COMET • Vol. 1, No. 32 – 13 November 2000


(1) “State Orders Stanford 9 Be Given Later” by Duke Helfand and Martha Groves

Source: Los Angeles Times – 10 November 2000

The State Board of Education on Thursday adopted new regulations that require schools to give the Stanford 9 exam later in the year so students spend more time in the classroom before facing the exam.

The change will cause headaches for many districts, forcing them to rearrange intricate schedules and seek new dates for other tests, such as the Golden State exams. The shift could also delay the release of statewide scores on the Stanford 9 basic skills exam, the sole component of California’s fledgling school accountability program…

The change will most affect the relatively few districts that have tested their students early in the state-prescribed testing window. Until now, that has run from mid-March to mid-May. It is unclear how the new rules will play out in Los Angeles Unified and other districts that operate year-round schools.

About 4.4 million California children in grades 2 to 11 will take the Stanford 9 next spring. That standardized test, published by Harcourt Educational Measurement, measures the performance of students against a national sample. On top of that basic skills exam, California students answer questions specifically tied to the state standards in English-language arts, math, history and science.

In 2001, for the first time, results from the English language arts portion will figure in the state’s Academic Performance Index, which ranks schools according to their test results and is the basis for hefty monetary rewards for teachers and campuses. State officials say results on the standards portions of the test will eventually outweigh the results of the Stanford 9 itself. [Note: The mathematics portion (standards-based augmented test) is slated to be included in the API in 2002.]

Under the new regulations, students on traditional calendars must have been in school 153 days–plus or minus 10–before taking the tests. Previously, students were supposed to have been in school for 135 days, plus or minus 10… State officials said students generally will be in school an additional 18 days before being tested…

A Harcourt document provided to board members says the firm will give the data to the department for evaluation Aug. 8, with the department posting it Aug. 15, a month later than state law requires. Mockler said Gov. Gray Davis would back changing the law to allow for the later posting.

(2) “Is ‘New-New’ Math a Bad-Bad Idea?”

Source: Los Angeles Times – 11 November 2000

The Pasadena Unified School District’s decision to buy supplemental, back-to-basics math books was just one of many recent developments throughout Los Angeles and the country in a long-standing battle over the effectiveness of math reforms often called the “new-new math.” But while that move acknowledges that these unconventional math programs alone do not always provide students with the needed skills, many Los Angeles school administrators continue to favor them.

The new-new math debate has prompted a nearly unprecedented outcry in mathematics circles throughout the country. New-new math advocates, for example, reject conventional “drill and kill” rote memorization exercises that they believe tend to alienate students, particularly girls and minorities. But critics say that such basic skills as learning multiplication tables provide math students–regardless of their gender or ethnic or racial background–with critical grounding.

Erica Zeitlin spoke with two experts on the front lines of the new-new math wars, [Guillermo Mendietta (Teacher and director of math education at the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Achievement Council) and Barry Simon (Chair, Cal Tech’s Math Department; who served on the LAUSD’s Committee on Mathematics Curriculum and Textbooks). Access the above web site to read the interviews.]…



(1) “Old-Style Teaching Gets Lower Scores” by Rosalind Rossi

Source: Chicago Sun-Times – 1 November 2000 (original link)

More progressive teaching, emphasizing student discussion and projects, produced higher Chicago test gains than more traditional approaches that stress memorization and multiple-choice tests, a draft study indicated Tuesday.

The study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research concluded that Chicago could raise its student achievement if more teachers used more progressive, or “interactive,” teaching methods and relied less on traditional, or “didactic” approaches, which some critics call “drill and kill.”

The two teaching camps are divided philosophically, but few teachers use only one method. Some critics contend Chicago’s heavy reliance on high-stakes tests have turned too many classrooms into “drill and kill” mills.

The study gauged the degree of “interactive” teaching by asking teachers about the frequency of group and individual projects, extensive student discussions, open-ended questions and student writing of at least four pages.

It probed the use of “didactic” teaching by asking about single-answer teacher-led questions, memorization, reliance on multiple-choice or short-answer tests, and how often students read aloud or silently.

