COMET • Vol. 10, No. 05 – 18 February 2009


(1) President Obama’s Education Plan–Online Chat Tomorrow

SourceEducation Week

With the new administration in Washington comes the prospect of new approaches to education policy and practice that would directly affect schools and districts at the local level. Get an advance look at how decisions on the No Child Left Behind law, Title I, and other key legislation by President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may change the education landscape.

This free live chat, sponsored by Education Week, will be available at noon (Pacific Time) at the Web site above. Questions are now being accepted at

Thomas Toch — Co-founder and co-director of Education Sector, an independent Washington think tank
Gene Wilhoit — Executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers
Chester E. Finn Jr. — President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation


(2) “Obama Wants Simulus to Transform Schools”

SourceUSA Today/AP – 17 February 2009

President Barack Obama wants to do more than save teachers’ jobs or renovate classrooms with his economic recovery bill. He wants to transform the federal government’s role in education.

Public schools will get an unprecedented amount of money–double the education budget under George W. Bush–from the stimulus bill in the next two years. With those dollars, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan want schools to do better.

From Duncan’s perspective, the sheer size of the stimulus bill makes it a once-in-a-lifetime chance to put lasting reforms in place.

“It’s also an opportunity to redefine the federal role in education, something we’re thinking a whole lot about,” Duncan said recently. “How can we move from being (about) compliance with bureaucracy to really the engine of innovation and change?”

The bill includes a $5 billion fund solely for these innovations, an amount that might not seem like much, considering the bill’s $787 billion price tag. But it is massive compared with the $16 million in discretionary money Duncan’s predecessors got each year for their own priorities.

“It’s unprecedented that a secretary would have this much money and this much latitude,” said Charlie Barone, director of federal policy for the group Democrats for Education Reform.

Congress laid out broad guidelines for the fund in the stimulus bill that became law on Tuesday. But it will be up to Duncan and the team of advisers he is assembling to decide how to dole out the money. They have until Oct. 1, when the next fiscal year begins, to start distributing the dollars.

What would the fund pay for? Rewarding states and school districts that are making big progress.

For example, Tennessee recently overhauled its graduation requirements and academic standards as it works to boost student achievement. As part of that effort, officials want more rigorous state tests; Tennessee has been criticized because students pass state exams with flying colors, yet they do poorly on well-regarded national tests. Better tests cost money.

Or in California, school officials would like to expand the ConnectEd curricula, now in 16 high schools, that links academics to actual work in aerospace, biomedicine and other careers. The program is aimed at getting students ready for college and keeping them from dropping out.

It doesn’t come cheaply; teacher training, equipment and technical help all are costly.

“We ought to be able to take what’s working in the very best schools and make that common practice across all schools,” said Ted Mitchell, president of California’s state board of education.

To get the money, states will have to show they are making good progress in four areas:

• Boosting teacher effectiveness and getting more good teachers into high-poverty, high-minority schools;

• Setting up data systems to track how much a student has learned from one year to the next;

• Improving academic standards and tests;

• Supporting struggling schools.

Also, at the urging of Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, the fund sets aside $650 million for school districts or districts in partnership with nonprofit groups. This could include charter schools or other programs with a track record of boosting achievement…

“There is so much at stake today,” Duncan said. “We’re going to have significantly more resources than we have ever had. We need to use every penny of that wisely.”

Duncan has experience at turning schools around. He spent the past seven years running Chicago public schools, an urban district with high dropout rates and hundreds of low-performing schools. Under Duncan, federal dollars helped create new programs that tie teacher bonuses to student performance and bring professionals from other careers into teaching and helped start more charter schools.

Those are the sort of ideas the Obama administration wants to encourage with the new fund. Duncan views the infusion as crucial because with huge budget deficits that threaten to slash funding for schools, there may be little left over at the state level for innovation.

The ideas are not new. The No Child Left Behind education law was supposed to address the education crisis by closing the gap between minority and poor children who are driving the low achievement numbers and white students in more affluent schools.

But some ideas have been controversial. For example, teachers’ unions have resisted performance pay for teachers–raises based in some measure on student test scores–though some have begun to accept it.

Unions are watching closely to see how the fund is spent. The bill itself gives wide latitude over how the dollars are handed out, and unions want to make sure teachers have a seat at the table.

“We would certainly hope there is some requirement that the state has to collaborate with teachers’ organizations in the state in deciding what to do with the money,” said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, the biggest teachers’ union.

And Republicans, who like Duncan’s ideas for fixing schools, argued against the fund because its main goal is not to create jobs right away. They also criticized the massive infusion the bill makes to No Child Left Behind and special education programs, spending that will be difficult to cut once the economy is back on track.

“I don’t like it,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., himself a former education secretary.

“Now, most people in education are delighted to get the money,” Alexander told university presidents in Washington last week. “I think the stimulus package ought to be for programs that create jobs now, that stimulate the housing industry. And then we ought to take up the long-term investments that we make.”


