Instead of the tests they want open-ended exercises — portfolios of essays, art and science projects, and other “authentic assessments” — that in their view more genuinely measure what a student really knows and can do. They have gotten strong reinforcement from, among others, FairTest, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which opposes standardized testing; Senator Paul Wellstone, of Minnesota, who is sponsoring an anti-testing bill in Congress; Alfie Kohn, a prolific writer and polemicist who argues that the standards movement is a travesty that has “turned teachers into drill sergeants” in the traditionalist belief that “making people suffer always produces the best results”; and Gerald Bracey, an education researcher and a critic of the widespread belief that U.S. students are far behind their peers overseas, which has given impetus to the standards movement.

The anti-testing backlash is beginning to cohere as an integrated national effort. Earlier this year some 600 test critics attended a national conference on high-stakes testing, at Columbia University’s Teachers College, to discuss effects, alternatives, and strategies: how to get the attention of legislators, what kinds of cases would be suited to civil-rights litigation, what assessments ensure accountability, how to achieve higher standards without high-stakes tests. Some on the left believe that the whole standards movement is a plot by conservatives to show up the public schools and thus set the stage for vouchers. All believe that poor and minority kids, who don’t test well, are the principal victims of the tests and the standards movement. They contend (correctly) that almost no testing experts and none of the major testing companies endorse the notion of using just one test to determine promotion or graduation or, for that matter, the salaries of teachers and principals. But so far legislators and governors haven’t paid much attention. …

In his state of education speech in February the U.S. Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, a strong advocate of accountability and standards, seemed to recognize the danger. “Setting high expectations,” he said, “does not mean setting them so high that they are unreachable except for only a few…. If all of our efforts to raise standards get reduced to one test, we’ve gotten it wrong. If we force our teachers to teach only to the test, we will lose their creativity…. If we are so consumed with making sure students pass a multiple-choice test that we throw out the arts and civics then we will be going backwards instead of forward.”

And yet the line between the political drive to be tough and indifference to standards in the name of creativity and diversity sometimes seems hard to draw. Diane Ravitch says that a person much missed in this debate is the late Albert Shanker, a longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, who was relentless in his push for high standards for both students and teachers. But Shanker also pointed out that if only one standard for graduation exists, it will necessarily be low, because the political system can’t support a high rate of failure. Shanker suggested two criteria: a basic competency level required of everyone, combined with honors diplomas, by whatever name, for students who do better and achieve more. The issue of the tradeoff between minimum competency and what is sometimes called “world-class standards” is rarely raised in any explicit manner, but it has bedeviled this debate since the beginning. As the standards requirements begin to take effect, and as more parents face the possibility that their children will not graduate, pressure to lower the bar or eliminate it entirely will almost certainly increase. Conversely, as more people come to understand that the “Texas miracle” and other celebrated successes are based on embarrassingly low benchmarks, those, too, will come under attack. The most logical outcome would be the Shanker solution. But in education politics, where ideology often reigns, logic is not always easy to come by.

(2) “The Downside of High-Stakes Tests” by Jay Mathews

Source: Washington Post – 1 August 2000

…Are high-stakes tests causing more teenagers to drop out of school? And are there ways to keep this group of students in school without retreating from the push toward higher graduation standards?

Those questions are being asked increasingly in the more than 20 states that have recently established rigorous graduation tests in English, math and sometimes other subjects. Despite a range of after-school and summer classes provided to students at risk of failing the exams and despite provisions that give students many chances to retake a test they flunked, educators say the new requirements have persuaded some teenagers to leave school early….

The Boston College report argues that states with graduation tests must do more research on who is dropping out, and why, so they can find out what kind of extra help would have kept such students in school.

One of the links between the tests and the dropout rate is grade retention, the report says. Schools struggling to prepare weak students for high-stakes exams sometimes resort to having them repeat a grade, but the stigma of retention is known to cause many students to drop out….

(3) “The Sizzling Lynne Cheney” by Suzanne Fields

Source: Jewish World Review – 31 July 2000

The Dick Cheney [VP] nomination is good for education. That’s because his wife Lynne is a rigorous critic of what’s wrong with public schools — the textbooks and curriculum, as well as the mush of multiculturalism that seeps into the classrooms at our finest colleges and universities.

