COMET • Vol. 10, No. 03 – 5 February 2009


(1) Mathematics and Science Updates from January’s Curriculum Commission Meeting

Source: Tracie Yee, Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division, California Department of Education –

At last Thursday’s meeting of the Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission (Curriculum Commission), Hope Bjerke was reappointed Chair of the Curriculum Commission’s Mathematics Subject Matter Committee and Glee Johnson was elected Vice Chair. Also at this meeting, the Math and the Science Subject Matter Committees each provided an update regarding their respective (a) follow-up adoption of instructional materials (2010) and (b) Curriculum Framework revision.

The timeline for the 2011 update of the Mathematics Framework for California Public Schools can be found at  The timeline for the Science Framework update is located at

The names of individuals recommended by the Curriculum Commission to serve on the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee (CFCC) will be forwarded to the State Board for consideration at its March 11-12, 2009 meeting. Once the Board approves the CFCC members, their names will be available at  Reminder: Applications for service on the Mathematics CFCC are due on May 12, and Focus Group (Math) applications are due on March 3 (see

The application forms for Science and Mathematics Instructional Materials Reviewers (IMR) and Content Review Experts (CRE) will go to the State Board of Education as an Action Item at the Board’s March meeting. (IMP and CRE members review, evaluate, and make recommendations regarding instructional materials submitted for possible state adoption.) Once the Board approves the applications, they will be posted to the following Web pages within a week or two of the Board meeting:


(2) State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell Delivers 2009 State of Education Address

Source: California Department of Education
URL (Press Release):
URL (Address):

This past Tuesday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell delivered his sixth annual State of Education address. (Please visit for the entire text of this speech.)

As California grapples with an unprecedented budget shortfall and the nation’s economic crisis, O’Connell made the case for school-funding reform and increased investment in public education as keys to California’s economic recovery. O’Connell also urged educators and policymakers to continue the focus on closing the achievement gap even as schools prepare for staggering cuts in funding.

“The state of public education in California is precarious,” O’Connell said. “Beyond the immediate crisis and even more alarming to me is the long-term future of our common education system. If we continue down the road we are on, our public schools and our state itself face certain, perhaps irreparable, damage.”

“Downturns like this hit the most vulnerable among us the hardest,” O’Connell said. “Sadly this comes after a long-term California focus on closing achievement gaps is now just starting to show modest progress. Let me be crystal clear, all of our progress as a high-expectation state is at risk unless we commit ourselves now to being innovative, flexible, and focused as never before. It is time for us to prioritize and to focus on things we know are working to close the achievement gap and help all students succeed.”

As an example of his call for thinking differently, O’Connell announced that he has ordered the California Department of Education (CDE) to immediately suspend all non-mandated on-site district monitoring visits. CDE typically conducts monitoring visits every year for a quarter of all districts in the state to ensure that fiscal and program requirements are being met. O’Connell has directed CDE staff to use the time and resources saved from not conducting on-site reviews to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the compliance monitoring system.

“I want to see a redesigned system that will focus the greatest attention on those schools that need the most assistance. It should be based on student achievement results, not bureaucratic agendas,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell also has announced that he has suspended the California School Technology Survey, which will save many hours of work for teachers and administrators. In addition, he has directed CDE staff to make some data elements optional for the first year of reporting under California’s new longitudinal data system known as CALPADS.

“We cannot eliminate federal reporting, and we will not eliminate critical data needed to assess the achievement gaps–such as graduation or dropout rates. But I have asked my staff to find relief for school districts by making some data elements this first year optional, rather than required,” he said. “We have worked long and hard to finally reach this juncture of having a longitudinal data system. While we must not turn back the clock on its implementation, we must be mindful of how much new work school districts can accomplish during these days of fiscal crisis.”

To help school districts raise desperately needed funds, O’Connell announced his support for Senate Constitutional Amendment 6 by state Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), to lower the threshold for parcel taxes from the current two-thirds majority to 55 percent. O’Connell said that legislative passage of this measure should be tied to any budget agreement that cuts funding to schools. He also announced that he is sponsoring a bill by Assembly member Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) to place a major school facilities bond on the next statewide ballot.

“This measure will create jobs,” O’Connell said. “It will help stimulate the construction of schools designed for 21st century learning as well as energy efficient high-performing “green” schools that will help tomorrow’s students achieve and compete. This economy will recover, and school construction will help to revive it.”