(3) Tracking the Progress of the Recovery Effort:

Source: Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board

On Tuesday, February 17, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed, and a Web site,, was created “to provide each and every citizen with the ability to monitor the progress of the recovery.

“ will feature information on how the Act is working, tools to help you hold the government accountable, and up-to-date data on the expenditure of funds. The site will include information about Federal grant awards and contracts as well as formula grant allocations. Federal agencies will provide data on how they are using the money, and eventually, prime recipients of Federal funding will provide information on how they are using their Federal funds…

“The first incarnation of features projections for how, when, and where the funds will be spent–which states and sectors of the economy are due to receive what proportion of the funds. As money starts to flow, far more data will become available.”


(4) Need Help with Math Class? YouTube Videos Await

Source: eSchool News

When University of Central Florida junior Nicole Nissim got stumped in trigonometry, she checked out what was showing on YouTube.

Nissim typically scours the video-sharing Web site for clips of bands and comedy skits. But this time she wasn’t there to procrastinate on her homework. It turned out YouTube was also full of math videos. After watching a couple, the psychology major says, she finally understood trig equations and how to make graphs.

“I was able to watch them at my own pace and if I didn’t get a concept, I could easily rewind it,” Nissim says. “It was a lot clearer once I watched the video.”

YouTube is perhaps best known for its cavalcade of homemade performances and TV clips, but many people like Nissim are turning to it for free tutoring in math, science, and other complicated subjects.

Math videos won’t rival the millions of hits garnered by laughing babies, but a YouTube tutorial on calculus integrals has been watched almost 50,000 times in the past year. Others on angular velocity and harmonic motion have gotten more than 10,000 views each.

The videos are appealing for several reasons, says Kim Gregson, an Ithaca College professor of new media. Students come to the videos when they’re ready to study and fully awake–not always the case for 8 a.m. calculus classes. And they can watch the videos as many times as they need until they understand.

Viewer comments reflect that. On tutorials posted to YouTube by the not-for-profit Khan Academy, for example, reactions include: “Now why couldn’t my calc instructor explain it that simply?” and “I was just about to leave my physics course. You saved me.” One viewer went as far as to declare to the man behind the videos: “You are god of mathematics!!!”

What’s creator Salman Khan’s trick? Keeping it simple, he says. He takes a laid-back approach, focuses on a single concept and keeps the videos to a digestible 10 minutes. He says he purposely did not create clips featuring himself standing at a whiteboard. He wanted something more akin to sitting next to someone and working out a problem on a sheet of paper. He uses the low-tech Microsoft Paint sketching software, with a black background and brightly colored lines and equations as he works through his explanations.

“If you’re watching a guy do a problem (while) thinking out loud, I think people find that more valuable and not as daunting,” says Khan, a California hedge fund manager by day and math geek by night.

Educated at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Khan developed his tutoring hobby when a younger cousin was having trouble with sixth-grade math. As word of his knack for teaching spread among relatives and family friends, Khan got tired of explaining the same things over and over, so he created videos and posted them on YouTube. He formed the Khan Academy, currently a one-man show, with the long-term goal of starting a school that uses technology to customize learning for students.

Khan’s video clips have developed a following far beyond that immediate circle of relatives and friends, and now he gets dozens of e-mails a week from around the world — including requests for videos on specific topics and help solving particular problems. He now claims about 600 videos on subjects spanning math, physics, and even the tanking economy.

Khan says the heartfelt feedback motivates him to keep churning out the clips, which he works on for about three hours a night.

University of Miami education professor Walter Secada, who specializes in how math is taught, praises Khan’s personable style. The Khan videos he reviewed are accurate, Secada says, but he’s concerned about how Khan uses an example to define a term, rather than defining the term more generally. Secada says he can envision some students becoming confused when having to apply a concept to a different example.

“It may seem like a small point but it lays a foundation for later problems,” Secada says. “That’s the strength and the weakness of this. In an eight-minute video, you can only do so much.”

YouTube’s potential for instruction is one reason Internet search leader Google Inc. bought the video site for $1.76 billion two years ago. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page realized that certain search requests could be better fulfilled with how-to videos than with written explanations. But they didn’t have a good way of filling that need until YouTube landed in their laps. Now Google includes YouTube videos when it delivers search results.

Not all tutoring videos on YouTube are created equal, however.

Central Florida sophomore Jacqueline Boehme found that out quickly when perusing biology clips. Some had poor video quality and were blurry or too small.

“There are definitely some that are better than others, so it’s always useful to look at a few,” says Boehme, who has looked up videos that explain processes like protein synthesis. Boehme says the 3-D representations have helped her conceptualize what she’s learning in class.

Secada would like to see math faculty incorporate some videos in their teaching, or recommend clips that have been vetted. He cautions students not to depend solely on what they find online.

“There’s a point at which kids do need to double-check with their textbook” and professor, Secada says. “Before you need to quote this in your test, you need to look at this and check if it’s right.”