Talk about a bully pulpit. She can be a spokeswoman for restoring the dignity of honest intellectual debate, focusing like a laser… to expose the muddled thinking that corrupts academia and the rest of our culture…

Lynne Cheney wrote her Ph.D. thesis on Matthew Arnold, whose guiding principle for studying the humanities was “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” This is what must be restored to education in America…

[This week the spotlight is on the Republicans at the RNC in Philadelphia. Below are excerpts from two older articles by Lynne Cheney. The links are current.]

“Whole Hog for Whole Math” by Lynne V. Cheney

Source: The Wall Street Journal – 3 February 1998

“Whole math” is a form of instruction that has kids develop their own methods of multiplying and dividing, ask questions of one another rather than of teachers, and learn that answers that are close to correct are good enough. It’s a phenomenon familiar across the country, but nowhere has it been embraced more enthusiastically than in California. Last December, however, the California State Board of Education struck a blow for common sense, voting unanimously to roll back whole math and to put in place rigorous, back-to-basics standards…

“A Failing Grade for Clinton’s National Standards” by Lynne Cheney

Source: The Wall Street Journal – 29 September 1997

…Since 1989, when the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics set forth a radical vision for how mathematics should be taught, ideas like Leinwand’s have increasingly become the order of the day. Mathland, an instructional program widely used in California’s elementary schools, never does show kids the standard U.S. procedure for multidigit multiplication. But, in an apparent fit of multiculturalism, it does offer instruction on the very complicated way in which the ancient Egyptians managed these matters.

In the current debate, many otherwise sensible senators have been convinced that safeguards can be put in place to keep harmful fads from influencing standards and assessments. Recent history does not support this optimism. A few years ago, as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I awarded a contract to develop national history standards. Although I required detailed plans from the contractor and had them thoroughly reviewed by knowledgeable people, the standards that were finally delivered were so suffused with political correctness that I felt obliged to condemn them–as did ninety-nine members of the United States senate.

The federal effort to set English/language arts standards produced such a muddle of trendy thinking that in 1994 the Department of Education cut off funding. Late last week, Secretary of Education Bill Riley backed off from the math test into which his department has recently poured thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of dollars. Calculator use should be narrowly restricted, the Secretary said.

Some in the Senate advocate turning national testing over to the National Assessment Governing Board, a bipartisan group appointed by the secretary of education, but that won’t prevent foolish ideas from making their way into national tests. In order to fulfill the vision of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the board reduced the computational part of the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress math exam by 20 percent for seventeen-year-olds and increased the portion of the exam on which they can use calculators to well over a third…


OERI Conference

The U.S. Department of Education is hosting the 2000 Regional Conferences on Improving America’s Schools. The Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) is responsible for two research-based institutes, one of which is “Building a Comprehensive Mathematics Program in Your School: Important Elements to Consider.” Conference dates/locations: September 18-20 in Sacramento, California; October 2-4 in Louisville, Kentucky; and December 13-15 in Washington, DC. Access the above web site for more information.


ENC Online

Source: Gail Hoskins (

The Eisenhower National Clearinghouse (ENC) has recently launched an all-new web site, ENC Online, at Established by the U.S. Department of Education, ENC provides K-12 math and science educators with a central source of information about teaching materials, innovative ideas, and professional development.

Content on ENC Online has been organized into four major categories. They are Curriculum Resources, Web Links, Professional Resources, and Topics.

Through Curriculum Resources, teachers can locate all types of teaching materials. Visitors can search using subject words, grade level, cost, and type of material to find exactly what they need for their classroom situation.

The Web Links area of the site includes ENC’s popular Digital Dozen, a monthly selection of exemplary math and science web sites. (Teacher can now also choose to have Digital Dozen delivered to their email boxes when registering with ENC.) Web Links also includes links to sites offering lesson plans, arranged by math or science topics.

The Professional Resources area is intended to become a part of a teacher’s professional support system. A Timesavers section found within the Professional Resources area offers a collection of the most popular professional resources in one place for quick linking and use. Standards and state frameworks are also found under Professional Resources, as are federally funded resources, professional development strategies, and research articles.

ENC has always created projects and publications on relevant topics for teachers. The Topics area arranges hundreds of articles, teacher interviews, and selected curriculum resources and web sites thematically. Key education issues addressed in the Topics area include inquiry and problem solving, integrating educational technology, equity, and assessment. These areas include the materials developed for ENC Focus, our quarterly magazine for math and science educators.

Lastly, visitors will find news and timely information about workshops, student contests, awards and grants, and other developments in math and science education.

Visit to see the new web site. Send questions to

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.