COMET • Vol. 1, No. 27 – 9 October 2000


(1) “All High Schoolers Will Take Algebra” by Maria Sacchetti

Source: The Orange County Register – 3 October 2000

All California students – starting with this year’s ninth-graders – must take Algebra I to graduate under a new law that will force changes in almost half of Orange County districts with high schools in the middle of the school year.

The measure aims to protect the state from being sued by students who fail the upcoming high school exit exam because they were never taught algebra. This year’s freshmen, the Class of 2004, are the first who must pass the exam to graduate, part of California’s push to hold schools accountable for what students learn.

Statewide, it is unclear how many never take algebra, a branch of math that uses symbols to show relationships and operations in arithmetic. An estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of California’s students might not take algebra before they graduate, according to legislative documents…

Opponents fear that some students will be unable to pass algebra, and so the law could increase the dropout rate. Others point to the shortage of qualified math teachers, though the governor’s budget contains $31.5 million to train thousands of teachers and students in algebra alone. And some question whether algebra should be considered as important than other subjects, such as history.

“When was the last time you used algebra?” said Dean Waldfogel, deputy superintendent of Irvine Unified, which is known for its high test scores but does not require all students to pass algebra. “There’s no doubt that algebra right now is a gatekeeper to lots of higher education,” Waldfogel added. “The question is: Is it the appropriate gatekeeper?”…

Proponents of the law say all students should be given a chance to learn algebra and get on the college track. …

“I think it’s a misguided assumption that every kid can’t learn algebra,” said Bill Lucia, chief of staff for the bill’s author, state Sen. Charles Poochigian, R-Fresno. “Except for special-education students … I don’t think there’s a single kid who can’t learn algebra.”

The law, which Gov. Gray Davis signed Saturday, takes effect Jan. 1. It does not resolve the problems still facing the high school exit exam, which will be optional for all freshmen in March. A field test of the exam last spring found that a significant number of students would flunk it. Researchers urged the state to postpone the exam for one or two years so that districts can catch up with the standards, but the governor has refused to delay it…

The measure, Senate Bill 1354, sponsored by Sen. Charles Poochigian, R-Fresno, can be read online at

(2) “State’s Schools Improve, Earn Cash” by Nanette Asimov

Source: San Francisco Chronicle – 5 October 2000

Two-thirds of California public schools — including many with large numbers of low-income and minority students — have raised achievement test scores enough to win financial rewards and bonuses from the state. Happy teachers celebrated yesterday, some with confetti and paper hats, when state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin announced results of the 2000 Academic Performance Index for 6,209 schools.

This is the first year that California has linked school performance to financial rewards for everyone from janitors to principals. Gov. Gray Davis, state lawmakers and Eastin created the program last year to lift state test scores from their nearly last-place finish on nationwide exams.

Altogether, 71 percent of schools met academic improvement targets set by the state. But cash will go only to schools that also met other criteria:

— Large numbers of low-income students and/or large numbers of any one ethnic group at a school had to meet improvement targets.

— Elementary and middle schools had to test at least 95 percent of their children, while high schools had to test 90 percent…

Educators rejoiced at the number of schools that improved their scores. And many schools that did not improve have already begun to re-evaluate their curriculums — which is exactly what the state hopes they will do.

“Our goal is to ensure that all students demonstrate academic achievement,” Eastin said. “What is especially good news is that for the first time we are able to financially reward schools for their efforts.”

The rewards will come from three state funds totaling $677 million. Some of the money will go to schools to spend as they please. And some will go directly into teachers’ and other staff members’ pockets.

Winning schools will get no money until January, however, and may not know how much money is due until December. Originally, they were promised $150 per pupil. But the state Department of Finance underestimated the number of schools that would qualify and may now award as little as $68 per pupil.

Additional bonuses of unspecified amounts will go to each winning school. Those that made the largest leaps will also qualify for $25,000, $10,000 or $5,000 rewards, depending on the amount of progress…

The Academic Performance Index is a California invention meant to encourage a school’s improvement from one year to the next rather than having schools compete against each other.

Based on results from the Stanford 9 achievement test given each spring, the API is measured on a scale of 200 to 1,000. Other criteria — such as a school’s graduation and attendance rates — are to be added to the index in the coming years.

Teachers unions, Eastin and Gov. Gray Davis were ecstatic about the latest API and hailed it as evidence that the public school system is finally back on a track of improvement.

