COMET • Vol. 1, No. 34 – 27 November 2000


(1) “Japanese Math Program Tallies Success With Discipline” by Marcia Biederman

Source: New York Times – 15 November 2000

…The Kumon method, which quickly swept Japan and now enrolls 2.6 million students on six continents, holds that children can teach themselves math by tiny increments, but only if they master each step before proceeding to the next one. It was devised by Toru Kumon, a Japanese math educator, after his 8- year-old son failed an arithmetic test. Mr. Kumon founded a company, Kumon Math and Reading Centers, that has 24,600 franchises around the world, 36 of them in New York City.

More like boot camps than tutoring services in their stress on discipline, Kumon centers promise benefits to children with all skill levels, who devote about two hours a week to its exacting regimen. Some parents enroll their children to keep up with or move ahead of their classmates.

But other parents do so because they believe that their children aren’t learning enough, and hope that the centers will compensate. That many schools teach a newer form of math, one that stresses concepts over precise calculation, is another factor in the growth of tutoring centers that rely on older methods.

Although there has been a general growth in commercial tutoring centers, Kumon’s slow, regimented approach distinguishes it from services like Sylvan Learning Centers and Kaplan Educational’s Score centers, which promise faster results along with instruction tailored to individual weaknesses.

The Kumon system is built around 4,000 work sheets spanning 23 skill levels, from basic counting to calculus. (Reading is also taught in similar increments, but math is the company’s bread and butter.) New operations are presented at the top of each sheet, sometimes with sample problems and a cursory explanation. In twice-weekly sessions, children complete from 3 to 10 work sheets within an allotted time. If there are any errors, the child receives more sheets of nearly identical problems to complete at the center and for homework. The cycle continues until all the questions are answered rapidly and accurately.

Addition begins with sheets of +1 problems. After these become automatic, +2 is introduced. Multiplication work sheets demonstrate carrying and borrowing, terms now discouraged in some city schools, where newer educational methods encourage children to think in terms of hundreds, tens and ones. Division work sheets prompt learners to calculate quickly and precisely, with less emphasis on demonstrating how a student arrived at an answer.

Kumon-trained instructors, many without academic math backgrounds, offer limited help to those needing it, but “it’s not one on one,” said Ellen Bedrosian, a spokeswoman for Kumon U.S.A. in Teaneck, N.J. “We work with the ability to self-learn.”

The method is most suited for elementary school students, Ms. Bedrosian said. In New York, most Kumon students enroll in fourth grade.

Charging about $75 a month, plus a $30 enrollment fee, Kumon is less expensive than many similar services. But all its students, even quick learners, are required to start far below their current skill level and build back up. The practice, meant to increase confidence, also consumes time and tuition money…

Though parents are cautioned not to expect quick results, many children leave after a year, Ms. Bedrosian said…Diya Gullapalli, now a sophomore at the University of Virginia, studied at a Kumon center in Edison, N.J., when she was an 11-year-old struggling with math, but left after two years. She has mixed feelings. She said she liked the discipline, but found the lessons drudgery. “It became monotonous,” she said, adding that it did not help her solve more complex problems at school…

Members of a math commission recently formed to advise the city Board of Education on new directions for math instruction said they saw potential value in the Kumon technique, at least as a supplement for a school math curriculum. One commission member, Philip Uri Treisman, a math professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said parents of children in more freewheeling classrooms often seek more structured after-school activities, like Kumon.

Another member of the commission, Lynn A. Steen, a professor of mathematics at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., said Kumon could be a valuable supplement for some students, but he believes that it should not be the centerpiece of a school program “because it’s principally focused on the skills of computation, and that’s just part of what mathematics is all about.”

