COMET • Vol. 1, No. 30 – 30 October 2000


Use of California’s Instructional Materials Funds

Articles in the last issue of COMET prompted a number of questions concerning how California’s Instructional Materials Funds (IMF) may be spent. Until July 1, 2003, IMF may be used to purchase mathematics materials adopted in 1994 or in 1997, as well as those adopted as a result of AB 2519. IMF, as well as the special AB 2519 monies (Schiff-Bustamante Funds), may be used to purchase materials on the 2001 list of approved mathematics materials. Materials on the 2001 list may be purchased through July 1, 2007. Consult and for more information.



(1) “ETS Study Links Effective Teaching Methods to Test-Score Gains” by Julie Blair

Source: Education Week – 25 October 2000

Students whose teachers undertake further study and who use certain instructional strategies score higher on tests than students who don’t have the benefit of such teacher practices, a study released last week concludes.

The report aims to answer the question of whether effective teachers do things differently. The answer is a resounding yes, said Harold H. Wenglinsky, the report’s author and an associate research scientist at the Educational Testing Service.

But policymakers have largely ignored classroom factors, he says, in favor of focusing on such considerations as teacher recruitment and pay.

“In sum, this study shows not only that teachers matter most, but how they most matter,” he writes. “What really matters is not where teachers come from, but what they do in the classroom.”

The report, released last week by the Princeton, N.J.-based testmaker, linked teachers’ classroom practices, professional-development experiences, and educational backgrounds to the performance of 8th graders on the mathematics and sciences portions of the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Mr. Wenglinsky said the study illuminates the paths educators should follow to help their pupils make gains in learning.

Students who performed ahead of their peers were taught by educators who integrated hands-on learning, critical thinking, and frequent teacher-developed assessments into their lessons, he found.

However, he said in an interview, “the kinds of [teaching practices] that do seem to be effective seem to be precisely those that are being discouraged, or at least not pursued in most classrooms in the country.”

Hands-On Learning

The study, “How Teaching Matters: Bringing the Classroom Back Into Discussions of Teacher Quality,” looked at nearly 15,000 NAEP scores. Using the questionnaires filled out by student test-takers and their teachers and principals, the researcher was able to investigate if what teachers did in their classrooms had an impact on NAEP scores.

Students whose math teachers had employed hands-on learning tested 72 percent ahead of their peers on the assessment, which is given to a sampling of students nationwide. Those whose teachers stressed critical-thinking skills posted scores 39 percent higher.

In science, 8th graders who had completed hands-on learning tasks scored ahead of their other peers by 40 percent.

For both subjects, students whose teachers used frequent in-class tests scored higher than those who used portfolios and projects. But Mr. Wenglinsky said portfolio assessments should not be eliminated, because such methods help track the progress of the entire class.

Unfortunately, the report says, too few teachers use the practices that were associated with higher scores. Math teachers commonly assign rote work and real-world story problems, it says, but largely ignore writing about math-an important high-order thinking skill. And only a handful of math educators use models or blocks to help students conceptualize problems, it says.

Misguided Classes?

Science teachers engage students more often in hands-on learning experiences and assign more writing than math instructors do, yet only 59 percent complete a science demonstration each week, Mr. Wenglinsky found.

Time that teachers spent outside the classroom had, in some cases, more impact on students than classroom instruction did, the report says. Students taught by math teachers who had learned to work with students who came from different cultures, had limited proficiency in English, or had special needs tested more than one full grade level above their peers.

Those teachers likely enjoyed success because they had learned how to individualize their instruction, Mr. Wenglinsky said…

Teachers’ educational backgrounds also appear crucial, the study found. Students whose teachers had college majors or minors in either math or science scored 39 percent higher than those whose teachers lacked such preparation…

The report makes one strong recommendation: Improve teaching through high-quality professional development.

“The first step for policymakers,” it argues, “is to stop scratching the surface of teaching and learning through superficial policies that manipulate teacher inputs, and instead roll up their sleeves and dig into the nature of teaching and learning by influencing what occurs in the classroom”…

(2) “What Do Test Scores In Texas Tell Us?”