The analysis, commissioned by the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, then linked teacher survey responses to results of the 1996 and 1997 Iowa Tests of Basic Skills at 400 Chicago elementary schools.

Schools that used more “interactive” techniques had 6 percent higher reading gains and 4 percent higher math gains than the city average, according to a draft report of the study. Schools that used more “didactic” teaching had math and reading gains that were both 3 percent below city averages, the study found.

“These findings call into serious question the assumption that low-achieving, economically disadvantaged students are best served by emphasis on didactic methods,” said one study author, Julia Smith of Oakland University in Michigan. “The results suggest precisely the opposite.”

(2) “Fun Factor Added to Math” by Heidi Johnes

Source: (Massachusetts) – 24 October 2000

Yours is not to question why, just invert and multiply,” goes the old saying describing the memorization method of teaching math, according to Joan Schaffer, Center/Pepin School’s math specialist. But the new math program, Everyday Math, is rapidly changing that.

The Everyday Math program was chosen for the elementary schools by a group of Easthampton teachers and administrators who deemed it a compromise between the too-traditional and the too-modern….

The transition to the new paradigm began this year in earnest, with teachers starting the school year a few days before the students to learn the new teaching style, which focuses on alternative ways of solving math problems using hands-on techniques instead of old-fashioned memorization.

“You’re teaching kids the process,” said Clinton Burt, principal of the Center/Pepin school complex. “The old math drill used to be one-dimensional with a pencil and paper, where now it is with games.” And the teacher’s role changes from writing computations on a chalkboard to that of a facilitator, clarifying the process for the students, according to Burt.

“It’s demanding for the teachers,” he said. “It’s a new program, and it goes far beyond the boundaries of what we’re used to.”

Students have been following the program for six weeks now, and Burt says the general feeling around his schools is excitement. “Math used to be a solitary activity,” Schaffer said. “Now they are working in groups, using games and visual aids to solve problems. They always want to know what we’re going to do next.”

Burt says this eagerness is a change from the usual “math anxiety” many students felt in the past. Brian Fink, principal of the Maple and Parsons street schools, agreed. “I have been seeing a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the youngsters,” Fink said. “The hands-on pieces and math games, which are very appropriate, help them enjoy the learning.”

Burt says the new Everyday Math program offers many doorways to interest students, not only those who are good at listening and remembering, but those who need the hands-on experience using compasses, calculators or blocks. And the program follows national standards set by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Two additional facets of the program that differ from traditional methods are “homelinks” and “spiraling”…The program also emphasizes students’ ability to explain how they arrived at a certain solution…

Schaffer says Everyday Math better prepares students for what they will do in the future. “Even though they will be in a world of technology that can do all the computing, they will still need to know how to problem-solve,” she said.

(3) “The Malevolent Tyranny of Algebra” by Gerald Bracey

Source: Education Week – 25 October 2000

…Although algebra is all about finding values in equations, it has no value for most people. Its actual uselessness in most people’s lives was wonderfully revealed in a Washington Post article from several years back. The story described how parents in Fairfax County, Va., were rushing home from work, bolting down dinner, and going to school to learn … algebra. “They came not for their benefit,” the reporter wrote. “They had learned algebra years ago and most of them had no use for X’s and Y’s in their current lives”… Yet, they are inflicting those useless X’s and Y’s on themselves for the second time. This time, they’re doing it so they can help their kids get through algebra. Apparently, it didn’t occur to these parents to ask, “If I didn’t need it, why am I suffering through it again just to help my kid successfully suffer through it?”

Why has algebra taken on such dimensions lately? Why do students in Virginia have to take algebra to graduate from high school? Why does the Montgomery County, Md., schools superintendent, Jerry Weast, fret over the failure rate on his algebra test? Why did Lee [Stiff], the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, recently tell Brigid Shulte, a Post reporter, that “algebra is the civil rights issue of the new millennium, because it is that critical?”