But public confidence in the system still must face a test on election day, when voters decide whether to divert money from the state’s education budget to subsidize private and religious school tuition through vouchers.

Critics of the API, such as voucher proponent Alan Bonsteel, call it a false measure of progress because questions on the Stanford 9 test remain identical from year to year.

In an interview, Gov. Davis said that he is confident in the test because students change grades each year and do not take the same exam. But he added, “I’m not into excuses, just results. We’ll review this process this fall”…

(3) “With Scores as the Payoff, Teaching Tactics Change” by Martha Groves and Duke Helfand

Source: Los Angeles Times – 6 October 2000

…For better or worse, the Stanford 9 and the state’s new era of accountability are driving big changes in the ways California schoolchildren are being taught. With huge cash rewards and stiff punishments hanging in the balance, officials are rethinking the way they teach as they adapt to the pressures that accompany high-stakes school reform.

“We are working a lot harder, no question. It’s exhausting for my staff,” said Anna Chavez, Bandini’s principal…

All told, 71% of California’s public schools met growth targets set by the state. A slightly smaller proportion–67%–cleared all necessary hurdles to qualify for a share of $677 million in rewards.

Increasingly, schools are using the Stanford 9 to identify weaknesses and tailor lessons to their students’ needs. Some schools, like Bandini, even use materials intended to make students familiar with the exam’s format and content.

But most educators say the changes go beyond superficial test prep. To do well on the Stanford 9, students must have a good command of material that the state has deemed essential for them to learn…

Orange Grove is a middle school, where academic improvements are often hard to come by. Yet Orange Grove handily beat its growth target of 8 points, achieving an 84-point rise to 718. The statewide performance target for all schools is 800.

Although Orange Grove’s results qualify him for a modest cash reward, science teacher Ted Huffman dislikes the idea of attaching monetary rewards to teaching. Also, he warned, “Teaching to the test is dangerous. You don’t get any process, and process is everything.”



(1) “Taking Fear Out of the Equation” by Jay Mathews

Source: Washington Post – 26 September 2000

For many elementary school children, an equation is nothing more than a machine for getting the right answer. 2 + 2 = …? To them, the equals sign means turn a mental crank and get 4.

But that is not the way they think about equations in Vicki Fisk’s fifth-grade class at Somerset Elementary School in Chevy Chase. With the help of a colorful set of balance-beam math toys called Hands-On Equations, Fisk’s students learn one of the most important concepts of algebra–that an equation is a delicate and malleable balancing of independent forces from which all mathematics flows.

In this high-tech age, algebra has become a national benchmark for educational progress. Several states, including Virginia, require that students pass algebra tests for graduation. California has set a goal of algebra for all eighth-graders. Studies suggest that those who haven’t learned it by the end of eighth grade are less likely to have successful careers in medicine, engineering and other scientific fields.

Yet no other subject hits already fearful adolescents so hard with so many unfamiliar ideas. “Until they reach the eighth grade, too many middle school students haven’t been exposed to any algebraic concepts,” said Peter D. Ford III, a math teacher at Foshay Learning Center, a public school in South Central Los Angeles. “It’s like spending your whole life walking up hills, then one day you’re expected to climb Mount Everest.”

So in dozens of ways, with the strong encouragement of the Reston-based National Council for Teachers of Mathematics, elementary school teachers are trying to introduce the most daunting high school math ideas to much younger children.

Manny Suarez, a math teacher at the Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, said the concept of a mystery variable called “x” should be introduced as early as third grade. He said math word problems–a nightmare for many students and parents–should begin in kindergarten…

Lee V. Stiff, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said that for a lot of children “the numbers seem to be more real than the letters that signify variables in algebra.” If teachers can call attention to such concepts earlier, he said, then algebra “will not be such a strain on them.”

One need, he said, is to provide more training for elementary school teachers, who rarely have degrees in math. His organization is sponsoring a series of professional development academies, beginning this year in Meriden, Conn., San Diego and Baton Rouge, La.

Fisk, the fifth-grade teacher at Somerset, said that for six years, she has been using the plastic balance beams, oversize pawns and numbered cubes that are a part of Hands-On Equations. Developed by Henry Borenson, the toys make “algebraic linear equations accessible to third grade gifted students, fourth grade average students and fifth grade [learning disabled] students,” according to the Web site of Borenson’s company, Borenson and Associates. Several other companies make similar toys.