(2) “Battle Over Math Puts Onus on MCAS” by Clive McFarlane

Source: Worcester Telegram & Gazette – 19 November 2000
(The web link for this particular article has expired. For links to MCAS scores and a plethora of MCAS news articles, go to )

The philosophical divide between Massachusetts educators and policy-makers over how students learn appears to be deepening, and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests, which students must pass to earn a high school diploma beginning in 2003, have become the decisive battleground…

This has been the central argument against the testing system — that it promotes a traditional approach to education that is out of step with recognized research on effective learning strategies. Furthermore, critics say that the exams threaten to undermine years of compelling classroom reforms designed to allow all students, no matter their background, to achieve at the highest levels.

James E. Hamos, director of science education at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and chairman of the Mathematics and Science Advisory Council to the state Board of Education, is among those who feel this way.

He and a group of math educators are mounting one of the attacks against the MCAS, by developing and promoting a math curriculum that teachers can use as an alternative to the state’s.

While the state’s math curriculum focuses heavily on memorization and mechanical computation, the curriculum the group has developed concentrates more on problem solving and a deeper understanding of concepts, Mr. Hamos said.

“That’s the way the world works,” he said of his group’s approach to the math curriculum. “What the state is doing is narrow and will validate only a few kids”..

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Teachers Association has mounted a $600,000 television advertising campaign to derail the test…

Proponents for the test, however, say that support for the MCAS is still strong among citizens. “The voices we are hearing are the same ones that have raised objections from the start,” said James A. Peyser, the chairman of the state Board of Education. “There is a progressive philosophy that is pervasive throughout public education, and it is one that suggests that basic academic skills are not a major concern, that standardized testing in any form is retrograde, and that anything that highlights differences in achievement levels is socially undesirable.”

Mr. Peyser insists that the MCAS, including the consequences attached to the testing, is causing schools to broaden and elevate their curriculums for all students. “It is giving effective school leaders the information and leverage they need to drive changes and improve the quality of instruction,” he said. “It is helping school districts overcome barriers which for many years have stood in the way of educational excellence. These things would not be happening in the absence of MCAS and standard-based reform.”…

More significantly, Mr. Peyser and others said, opposition to the MCAS actually represents opposition to accountability.

“These are people with very strong resistance to accountability,” Mr. Peyser said. “Accountability and financial support — that was the deal when we implemented the Education Reform Act. If they want to go back on the deal, they should give the money back.”..

“The state frameworks are based on good pedagogy,” Mr. Caradonio said. “They tell you what to teach. They don’t tell you how to teach. They are inert. They come alive after teacher and student get involved with them.”

A study by the Massachusetts Education Reform Review Commission appears to bear out Mr. Caradonio’s contention.

According to a survey of 155 school districts, teachers said their students are writing more in all subject areas, that students are being exposed to more open-ended questions, and that they are doing more inquiry and problem solving in math and other disciplines.

“This is good news,” said S. Paul Reville, chairman of the review commission. “It suggests that the approach being promoted by the MCAS is not necessarily traditional. It suggests that teachers are interested in exploring a variety of approaches to pedagogy as a way of meeting the challenges of the MCAS”…

(3) “Good-Bye Pythagoras?” by Elizabeth Greene

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education – 6 October 2000

…In college classes in algebra, calculus, geometry, statistics, calculus, and the history of mathematics, among other subjects, and in degree programs for future elementary- and secondary-school teachers, professors are defining a new way of teaching math. They call it ethnomathematics — math from a cultural perspective.

“Every day, more and more pieces of the puzzle are coming together,” says Mr. Barta, an assistant professor who is treasurer of the North American chapter of the International Study Group on Ethnomathematics, a support group for people in the field. “We’re looking at multiple perspectives to help us better understand human beings and relationships between being human and mathematics,” he says.

Some professors strive to incorporate mathematical methods developed in non-European countries to calculate, measure, reason, and infer, among other things. Others take a broader view and include the practices of anyone — be it African or African-American, Filipino or female, one’s neighbor or oneself — under the “ethno” banner.