Why? Because virtually the whole nation has been algebra-scammed. Said Mr. Weast: “No algebra means no SAT test. No SAT test means limited college choice” (never mind that even the most selective colleges admit a wide range of SAT scores, and never mind that, in terms of later earnings, it doesn’t matter what college you go to)…

Is forcing everyone to take algebra the answer? Of course not. It is more likely to turn kids off math, and even off school altogether, than to identify hidden talent…

We can do better, no doubt. The place to start is elementary school, not the 8th or 9th grade. There are also many other reasons for taking algebra that have nothing to do with jobs or college. Taught well (which it often isn’t), algebra can reveal a language of relationships and the beauty and elegance of mathematics. It can actually be an aesthetic experience.

Moreover, learning everything you can about everything you can is a good strategy in school because life after school contains so many uncertainties. You can’t possibly know what you might need one day. I’ve needed some algebra in my field, but haven’t used calculus once in the 39 years since the final exam (jobwise, only 4 percent of the population actually needs advanced mathematics)…

But thinking that cramming algebra into all kids’ heads is the means to a better life is making a bad causal inference from a mere correlation.


Related editorial letters in Education Week – 8 November 2000:
By Dennis W. Redovich, Center for the Study of Jobs & Education in Wisconsin:

I could not possibly write on algebra as eloquently or persuasively as Gerald W. Bracey has, and I am in 100 percent agreement with his argument. Algebra was useless for most students 40 years ago, when I taught it in high school, and it is useless in 2000 for most students, except as a screening device for college. Algebra is a barrier for too many students in furthering their education, not a gateway to education or to jobs…

By Dave Ziffer, Batavia, IL:

…Gerald W. Bracey’s Commentary on algebra tops everything I’ve ever seen before…Don’t all of us in the scientific and mathematical communities emphatically claim that algebra is the very foundation of the work we do every single day?… And what about the scientific professionals’ opinions that algebra is absolutely essential? …I can agree with him on one thing. He is right when he says that the average American places little value on algebra in his or her daily life. You can’t place much value on something you don’t have, thanks in great part to the teachers and guidance counselors who didn’t bother to acquaint you with it…And the existence of commentators like Mr. Bracey certainly helps me grasp why many of the average Americans commenting on the recent presidential debates complained that they couldn’t understand all the numeric talk (both Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas tossed out a few trivial percentages)…If Mr. Bracey were a lone wolf, maybe I wouldn’t be so concerned. But he seems to be one of the true motivators in the education field, driving everyone down towards lower standards and expectations by convincing them that all this rigor and study just isn’t necessary…

(5) “For This Civil Rights Hero, Algebra Proficiency Is Part Of The Equality Equation” by Gregory Kane

Source: Baltimore Sun – 29 October 2000

Something extraordinary is happening here.. Algebra was going on here. The kids were from the Young People’s Project, which is part of the Algebra Project. Some hailed from Cambridge, Mass. Others came from Jackson, Miss. What had brought them to Goucher College in Baltimore County on a pleasant October evening was one Bob Moses, who has directed the Algebra Project for the past 13 years…

“The Algebra Project is organized around math literacy for education,” Moses told the audience at the conclusion of the game. Computers are the wave of the present and the future, he noted, “and the place in our culture where you get a hold of those [computer] languages is algebra.”

The country, Moses observed, may not quite be up to the task of teaching inner-city kids that literacy. “We went from no schools to segregated schools to the mess we’re in now,” Moses said. “The country has never required that elementary school teachers know math other than post-office arithmetic. We don’t have teachers who understand the math and want to work with the minds of kids. The more math you know, the less time you’re supposed to spend with kids. That’s the values of this country.”

(6) “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.”



Family Things

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 (

Singapore Ministry of Education

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

TIMSS International Study Center

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


Mathematics, Science, and Technology Conference

Bakersfield, CA

The 13th annual Math, Science, and Technology (MST) Conference will be held at California State University, Bakersfield on 23-24 February 2001. Registration is $65 until January 12th, 2001. For a registration and/or speaker form or more information, please contact the MST office: (661) 665-6123 or Dr. Jorgen Berglund at (661) 664-3139.