O’Connell noted that even with the current challenges, California schools are making progress in improving student achievement. He also provided an update on his plan for addressing the achievement gap, which he outlined in his State of Education speech last year. Please see the detailed update on the progress made on implementing the recommendations from O’Connell’s statewide P-16 Council at




(1) Free Webinar: Why Students Struggle with Algebra and How Schools are Helping

Source: Education Week

A live webinar hosted by Education Week and entitled, “Why Students Struggle with Algebra and How Schools are Helping” will be held on Tuesday, February 10, at 10 a.m. PT.  Registration is free and is now open at

One of the biggest challenges in K-12 education today is how to help students overcome their struggles in introductory algebra. Many students fail or are barely able to keep up in their first algebra course, typically taught in the 8th or 9th grade. In response, state and school district officials are trying to solve this problem in a number of ways, including encouraging better teacher preparation and by revamping courses and curricula to help struggling students (e.g., offering “algebra readiness” classes aimed at girding students for the challenges of that class). In addition, policymakers at all levels have called for an improved, more streamlined approach to teaching elementary and middle-grades math as a way of preparing students for algebra.

This webinar will bring together several experts who have examined students’ experiences with algebra. One of the goals is to explore the fundamental question: Why do so many students find algebra so difficult? The webinar will then examine efforts by districts and private curriculum developers to help these students. It will also touch on major developments at the national level in this area, such as the release last year of a report by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel which called for more coherent math curricula in the early grades as a foundation for algebra.

Webinar Guests:

Jon R. Star – Educational psychologist and assistant professor of education, Harvard University

Mary Jo Tavormina – Elementary Mathematics Manager, Chicago Public Schools

Jesch Reyes – Math specialist, former algebra teacher, Chicago Public Schools


(2) “Lebanon Schools Turn Algebra into Child’s Play” by Betsy Hammond

Source:  The Oregonian – 28 December 2008 

Lori Haley and Mya Corbett hunch over a pile of yellow hexagons, trying to figure out how many hexagonal tables it would take to seat 25 guests.

The pair want to get the answer, but what they’re really itching to do is to come up with a formula that will tell them how many people they could seat for any given number of tables.

Suddenly, the girls detect a pattern, and one shouts: “(t x 4) + 2 = s!” They try it on one table, two tables, eight tables — it works.

They beam, flashing smiles that still feature baby teeth. Lori and Mya just started third grade.

While most high schools in Oregon and across the nation struggle to get freshmen to pass algebra, one school district is trying something very different.

Lebanon, which educates 4,000 students in eight schools, is pushing algebra on students as early as first grade. And the kids are getting it.

More than 80 percent of Lebanon eighth-graders passed the state math test, compared with 66 percent at schools with similar demographics. No other large or medium-size Oregon district outdid its peers by 15 percentage points.

Still, Lebanon leaders say they expect better results this school year and next, as more teachers adopt early algebra and pupils who’ve been solving for x since primary school advance into higher grades and take state tests.

They also acknowledge that their successes in elementary and middle schools are not matched at Lebanon High, which posts some of the worst math scores in Oregon. Math coach Joe Vore and others say they expect that will turn around as students who got a solid grounding in math during the early grades reach high school and as district efforts to improve math teaching shift to the high school.

No flash cards

Visit a Lebanon elementary math class, and you will see:

First-graders set up and solve formulas such as 9 – x = 5, as they did when Raylene Sell talked with her class about “some teddy bears” walking away from the classroom rug, leaving five behind.

Third-graders suggest mathematically complex ways to arrive at 9: -219 + 228 or (10 x 5) – 40 – 1, or even (3 x 3) + (8 x 8) – ((4 x 4) + (4 x 4)) – 32.

Students don’t do worksheets, use flash cards or memorize multiplication tables. Yet by third and fourth grade, most of them add, subtract and multiply quickly and accurately.

Fifth-graders grasp how small one-thousandth is compared with one-tenth, as is reflected on a typical gas meter–a magnitude of difference that many adults get wrong. And the kids actually seem to like the stuff. When student Dakota Rose closed his folder after the gas meter lesson, he said to no one in particular: “I wish we could do more. That was fun. I liked the dials.”

Lebanon officials are loath to proclaim their program perfect, noting that math instruction is evolving, that some teachers still use traditional methods and that the biggest payoffs are yet to come.

But they say they are confident that their new approach to teaching math is the way to go.

Among the key elements: Begin simple algebra and multiplication by first grade; have every child talk extensively about his or her mathematical reasoning; let students set up their own problems and equations and allow them to use big numbers if they choose; cover few topics in great depth; use lots of visual and hands-on modeling to make math ideas concrete.