Source: RAND Press Release – 24 October 2000

Do the scores on high-stakes, statewide tests accurately reflect student achievement? To answer this critical question, a team of RAND researchers examined the results on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), the highest-profile state testing program and one that has recorded extraordinary gains in math and reading scores.

The team’s report, an issue paper titled What Do Test Scores in Texas Tell Us?, raises “serious questions” about the validity of those gains. It also cautions about the danger of making decisions to sanction or reward students, teachers and schools on the basis of test scores that may be inflated or misleading. Finally, it suggests some steps that states can take to increase the likelihood that their test results merit public confidence and provide a sound basis for educational policy.

To investigate whether the dramatic math and reading gains on the TAAS represent actual academic progress, the researchers compared these gains to score changes in Texas on another test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP tests were used as a benchmark because they reflect standards endorsed by a national panel of experts, they are not subject to pressures to boost scores, and they are generally considered the nation’s single best indicator of student achievement. Both the TAAS and the NAEP tests were administered to fourth and eighth graders during comparable four-year periods.

The RAND team…generally found only small increases, similar to those observed nationwide, in the Texas NAEP scores. Meanwhile, the TAAS scores were soaring. Texas students did improve significantly more on a fourth-grade NAEP math test than their counterparts nationally. But again, the size of this gain was smaller than their gains on TAAS and was not present on the eighth-grade math test.

The “stark differences” between the stories told by NAEP and TAAS are especially striking when it comes to the gap in average scores between whites and students of color. According to the NAEP results, that gap in Texas is not only very large but increasing slightly. According to TAAS scores, the gap is much smaller and decreasing greatly.

“We do not know the source of these differences,” the researchers state. But one reasonable explanation, consistent with survey and observation data, is that “many schools are devoting a great deal of class time to highly specific TAAS preparation.” While this preparation may improve TAAS scores, it may not help students develop necessary reading and math skills. The authors suspect that “schools with relatively large percentages of minority and poor students may be doing this more than other schools.” Other features of the TAAS also may contribute to the false sense that the racial gaps are closing.

Problems with statewide tests are not confined to the TAAS or Texas, the authors observe. To lessen the likelihood of invalid scores on such tests, they recommend that states:

  • Reduce the pressure associated with high-stakes testing by using one set of measures for decisions about individual students and another set for teachers and schools.
  • Replace traditional paper-and-pencil multiple choice exams with computer-based tests that are delivered over the Internet and draw on banks of thousands of questions.
  • Periodically conduct audit testing to validate score gains.
  • Examine the positive and negative effects of the testing programs on curriculum and instruction…

Related editorial:

“Texas Myth?”

Source: The Fresno Bee – 30 October 2000,1733,208271,00.html

…For California, which has formed its public school accountability system in the Texas mold, the warning from RAND should be clear: There are dangers in placing too much emphasis on a single, limited exam. Here it isn’t TAAS but the SAT-9 test, which may be somewhat more rigorous but remains a limited instrument. It isn’t even aligned with California’s academic standards, and yet the state has made it the sole measure of whether schools are succeeding or failing, the sole determinant of whether school employees will get big cash bonuses. That may be a sound strategy for boosting SAT-9 scores, but it won’t necessarily make the children better educated.

(3) “Critic Says Standardized Tests Give Wrong Answers In Assessing Schools” by Steven Carter

Source: The Oregonian – 24 October 2000

Alfie Kohn says schools are sacrificing time for real learning in trying to meet one-size-fits-all test scores

Alfie Kohn, a former teacher, is a forceful critic of the national move toward tougher educational standards and student testing. Kohn has written books on parenting and education, including “The Schools Our Children Deserve” and “The Case Against Standardized Testing.” He…sat for a brief interview about his objections to the standards and testing movement. [For excerpts, please visit the web site above.]