Good-bye Pythagoras? So long Euclid? That’s what the critics fear. “I’m all for uncovering mathematical contributions from China or India or Africa or anywhere else, and I do some of that in my teaching,” says David Klein, a professor of mathematics at California State University at Northridge. “But when it comes to actually teaching how to do mathematics itself, if the professors are so politically correct that they are reluctant to use Arabic numbers and European theorems and the powerful ideas of mathematics that were developed in the last few centuries in Europe, then it handicaps the students.”

Mr. Klein’s view is typical of the skeptics: He objects more to professors who take up students’ time working out math problems with non-European methods — even when they do problems the Greek way as well — than to instructors who incorporate the traditions of diverse cultures into their math-history lessons.

What worries critics the most is teacher education, where ethnomathematics is most prevalent. Some people feel that learning the mathematical methods of other cultures is not the best use of children’s time, either. Kids must learn a lot in elementary and secondary school to do the higher-level math of college and beyond, they say, and math based on European thinking offers the most efficient, powerful tools. Courses that devote a lot of time to ethnomathematics, some critics believe, steer future teachers in the wrong direction, in essence dumbing down the school curriculum.

But even the most ardent professors of ethnomathematics say they are not trying to replace the great Greek and other European thinkers who have shaped modern mathematics. Instead, they say, they are blending European ideas with African, Asian, Native American, and other mathematical innovations, teaching both European and non-European practices.

And in most cases, they say, they are teaching the same concepts as other math professors, but also giving their students new reasoning skills — and a cultural education to help capture their interest and put the math in context…

Most people trace the beginnings of the ethnomathematics movement to a 1984 speech that Mr. D’Ambrosio, now an emeritus professor of mathematics at the State University of Campinas, gave at a conference of the International Congress on Mathematical Education in Australia. Soon after that meeting, a group of mostly American educators organized the international study group of which Mr. Barta is a member. The group’s Web site, at, describes the field and has many links to related resources…

What started as a talk at a diversity conference last year has quickly made Mr. Arismendi-Pardi, an associate professor of mathematics at Orange Coast College, a big name in California community-college circles. Since April 1999, he has given 31 talks on ethnomathematics at conferences and colleges. Last spring, he won a diversity award from the California Community Colleges system for “his innovative approach to teaching mathematical concepts in a cultural and historical context.” And the statewide group representing the faculty of California’s 107 community colleges passed a resolution applauding the role of ethnomathematics in making the discipline more accessible to a broader group of students.

“At the community-college level, math is really a gatekeeper,” says Mr. Arismendi-Pardi. “Students at the community college will take algebra or trigonometry, and they can’t get out of it. They either don’t pass it or are turned off by it,” and then can’t go on to more-advanced math and subjects that require it. “I’m trying to break down these barriers”…

Even some advocates of ethnomathematics feel it is time to do serious empirical research to see if the methods really do teach students — at schools and colleges alike — what they need to know…

Naturally, critics agree. “Strategies that get people drawn in and interested that work and are reasonably efficient in time are fine,” says Michael McKeown, a professor of medical science at Brown University and a cofounder of Mathematically Correct. “We do need to ask to what extent those draw-in strategies allow us to cover the breadth of material we think students need to know”…

(4) “Just One More, I Promise…” by Mary Lord

Source: U.S. News and World Report – 27 November 2000

Ahoy, office idlers, cubical captains, and other fans of the computer game Minesweeper! It turns out that this mindless time-waster–in which players try to navigate a grid laden with concealed explosives–just might hold the key to cracking one of the most confounding problems in modern mathematics. The problem is considered so important, in fact, that the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Mass, is offering $1 million for a solution. And a British mathematician has figured out that Minesweeper may provide it…

(5) “Where Bright Minds Can Shine” by Elaine Woo

Source: Los Angeles Times – 22 November 2000

A private school for children with exceptionally high IQs nurtures an unfettered, unapologetic appetite for knowledge…

The 11-year-olds were doing math. Not long division, not multiplication of fractions, but algebraic equations. X intercept, Y axis, eyes gleaming at the very mention. Manipulating fancy graphing calculators, these kids were not merely paying attention to the lesson, they were absorbed in it.