“Something happens when they play with numbers every day–numbers they come up with themselves, equations they write themselves,” says Marla Ernst, a teacher who also coaches fellow teachers. She is largely responsible for finding the approach and spreading it districtwide. “They get an innate sense of what is seven, what is a fraction.”

Smarter than you think

The Northwest Regional Education Laboratory, a Portland-based research and training agency, helped train more than 60 Lebanon teachers in the new math approach.

It is based largely on a teacher training technique called Cognitively Guided Instruction, or CGI, developed by education researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Among the core ideas, according to CGI co-developer Thomas Carpenter: Young children know more about math than most adults think they do. Ask kids to talk a lot about their mathematical reasoning and then add to what they already know. In Lebanon, teachers strive not to say “That was the wrong answer.” They lean toward, “Can you tell me about your thinking?”

Kindergartners intuitively know how to add — “you can have two more cookies” — and subtract — “put three of those toys away.” They can create and solve much more interesting problems than 2 + 2 from their first weeks of school. Children should also be asked to multiply and divide (without necessarily using those terms or the division sign) by first grade.

Perhaps more than anything else: Don’t mislead kids, as most schools do, about the meaning of the equal sign.

Part of what converts teachers to the new approach is watching videos in which typical U.S. schoolchildren as old as third and fourth grade invariably give the wrong answer to this simple question: 8 + 4 = _ + 5. Most answer “12,” because they have mistakenly learned that the equals sign means “give me the answer to the problem so far” rather than “make things equal on both sides of me.”

Which is why Sell’s first-graders are encouraged to think about problems in which the unknown–the classic x of algebra, often discussed in Lebanon as “some” teddy bears or “some” cookies–comes at the beginning or middle of the problem, not just at the end.

Other tools in the Lebanon math toolbox include lots of visual modeling of math ideas. Plastic blocks represent hundreds, tens and ones; kid-sized balances show ways to make both sides equal to balance the scale; number lines make it easy to see that 3/4 and 0.75 mean the same thing.

Lebanon’s approach is in line with recent national reports about what’s wrong with U.S. math classes and how to fix them.

The Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University reported this month that getting teachers to change their daily teaching practices does more to raise math achievement than buying new textbooks or computerized math programs.

And the National Math Panel, appointed by the president to find research-backed ways to improve math skills, concluded that the reason so many high school students fail first-year algebra isn’t poor teaching in high school; rather, it’s that they got through elementary and middle school without grasping the basics, including fractions, percentages and decimals.

In primary classrooms in Lebanon, students deftly use number lines, work with negative numbers and solve basic algebraic equations. Few students sit stumped on the sidelines.

The day that (2 x 19) – 16 was one of the warmup equations in Beth Moore’s third-grade classroom, every hand went up when she asked how they’d solved 2 times 19 in their heads so quickly.

Says 9-year-old Casey McEuen : “Sometimes the problems can be very hard and difficult, but we can figure it out.”



(3) Professional Development Key to Improving Math Achievement

Source: Johns Hopkins University

Teachers have a greater impact than new textbooks or computers when it comes to raising math scores, according to a comprehensive research review by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education (

Researchers Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, and Cynthia Lake, research scientist, reviewed 87 previously released experimental studies evaluating the effectiveness of math programs in the elementary grades. The researchers’ review covered three approaches to improving math achievement–textbooks, computer-assisted instruction, and approaches emphasizing professional development in specific teaching methods, such as cooperative learning and teaching of learning skills. They found that changing daily teaching practices did more for student achievement than simply using new textbooks or adding computers to the mix.

“The debate about mathematics reform has focused primarily on curriculum, not on professional development or instruction,” said Slavin. “Yet the research review suggests that in terms of outcomes on math assessments, curriculum differences are less consequential than instructional differences.”

Researchers conducted a broad literature search in order to locate every study comparing the effectiveness of various math programs to traditional control groups. The results were published in the September issue of the American Educational Research Association’s Review of Educational Research. The review notes that the three approaches to mathematics instruction do not conflict with each other and may have added effects if used together.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education is conducting one of the largest research review projects ever undertaken, to increase the use of evidence in education to improve student achievement. The intent is to place all types of programs on a common scale to provide educators with meaningful, unbiased information that they can use to select programs and practices most likely to make a difference with their students. Topics include reading, math, and other programs for grades K-12. Educator-friendly ratings of effective education programs as well as the full reports appear on the Best Evidence Encyclopedia web site at

The Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education is a non-profit center that received funding from the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. For more information on the center, visit