COMET • Vol. 1, No. 08 – 19 March 2000


(1) “Debate Over How to Teach Math Takes Cultural Turn”

by Richard Lee Colvin
Source: Los Angeles Times – Friday, 17 March 2000

As a kid growing up in Nicaragua, Guillermo Mendieta was taught by his father to work out the square roots of license plate numbers in his head. Learn to analyze numbers, the elder Mendieta would preach, and “you can basically write your own ticket in any field.”

Mendieta, now 38, listened. He became a much-honored Los Angeles teacher who is passionate about the power of math to open doors in the new economy–especially for young Latinos and African Americans.

But those doors, barely ajar for many blacks and Latinos, will slam shut, Mendieta argues, if California schools turn back the clock and return to a traditional method of instruction that emphasizes repetitive drills and memorization of multiplication tables.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, now in the midst of a bitter debate over how to teach math, has emerged as the critical battleground in the state’s long-running math wars. The fight pits advocates of a return to traditional methods in all schools against those who favor a stress on hands-on activities to translate abstract concepts into concrete problems.

Traditional methods have divided the world into those who “get it” and the vast majority who don’t. Mendieta and his allies argue that teachers must have a broader repertoire of techniques if more students are going to acquire the math skills demanded by the workplace.

Insisting that old-fashioned methods have a disproportionate, negative impact on the poor and minorities, they have cast the debate as a struggle for economic and social justice.

Mendieta, who recently resigned in protest from a 35-member committee that will make a recommendation to the Los Angeles Board of Education next month on what approach to use, contends that traditional instruction dooms most students to failure, regardless of race or ethnicity.

But he argues that blacks and Latinos have the most to gain from methods that make math accessible to larger numbers of students because they have lagged furthest behind in terms of achievement. For support, he and other reformers point to dramatic increases in the number of minority students taking college-preparatory math classes in high school.

The importance of Los Angeles in the debate is a result not only of its size, but also of its previous commitment to the “reform” methods. The struggle has reverberated nationally.

“I’ve received hundreds of phone calls and letters of support and e-mails,” said a buoyant Mendieta, who works with less-experienced teachers through the Achievement Council, a Los Angeles nonprofit organization that addresses educational inequities. “I see this as a beginning . . . in a long, hard but wonderfully rewarding and just struggle.” To draw attention to the issue, Mendieta announced Thursday that he will go on a hunger strike.

Adversaries Reject Racial Argument

Mendieta’s adversaries agree that the stakes are high, but they reject the idea that traditional math instruction has favored the interests of white males and Asian Americans, two groups who have traditionally excelled in the subject.

“If anyone is racist or sexist, it is those who claim that women and minorities are unable to deal with traditional mathematics,” said Barry Simon, a Caltech professor who holds an endowed chair in math and theoretical physics.

California’s new academic standards suggest that all high school students–not just those bound for college–should have the equivalent of three years of rigorous math instruction. The California high school exit exam, which today’s eighth graders eventually will have to pass to graduate, will include a significant amount of algebra. In Los Angeles, those students also will have to pass geometry.

The drive for standards, which is taking hold nationwide, has been propelled by growing international economic competition and a new information-based economy that puts a premium on mathematical skills.

Unfortunately, there is no conclusive data with which to sort out the claims and counterclaims. In fact, as the fight between traditional and reform approaches to math has played out over the last several months within the Los Angeles Unified School District, the most compelling numbers show widespread failure regardless of the teaching method.

But even without data to make their case, the traditionalists have been winning all of the key battles at the state level over standards, textbooks and tests. Now local districts throughout the state are having to change course to remain in sync with the new standards dictated in Sacramento.

Los Angeles must decide which textbooks to use, whether to return to a traditional sequence of algebra, geometry and advanced algebra in high school and how best to help students failing math to meet the new standards.

Some districts are sticking resolutely with reform. Hundreds have hedged their bets, buying workbooks to boost basic skills. Others, such as the Sacramento Unified School District, have returned to a more traditional approach.