(4)  “Shiny, Happy People Do Better” by Emily Shartin

Source: Boston Globe – 29 October 2000

It’s a lesson that goes hand-in-hand with the elementary agenda of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

“When young people are happier, … they do better in school,” said Larry Dieringer, executive director of Educators for Social Responsibility…

Yet with the push for higher academic standards consuming the attention of educators across the nation, finding the time to foster happiness among students might not always rank high on the list of classroom priorities.

It should, experts say, because without a sense of well-being within the classroom, there’s no reason to expect that students will meet the increasingly rigorous demands of their schoolwork…Studies show that helping students to feel more involved in their schools can lead to stronger academic motivation, better conflict resolution skills, and more thoughtful and positive behavior in the classroom and schoolyard.

At the most rudimentary level, it also fulfills a human desire for connection to one’s peers. “We have basic needs for a sense of belonging,” said Eric Schaps, founder of the California-based Developmental Studies Center…

If you were to ask students what they remember most about their time in school, said Debbie Martel, also a Floral Street teacher, they would be more likely to tell you about their personal relationships, not about what they learned in a particular class. “It’s the friends that they made,” she said. “In the grand scheme of things, you need to be part of a community”…

(5) “Expert Exports” by Debra Viadero

Source: Teacher Magazine – November 2000

One of Singapore’s most talked about exports these days is neither the computer equipment from its factories nor the chemicals from its laboratories.

It’s mathematics textbooks.

Singaporean publishers can thank the Third International Mathematics and Science Study for the new business. Elementary and middle school students in the 247-square-mile Southeast Asian nation ranked first in the world on the math portions of the TIMSS, an international study of student achievement conducted during 1994 and 1995. Singaporean students out-computed and out-reasoned their counterparts in 39 other countries, including such educational powerhouses as Japan and Taiwan. They also outscored students in Belgium, Canada, France, Hong Kong, and Switzerland. And they beat the United States.

Now, scattered groups of educators in this country are hoping the textbooks from that island nation hold the secret to Singaporean students’ success. Sales of the books, which are published in English, have grown since 1998, according to their sole U.S. distributor, a West Linn, Oregon, firm named Family Things []. The mom-and-pop company doesn’t track sales closely, but it says it has filled orders for several thousand of the paperbacks so far this school year. And the volumes are going to a wide range of educators, including homeschoolers, private school operators, and public schools from Colorado to Maryland.

Primarily black and white, the books contain none of the colorful, eye-popping graphics that many American publishers use to grab students’ attention. But admirers praise the texts for their clear, simple prose, their novel problem-solving approaches, and the complex, multistep problems they give students, beginning in 1st grade. “I think these books really empower students as problem solvers,” says Felicity Messner Ross, a math teacher at Robert Poole Middle School in Baltimore. “So, if they see a problem they’ve never seen before, they’ll think they have the tools to solve it.”

Unlike American texts, the books introduce algebra in the elementary grades. Though they use word problems that seem more at home in high school texts, kids devise answers using pictorial strategies, not algebraic equations. “There is a great insistence on full understanding and an avoidance of mindless rituals that lead to a solution,” says Yoram Sagher, a mathematics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Funded in part by the Gabriella and Paul Rosenbaum Foundation, a Chicago-based family philanthropy, Sagher crisscrosses the country helping teachers learn to use the Singapore texts.

In Baltimore, Ross’ 6th and 7th graders are taking part in a privately subsidized, citywide program aimed at grooming mathematically talented students. The kids clearly like the Singapore texts. “They’re a lot more challenging than our other books,” says 7th grader Renae Mitchell, “but that’s, like, a good thing.” Kids welcome the fact that the texts are thinner and lighter than most American-made books, but they occasionally stumble on the many unfamiliar names, British-flavored spellings and terms, and metric measurements. “Mr. Chen has to drive to Malacca, which is 240 km from Singapore,” begins one problem in a 5th grade text. “If his car can travel 15 km on 1 litre of petrol, how many litres of petrol does he need for the trip?” Seventh grader Kyle Halle-Erby says, “Every once in a while, there’ll be some words we don’t understand, but Ms. Ross explains them to us, so it’s no big deal.”