(5) Microsoft Research, NYU and Consortium of University Partners Create First Scientific-Based Game Research Alliance to Transform Learning


Speaking to New York University faculty and students last fall, Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft Corp., unveiled details about a first-of-its-kind, multidisciplinary, multi-institutional gaming research alliance that will provide the fundamental scientific evidence to support games as learning tools for math and science subjects among middle-school students.

The Games for Learning Institute (G4LI) is a joint research endeavor of Microsoft Research, New York University and a consortium of universities. The partners include Columbia University, the City University of New York (CUNY), Dartmouth College, Parsons, Polytechnic Institute of NYU, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Teachers College. The G4LI will identify which qualities of computer games engage students and develop relevant, personalized teaching strategies that can be applied to the learning process.

“Technology has the potential to help reinvent the education process, and excite and inspire young learners to embrace science, math and technology,” Mundie said. “The Games for Learning Institute at NYU is a great example of how technology can change how students learn, making it far more natural and intuitive.”

Microsoft Research is providing $1.5 million to the Institute. NYU and its consortium of partners are matching Microsoft’s investment, for a combined $3 million. Funding covers the first three years of the G4LI’s research, which will focus on evaluating computer games as potential learning tools for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at the middle-school years (grades 6–8). The institute will work with a range of student populations, yet focus on underrepresented middle-school students, such as girls and minorities.

“Middle school is a critical stage for students, a time when many are introduced to advanced math and science concepts,” said Ken Perlin, professor of computer science in NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and founding director of the Media Research Laboratory at NYU, who will direct the G4LI, to be located at NYU. “Many students become discouraged or uninterested and pour their time at home into gaming. Ironically, we think gaming is our starting point to draw them into math, science and technology-based programs.”

Video games, with their popularity and singular ability to engage young people, are showing promise as a way to excite and prepare the Net generation, the current crop of students who have grown up on technology. This generation, though well-versed in using technology for social networking and Internet research, is continuing a decline in proficiency and interest in math and sciences–the very skills needed to prepare them for the new demands and requirements of the 21st century.

“While educational games are commonplace, little is known about how, why or even if they are effective,” said John Nordlinger, senior research manager for Microsoft Research’s gaming efforts. “Microsoft Research, together with NYU and the consortium of academic partners, will address these questions from a multidisciplinary angle, exploring what makes certain games compelling and playable and what elements make them effective, providing critically important information to researchers, game developers and educators to support a new era of using games for educational purposes.”

Jan Plass, associate professor of educational communication and technology at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, will co-direct the G4LI with Perlin. While NYU will serve as the hub of the G4LI in its Computer Science Media Research Laboratory at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, the multi-institutional organization will have a myriad of partner spokes. The G4LI also will evaluate game prototypes and introduce them, along with accompanying curricula, to an existing network of 19 New York City area schools; results in the classroom will be tracked. Based on the findings, the institute’s goal is to expand its research and game development to all K–12 grades. Resulting scientific evidence will be shared broadly with researchers, game developers and educators.


(6) Teachers College Part of New Games for Learning Consortium

Source: Teachers College, Columbia University

On the premise that the way into the head of an Internet-age kid is through his electronic games, Teachers College is participating in a consortium of universities, funded by Microsoft Research that will scientifically study the potential of computer and video games to teach math and science concepts to middle-school children.

Charles Kinzer, TC Professor of Education and director of the Communication, Computing and Technology and Education program, will direct the College’s participation in the Games For Learning Institute.

“Our goal is not to develop games, but to study why games are effective and how they can best be used to maximize learning,” said Kinzer, who added that the institute will develop “scientifically proven game design principles that maintain the motivational and fun aspects of successful commercial games while providing knowledge about how to make games that can help teachers teach and children learn, specifically in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Many TC faculty and students are interested in games and their potential for teaching and learning. The Computer, Communication, Technology in Education (CCTE) program offers several courses related to games, game design and learning, and Kinzer teaches a course, “Possibilities of Virtual Worlds.” The CCTE program also houses a games research lab known as EGGPLANT (Educational Games Group: Play, Language, Avatars, Narrative, and Technology), which, through an understanding of play, EGGPLANT seeks to gain knowledge of human cognition, collaboration, media effects, modern culture, creativity, improvisation and other factors within games that have implications for education. Faculty and students involved with the Games Research Lab have broad-ranging interests, and the lab has resources to study of video games, traditional board and card games, role-playing games, games for teaching and learning, “serious” games, media literacy, the psychology of games, and related topics.

Kinzer points to “staggering” statistics showing that adolescents of all backgrounds, both boys and girls, spend large amounts of time playing games. “Games are a part of children’s lives. Existing research implies that incidental learning occurs during game play, but there’s not much known about how to link the power of games to specific learning of school-based subjects.” Creating that kind of knowledge is what this new collaboration is all about.