Traditionalists believe that understanding math comes not from activities, but from intensive work with formulas, equations, fractions and the like until those concepts become second nature. In particular, they fault reformers for allowing students to rely on calculators instead of learning basic math facts.

“Mathematics is just building upon and building upon, and if at any point the foundation is air, the whole building is going to collapse,” said Simon, one of a growing number of top university mathematicians who have become activists on the traditional side.

Mendieta complains that lessons that focus almost exclusively on number crunching “castrate the curiosity of the vast majority of children before they leave middle school.” Teachers should focus more on comprehension–for example, using tangible objects such as beans or blocks to provide physical representations of such abstract ideas as borrowing and carrying in addition.

For all the back-and-forth over philosophy, both sides recognize that American public schools have not succeeded in teaching math as well as those in many European and Asian countries.

“In reality, everybody has failed,” said Robert Collins, an L.A. Unified administrator trying to reach a compromise among the factions on the math committee. “There’s no evidence that we were ever successful teaching large numbers of urban children mathematics, anywhere.”

More than half of the ninth-graders in L.A. Unified got grades of D or F in algebra or its equivalent last year. The failure rate in the remedial math course taken by ninth-graders, which starts with basic arithmetic, was even higher.

The failure rate varies from school to school but is equally high for both traditional and reform courses. “We may have changed the curriculum but we haven’t changed the failure rate,” Collins said.

National Record Shows Few Successes

Nationally, performance of students in their first high school math classes has been dismal for many years, said John A. Thorpe, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Teachers and researchers offer a variety of explanations.

High school teachers say students come to them weak in basic arithmetic. Sixty percent of the eighth-graders in L.A. Unified, it is estimated, do not yet know their multiplication tables.

Many teachers say that students are unmotivated, that they skip class and don’t do homework. Robert Drake, a math teacher at Roosevelt High School, said many students are simply convinced they lack a talent for math.

“They say, ‘It’s OK if I fail. My mom knows I’m bad at math,'” Drake said.

Mendieta blames traditional math for fostering that defeatist attitude. “By nature, kids are born with the desire to learn,” he said. “But the overwhelming majority of the students under the traditional curriculum end up hating mathematics, not understanding mathematics or thinking very poorly of their own mathematical competence.”

The reform method was launched a decade ago by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. A key element was the creation of “integrated” courses, which combine the teaching of the various branches of mathematics–algebra, geometry, probability, statistics and so on. The point is to promote comprehension by showing how various branches of math are interconnected. The classes also tend to cover fewer topics but in greater depth.

Since the advent of those courses in Los Angeles, the number of African American students completing three years of high school math with a grade of C or better has risen by more than 40%, according to district analysis; the rise is nearly as high for Latino students.

The numbers of students eligible for the University of California and the numbers of students taking Advanced Placement courses in math also were up dramatically.

Statistics like that have convinced some officials, including L.A. school board President Genethia Hayes, that the nontraditional math classes need to be kept. “I will advocate as hard as I can with my colleagues to make sure this particular door never gets shut for children of color,” Hayes said. “I really do see this as an issue of social justice.”

But critics say college-prep courses that fly the reform banner are weak and leave students unprepared for college. Moreover, they say, although more students are taking AP courses, they’re not necessarily passing the tests showing they have learned the advanced material.

Committee member Paul Clopton, a San Diego statistician and co-founder of Mathematically Correct, compiled data showing that students taking integrated courses score lower across the board on state standardized tests than do those in traditional courses.

The number of students taking the SAT exam at L.A. Unified schools using the reform approach is down substantially and so is the average score on the math portion.

“It seems as if the attitude is that one way to get more people to pass algebra is to redefine what the subject is,” Simon said. “You’ve got to teach people certain basic skills and facts.”

James W. Hiebert, a professor at the University of Delaware, recently analyzed the existing research. He concluded that all programs in use today–including traditional ones–are experimental.