In the science lab, the 13-year-olds were furiously swaddling eggs in typing paper, masking tape and paper clips, which they soon would launch from the roof of a nearby building. They were conducting a physics experiment in terminal velocity–splat rate, for you dimwits out there. By the time these teens enter high school, they’ll be years ahead of the crowd in physics and chemistry.

Extracurricular reading? Of course, plenty of it. But forget Harry Potter. Try “The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero.”

“It was brilliant,” said Nicholas Sofroniew, the 13-year-old who gobbled up math teacher Robert Kaplan’s weighty work of nonfiction in his free time.

If you’ve guessed that we’re inside a school for geniuses, you are partially correct. To be labeled gifted, an IQ of 132 will do, but that still isn’t enough to win passage through the black iron gate of the Mirman School in Bel-Air.

Mirman, a private school founded in 1962, is one of a handful in the country to cater to the tiptop of the intelligence scale: Only the highly gifted–children with an IQ of 145 and above–may apply…

Elitist? Darn right. But no one at Mirman apologizes for it…

At the core of its philosophy is the belief that the super-gifted, more than most, deserve a special education. “Average people,” says Principal Barry Ziff, “don’t change the world.”

Such a view is not usually so boldly stated by educators of the gifted, who have long suffered under the peculiarly American view that it’s not nice to be smarter than everyone else. “There is an anti-intellectualism in American society,” said Ziff, lamenting a system that prizes exceptional athletes but provides stingily for exceptional minds.

Yet debate rages even about the very definition of giftedness, with some prominent experts, such as Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner, arguing that intelligence takes multiple forms, only one of which is measured by intelligence tests such as the Stanford-Binet. Few schools attempt to assess unusual musical prowess, for example, or artistic giftedness…

Eight decades after influential psychologist Lewis Terman warned against indifference to the special needs of budding geniuses, the general attitude hasn’t changed: Why invest in the high-IQ child who’ll learn fine wherever he is? It’s the struggling masses who need the help.

“The argument is, if we just have limited resources, why do we help the kids who don’t need help? But that assumes they don’t need help,” said Ellen Winner, a Boston College psychology professor and author of the 1996 book “Gifted Children: Myths and Realities.”

“They need education that is challenging” but don’t often get it, Winner noted. “These children are miserable in school when they are forced to work way below their level.”

Winner goes so far as to argue that the highly gifted are more in need of specialized education than the moderately gifted–a distinction that makes her about as popular as a fox in a chicken coop among colleagues in the gifted world.

Most gifted students are educated in public schools. Los Angeles Unified, for instance, offers five full-time highly gifted magnet schools. However, in most districts the majority of students identified as having above-average intelligence are not in full-day gifted programs but may receive special instruction for an hour or two a day. The latter approach is, in Winner’s view, woefully inadequate for the ablest minds.

An estimated 20% of high school dropouts are gifted students who got bored in school and 85% are underachievers, according to Barbara Clark, president of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children and professor emeritus in the School of Education at Cal State Los Angeles. Yet such figures set off few alarms.

The “severely gifted,” as students like those at Mirman are sometimes called, constitute about 1% of the 2% to 3% of the population who have above-average intelligence. That is, the gifted represent about three out of 100 people, the highly gifted one out of 10,000.

The ultra-intelligent largely remain victims of benign neglect in public schools. A 1993 report by the U.S. Department of Education found that only 2 cents out of every $100 spent on precollegiate education in 1990 went to gifted programs. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley described the situation as a “quiet crisis” in which the needs of the nation’s ablest students are seldom met….

Nathan Myhrvold has almost three decades of hindsight through which to view his Mirman years. The 1972 graduate says he could not think of any serious drawbacks to going to a school where everyone devoured knowledge.