Though it’s not certain whether the textbooks are boosting student performance, some graduates of the program, known as the Ingenuity Project, have gone on to receive honors in local and national mathematics competitions. Two 9th graders scored in the top 1 percent on a national mathematics competition last February.

Schools in Chicago as well as Montgomery County, Maryland, and Paterson, New Jersey, are also piloting the books for more heterogeneous student populations, including some children who find school a struggle.

The lessons in the Singapore math books are not always aligned with American trends and local or national math standards. “My sense is that some of the ideas about what’s important in algebra are probably missing,” says Gail Burrill, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which created a set of widely adopted math standards in the early 1990s. “The emphasis in NCTM is on children making sense of things, exploring and investigating patterns, and building skills and conceptual understanding. A lot of the conceptual understanding that we would think is important is not evident from looking at this material.”

But Burrill, director of the National Research Council’s Mathematical Sciences Education Board in Washington, D.C., acknowledges that she’s taken only a cursory look at the books. In their favor, she says, the Singaporean texts lay out a coherent curriculum and avoid needless repetition. “I would hope that districts are paying attention to what’s in the books, but I also hope they would understand these are books used by a different culture, a culture that is more homogeneous and a culture that has a consistent way of thinking about mathematics,” she says.

Though Singaporeans speak a mix of languages, more than 90 percent of the 4.2 million residents of the former British colony are literate. The central Ministry of Education develops textbooks in every subject, and students pay a fee to use them. Singaporean parents, like those in other Southeast Asian countries, also typically supplement their children’s learning with after-school tutoring sessions.

All the buzz aside, even proponents of the Singapore texts say American teachers need tutoring to use the books well. “These books are not what the current generation of teachers knows how to deal with,” says Madge Goldman, president of the Rosenbaum Foundation. “The material is only part of the story.”

On the Web

Family Things ( maintains an online forum for users of Singapore math and science books.

Information on Singapore’s official primary school Math textbooks, including listing of contents, is available from (

The Singapore Ministry of Education ( provides an information guide on its secondary education system, including FAQs (

TIMSS International Study Center ( )discusses TIMSS benchmarking for states and districts (

(6) “Education’s Failed Fads” by Martha Groves

Source: Los Angeles Times – 29 October 2000

A new book describes a century of bumbling school reforms and their toll. The author says early ‘progressive’ educators helped create the low expectations still present in many schools.

Misguided and bumbled attempts to fix schools are nothing new, as education historian Diane Ravitch relates in painful detail in her new book, “Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms” (Simon & Schuster, $30)…

Throughout much of the last century, Ravitch writes, these “educationists” lost sight of schools’ chief purpose: teaching knowledge. As a result, she argues, American schools have cheated generations of children out of a good education.

Ravitch… is a research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. She also serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the national testing system. [Access the web site above for an interview with Diane Ravitch.]



“How To Use Children’s Literature To Teach Mathematics” by Rosamond Welchman-Tischler and more specifically:,1341,ENC-002285-22856,2285toc.htm
[From the Math Forum Internet News, 23 October 2000] A booklet that explores ways teachers can help children to experience the type of mathematics envisioned in the Standards, building on children’s literature.

Each of the first seven chapters describes a way children’s literature can be used to teach mathematics, by:

– providing a context or model for an activity with mathematical content;
– introducing manipulatives that will be used in varied ways (not necessarily just as in the story);
– inspiring a creative mathematics experience;
– posing an interesting problem;
– preparing for a mathematics concept or skill;
– developing or explaining a mathematics concept or skill;
– reviewing a mathematics concept or skill.

Each chapter contains examples of two to four books, with summaries of stories, sketches of proposed classroom activities and related print materials (models for manipulatives, activity cards, worksheets), and suggested follow-up activities.