“The kids love it,” Fisk said. “It’s very visual.” By moving the plastic pieces on and off the balance scale, she said, what an equation is and what it can do become clear for the first time to many children.

John Hoven, co-president of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County, said new devices such as Hands-On Equations have added steam to his organization’s effort to have at least 30 percent of county sixth-graders taking algebra, compared with almost none now. In most Washington area school systems, more than half the students have not completed algebra when they enter ninth grade.

Another way to accelerate learning, Hoven said, would be to eliminate traditional forms of busywork that elementary school teachers use to kill time. “Kids don’t need to fill in bar graphs and pie charts with crayon year after year after year by hand,” he said.

There is widespread agreement, buttressed by analysis of math instruction overseas, that U.S. elementary schools miss the chance to prepare more students for algebra by repeating the same drills and computational exercises each year…

Nancy White, who supervises math in the Prince William County elementary schools, said teachers there are introducing algebra by drawing students’ attention to “patterns within the context of the school curriculum and in their daily lives.”

Brandenburg said the effort to make algebra real to students has been aided by new textbooks that explain how equations can help calculate how quickly cars will stop on a slippery road or the speed a baseball needs to clear the fence for a home run…

(2) “High-Scoring Connecticut Says Scores Aren’t Everything” by Jeff Archer

Source: Education Week – 4 October 2000

With Connecticut’s students now deep in the midst of their state’s testing season, state education officials are urging school leaders and the public to avoid going overboard in worrying about the results.

In its first meeting this school year, the Connecticut board of education approved a statement aimed at putting the student assessments into perspective. The document, titled “Measuring Success,” stresses that while test scores should inform decisions about instruction, they aren’t the only indicators of a school’s performance, nor do they cover all the areas in which educators should be helping students excel.

“There is a danger,” the statement says, “that overemphasizing state test scores to evaluate a student’s, a school’s, or a district’s performance can result in an inappropriate narrowing of the curriculum and inappropriate classroom instructional practices.”

The caution echoes many of the concerns voiced elsewhere recently by commentators, parents, and grassroots groups worried that the push for standards-based school improvement may be yielding unintended consequences. But Connecticut’s warning, some analysts say, is particularly striking given that it comes from the very agency that administers the state exams, and given how well the state performs on such assessments…

No other state currently outranks Connecticut in 4th grade reading and mathematics, and in 8th grade writing, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And while Connecticut also enjoys the nation’s highest per capita income, the gains it has posted on NAEP in recent years suggest that affluence alone cannot fully explain its success.

For the most part, the state has favored a relatively low-stakes accountability system, beginning in the mid-1980s with the introduction of the Connecticut Mastery Tests, given each fall in reading, writing, and math in the 4th, 6th, and 8th grades. The state has not, for example, required students to pass an exam to graduate from high school.

Even still, many educators there say that anxiety over test results has intensified in recent years. Last year, the state published a list of its 28 lowest- performing schools. It also released an index allowing each district to compare its performance with other systems in the state, based on a single number-an index the state chose not to report again this year.

‘Call for Balance’

State Commissioner of Education Theodore S. Sergi said “Measuring Success” is a “call for balance.” Though the state’s tests were instituted to identify areas for improvement, he said, the climate of competition that surrounds them isn’t always healthy.

“The more you start to use the tests for lists of schools, and for rankings of schools, and to identify students for graduation, you start to stray away from the purpose of the program,” he said. “We do believe that you can have strong accountability and a focus on achievement, without the nastiness and the harm.”

The Connecticut board’s statement also stresses the importance of skills not tested by the state-such as artistic and athletic ability, along with knowledge of science and a foreign language.

But while praising the statement, some school leaders wonder how much effect it will have.

“It’s still a Catch- 22,” said Principal Plato Karafelis, who heads Wolcott Elementary School in West Hartford. “The standards movement is what the public wants, because this gives them a number, which forces districts to narrow their curriculum so they can deliver the number. And then the state board has to issue this kind of a statement.”

(3) “Math Panel to Consider City’s Tack in Teaching” by Abby Goodnough

Source: New York Times – 5 October 2000

Worried that New York City students are ill equipped to meet new graduation requirements in mathematics, Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy has appointed a panel to study how the subject is taught in city classrooms and to recommend changes by spring.