“I was a little nerd,” acknowledged Myhrvold, 41, who was Bill Gates’ chief technology officer at Microsoft for 14 years before retiring recently to start a new venture with a former Microsoft colleague. Although he was three years ahead of his age peers even at Mirman, the Bel-Air school was “less often boring” than the other schools he had attended…

“It was better for me to be in a situation where the slowest kid in class was like the brightest kid in class in public school,” Myhrvold said. “I didn’t see a lot of downside, and there was a lot of upside. I got challenged”…

While some drill and practice is necessary, most of Mirman’s classes approach assignments creatively, stressing critical thinking in lessons that may blend history with art or science with English. Although such progressive practices could benefit most children, the approach is considered particularly worthwhile for those with genius IQs because, as director Leslie Mirman Geffen noted, “their thinking processes percolate on a different level.”

Thus, a middle-school Spanish class divides into teams to create game shows for which they must write scripts entirely in the foreign language. A history class studying ancient Israel creates a timeline linking 25 important events with the caveat that they cannot use a single straight line. Some look molecular, with bubbles and pentagons as the organizing design. “It’s really fun, a lot more fun than a regular timeline because you get to be creative,” said Mark Frykman, 12, whose paper was a multicolored affair covered with circles, triangles and other symbols….

Norman Mirman, a wiry 80-year-old with a PhD from UCLA in gifted education, taught for nine years in public schools in the Westchester area. He saw how the most brilliant pupils were among the most neglected. “They did errands, they put away books, they helped teach other children. This was a very sad loss,” he said, “for them and for society.”…

At Mirman, administration and faculty believe that profoundly gifted children not only thrive best in their own schools but that they learn in radically different ways. Research shows that they learn more, faster and more deeply, than even the moderately gifted do.

Often they surprise their teachers with their ability to approach a task from an unorthodox angle. Spanish teacher Nancy Dean remembers the time one of her pupils reduced her explanation of verb conjugation into a concise mathematical equation. The formula made so much sense that now Dean regularly uses it in her teaching. “You have to know your subject so well that you welcome those things,” Dean said. Success for a teacher at Mirman often means checking your ego at the door…

(6) “Harcourt General Inc. Agrees to Terms of Sale” by Mark Walsh

Source: Education Week – 8 November 2000

The acquisition of Harcourt General Inc. by European and Canadian media companies is raising concerns from some observers about the impact of the deal on school textbook prices and quality.

Harcourt, based in Newton, Mass., announced Oct. 27 that it had accepted an offer to be acquired by Reed Elsevier PLC, a British-Dutch information and publishing company, for $4.45 billion in cash and $1.2 billion in assumption of debt. Reed Elsevier will keep Harcourt’s K-12 educational publishing units and its medical, scientific, and technical publishing businesses, but will sell Harcourt’s higher education publishing and some other business units to the Toronto-based Thomson Corp. for $1.2 billion…

Harcourt’s K-12 publishing sales rank fourth in the United States, behind Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton-Mifflin Inc.

Among Harcourt’s K-12 properties, Reed Elsevier is keeping Harcourt School Publishers, an elementary- textbook unit with 1999 revenues of $283 million; Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, a secondary school publisher with revenues of $175 million last year; and Steck- Vaughn, a publisher of supplemental materials with 1999 revenues of $85 million.

The company will also keep Harcourt’s testing business, which includes Harcourt Educational Measurement, the publisher of the Stanford and Metropolitan achievement tests, and Psychological Corp., which publishes intelligence tests and other instruments for use by trained psychologists. The testing unit’s total revenues last year were $193 million.

Reed Elsevier said in a news release that the merger would establish it as a leader in educational publishing throughout the English-speaking world. A “global head of education” will be appointed, but for now, the company’s U.S. educational publishing business will continue to be led by Anthony Lucki, the chief executive of Harcourt Education…