“We’ve never had a systematic trial of these things over time and then chosen the one we think is best,” he said.

Even so, he said, “presuming that traditional approaches have proven successful is ignoring the largest database of information we have.”

Well-implemented reform programs can teach all students concepts without sacrificing their ability to compute, he said. “My opinion is that good materials and good teaching are good for everybody.”

Reformers concede that their method is vulnerable to criticism because poorly trained teachers have, in some cases, substituted meaningless activities for instruction. People on both sides of the debate agree that far too many teachers lack a fundamental knowledge of math.

Karen Fuson, a math education researcher at Northwestern University, has spent years writing and testing a new math program for elementary school students that combines traditional and reform methods and works well with disadvantaged children.

Bolstering students’ conceptual understanding while giving the proper weight to basic skills is difficult “and nobody has worked out all the pieces and how they fit together,” she said.

But she believes that data she has gathered so far “clearly indicate that it is possible for urban kids to learn much more than they do learn now.”

The key, Fuson and others say, is good teaching. Teachers not only have to ask students to compute, they also have to make sure students understand why the computations work and what the answers represent.

“Of course It’s quite difficult to do,” she said.

Old Math, New Math

Since World War II, math instruction in the United States, and especially California, has changed course time and again–with little improvement in test scores.

  • Early 1950s: Students, grouped by ability, learn math through drill and memorization.
  • Mid-1950s: “New math” begins to spread; students are taught underlying rules and theorems of math, as well as how to calculate.
  • 1957: Sputnik launched; worries about lapses in math instruction lead to federal teacher-training programs.
  • 1962: Opposition to “new math” bubbles up in academic journals; lack of training cited.
  • 1970s: Back-to-basics begins to edge out “new math.”
  • 1985: Reform gains ground; California issues framework for math instruction that urges schools to emphasize problem-solving and understanding.
  • 1989: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics publishes standards for reform methods.
  • 1992: California embraces methods that further de-emphasize basic math skills.
  • 1994: Adoption of textbooks based on reform ideas sets off backlash; term “fuzzy math” is coined to characterize reform.
  • 1995: State panel is appointed to restore balance to math program.
  • 1995: Los Angeles Unified School District receives $15-million federal grant to train teachers in reform methods.
  • 1996: Study finds that American eighth- and 12th-graders lag behind peers in most of the developed world in math skills.
  • 1997: California requires students to memorize basic skills, but also stresses problem-solving and in-depth understanding.
  • 1999-2000: L.A. Unified begins to overhaul its math program to reflect the more traditional state standards.


(2) “Davis Names Hart Aide to Education Post”

by Dan Smith
Source: The Sacramento Bee — 15 March 2000

Gov. Gray Davis on Tuesday appointed Susan K. Burr as interim replacement for Education Secretary Gary Hart, as lawmakers prepare to cast a far more critical eye upon the second-year governor’s proposals for public schools.

In appointing Burr, a veteran legislative staffer who was Hart’s assistant over the first 14 months of the Davis administration, the governor retained the option to name a permanent appointee for the post.

“What I want to signal today is no loss in continuity,” Davis said. “I reserve the right to bring in another player in some capacity to complement our education team. . . . We may reconfigure the team a little bit, but Sue is going to play a principal role. She is very well-known in the Legislature.”S

The 46-year-old Burr said her arrangement with Davis was “open-ended.” Some have suggested that Davis would prefer to fill the post permanently with a former legislator — as Hart was.

But because the state Constitution forbids a sitting legislator from taking an appointive job with the state until his or her term ends, Davis would have to wait until December to appoint a current lawmaker who is not seeking re-election this year or who is forced out by term limits.



“Panel Ponders Ways To Get, Keep Good Math and Science Teachers”

by David J. Hoff
Source: Education Week — 15 March 2000

A federal commission is promising to unveil what could be a multibillion-dollar plan to attract and keep the 200,000 people needed to teach math and science in the nation’s schools.