Mr. Levy said he was concerned because starting this year, high school students throughout New York State will have to pass a Regents mathematics examination to graduate. Yet nearly 70 percent of fourth and eighth graders failed the citywide math tests last year, and math scores have remained flat for three years straight…

The chairman of Mr. Levy’s panel will be Matthew Goldstein, the chancellor of the City University of New York, who has a Ph.D. in mathematics. Mr. Goldstein worked with Mr. Levy to select the other 13 members of the panel, including Philip Uri Treisman, a math professor at the University of Texas and a former MacArthur fellow; Lynn Arthur Steen, president of the American Mathematical Association; Lee McCaskill, principal of Brooklyn Technical High School; and David Brownstein, head of municipal derivatives at Salomon Smith Barney.

Among other things, the panel will examine a new kind of math instruction that has taken root in Manhattan’s District 2 and in some other areas of the city in recent years. Proponents of the “new math,” as it is known, believe it is more important for children to construct their own solutions to math problems than to learn the standard practices that schools have traditionally taught. Many schools that favor the approach do not even use textbooks. Some parents have protested the approach, complaining that their children are not learning the skills they need to succeed academically and professionally…

Mr. Levy said one of the panel’s most important tasks would be ensuring that the city’s math curriculum prepared students not only for the Regents exams, but also for the entrance exams required by CUNY, and even the College Board test. Another crucial question is whether the skills students acquire in city math classes are ones they are likely to need in the new economy.

“We have to figure out whether we are teaching children something that is actually going to be useful,” Mr. Levy said. “We should not gratuitously torture students to learn mathematics that is no longer relevant.”

(4) “Effort To Recruit Math, Science Teachers Urged” by David J. Hoff

Source: Education Week – 4 October 2000

The nation must launch an all-out effort to recruit and retain talented mathematics and science teachers on the same grand scale it did during the space race a generation ago, a federal panel declared last week.

Governments at all levels should chip in $5 billion to start the professional- development programs needed to attract new teachers into the profession and keep current ones in it, the panel says. That figure excludes the cost to school districts of pay raises for “scandalously underpaid” teachers and the price of continuing the new programs the commission proposes, says the panel’s report, “Before It’s Too Late”…

“If you note a sense of urgency in that title, then our basic message to you and the American people is already clear,” John Glenn, the commission’s chairman and the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth, told Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley in releasing the report here last week…

The report calls on the nation’s schools to build a series of programs and experiences for math and science teachers that will lure them into the profession and encourage them to stay. Among the recommended actions are:

  • Each state should assess what it needs to do to offer teachers the professional development necessary for teaching math and science.
  • The federal and state governments should finance two-week summer institutes that enable teachers to supplement their knowledge of their subjects.
  • Schools ought to create “inquiry groups” that offer continual opportunities for teachers to sharpen their skills.
  • Local school boards should offer financial incentives for recent college graduates to choose teaching over jobs in private industry, where math and science majors typically can earn twice as much as in teaching…

Secretary Riley formed the commission in the summer of last year, on the 30th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. The images of the space era dominated the panel’s work from the start when Mr. Riley tapped Mr. Glenn to lead it. Last week, Mr. Glenn, a former Democratic senator from Ohio, released the commission’s report at the National Air and Space Museum, in the shadow of the Mercury Friendship 7– the capsule in which he made his 1962 flight.

But unlike federal initiatives to improve science and math education in the era of the space race, the so-called Glenn Commission skirted discussion of curriculum.

Mr. Glenn said the panel avoided the content to be taught because the standards-setting done by professional groups representing science and math scholars and teachers has set the nation on the right path…

While sidestepping the curriculum debate, the Glenn Commission was not shy about recommending ways to increase the number and quality of teachers.

Math and science professionals can be lured into teaching by one-year paid fellowships enabling them to study what they need for the classroom, the panel says. Moreover, when all new teachers begin their jobs, it says, they need induction programs to help them through the first year…

Increasing pay is one step in the right direction, the commission says. Teachers earn 29 percent less than other college graduates, the panel writes, citing Department of Education statistics. What’s worse, the earnings gap between teachers and other college graduates has “nearly quadrupled” since the early 1990s. “It is hard to escape the conclusion that without better pay for mathematics and science teachers, the high-quality teaching needed in these fields will be very difficult to sustain,” the report says.