But, midway through their one-year charge, panel members don’t know exactly what form their proposals will take.

“This commission ought to come out with some big and bold ideas,” Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina said at the March 6-7 meeting of the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching of the 21st Century.

Throughout the rest of last week’s meeting here, members of the 25-person panel repeated Mr. Hunt’s call for “big and bold” ideas, talking about several programs that could cost more than $1 billion, with money to be chipped in by federal and state governments, local school boards, and corporations.

The North Carolina Democrat pitched his own proposal to provide a “residency or fellowship for every new math and science teacher in America.” His price tag: $1.2 billion.

Chaired by former Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, the panel was appointed last year by Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and charged with recommending ways to improve teacher recruitment, preparation, retention, and professional development. Its recommendations will be sent to Congress in a legislative proposal by the end of the year. The panel is composed of educators, federal and state legislators, business leaders, and researchers.

The Department of Education estimates that the United States needs to recruit 2.2 million new teachers in the next decade. Members of the so-called Glenn Commission estimate that 200,000 will need to be specialists in mathematics or sciences

Among the other ideas discussed at the two-day meeting:

  • Assign experienced teachers to mentor rookies for the first several years, and reduce their teaching loads so they can focus on giving help to the new recruits;
  • Entice retired teachers back into the classroom by loosening state retirement rules that restrict their ability to earn a salary while collecting pensions;
  • Offer raises and bonuses for teachers who earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards;
  • Expand opportunities for current teachers to improve their practices, adding professional-development days to the school year or offering extended summer workshops for that purpose; and
  • Give educators who are now teaching math and science without the proper credentials the training they need.
  • Many states already offer bonuses or pay raises to teachers with national certification. And throughout the 1960s, the federal government subsidized the graduate education of young scientists and provided in-depth summer workshops on new science and math curricula for teachers.

Despite the fact that California spends “hundreds of millions” in salary increases based on teachers’ advanced degrees, one study found that teachers instead chose to expand their knowledge of reading, pedagogy, and other nonscientific fields, according to the state’s outgoing secretary of education, Gary K. Hart. “Hardly any were taking courses in math and science,” he said.

That reflects a general sense in American society that people shy away from the subjects of math and science because they don’t understand them as well as the humanities, said Philip Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics education at the University of Texas at Austin.

But members of the commission are confident they can mobilize support for their ideas.

On the first day of the session, Craig R. Barrett, the president and chief executive officer of the Intel Corp., estimated he could raise $500 million from businesses if the federal government and states matched it. He raised his goal to $1 billion after calculating some of the costs for the programs he wants to see implemented, according to Carlene Ellis, Mr. Barrett’s assistant, who attended the second day of the meeting on his behalf.



WestEd presents: “A Learning from Assessment Training-of-Trainers Institute” 

Dates: May 1-3, 2000 plus a follow-up session in Fall 2000 Location: Radisson Berkeley Marina Hotel, Berkeley, CA (Register by: April 1, 2000)

[From the WestEd Web site] Do you work with teachers of mathematics in Arizona, California, Nevada, or Utah? Do your teachers need help (a) translating standards into instructional practice? (b) aligning assessment with standards and instruction? (c) collecting appropriate evidence to show that students meet standards? If you answered YES to any of these questions, then this Institute is for you!

“Learning from Assessment: Tools for Examining Assessment Through Standards” © (LfA) offers complete sets of materials to be used in professional development sessions with teachers and administrators. This resource provides opportunities for educators to examine the inter-relationships between assessment, curriculum, and instruction in order to improve student achievement in mathematics. A collection of eighth-grade assessment items culled from TIMSS and NAEP serve as focal points for discussing critical issues that support student learning. The materials are easily customized for local needs.

For more information, go to or contact Tania Madfes at or (415) 615-3103


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 compiled and distributed via COMET approximately once a week. 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 often included. If you would like to include an announcement or article in COMET, please send it to for consideration. (Your comments and suggestions are also welcome!)