COMET • Vol. 2, No. 18 – 21 May 2001


(1) “Local Schools Will Have Unified K-12 Math Program” by Laura Wides

Source: Daily Breeze – 14 May 2001

After years of mixing and matching math curriculums and philosophical debates, the Los Angeles Unified School District approved what many educators have long dreamed of–a single kindergarten through high school math program.

After more than two hours of discussion, the school board approved the plan Tuesday in a 5-2 vote…Board members Lansing, Valerie Fields, Victoria Castro, Caprice Young and Genethia Hayes voted for the plan and David Tokofsky and Julie Korenstein opposed it. “I’m excited by it. It’s the first time that we have state standards, a curriculum that’s in line with the standards, and a lot of opportunity for training teachers,” said Nancy Renee, a District K math specialist.

“Most of the old curriculums were so unusable that teachers were bringing their own lessons in and looking for their own supplemental material,” said Los Angeles County math specialist Martha Schwartz, who helped write the state’s revamped math standards…

Lansing was cautious in his praise. “I think conceptually the math plan is a good one, but there are so many inconsistencies and gaps that it will have to be modified to actually meet all children’s needs,” he said.

Lansing said he agreed to support the plan after L.A. Unified Superintendent Roy Romer promised to report to the board each quarter on the status of the program’s implementation.

Lansing stressed the need to ensure expanded professional training under the new plan. “We’re taking on a much more advanced curriculum at every level, (and) we have to implement this professional development plan. This is not going to be voluntary,” he said. Mandatory training will begin this summer and continue in the fall, and during off-track periods for teachers at year-round schools.

Already District K teachers are receiving optional math training from local universities. USC runs a course at Carson High School and California State University, Dominguez Hills offers classes for selected teachers to become math specialists.

The concept of a unified curriculum seems simple, but the effort emerged after years of discussion over the balance between practical, hands-on application versus rote memorization. “Nobody in their right mind would do all of just one,” said [Martha] Schwartz, adding that educators have differed over where to place the most emphasis.

The board members, however, faced more than philosophical clashes. Last year parents of junior high and high school students complained that the district was setting their children up for failure by increasing requirements without providing the same type of basic skill development that kindergarten through sixth-grade students will receive under the new plan.

The district then offered students the option of taking algebra over a two-year period, beginning in eighth grade, but many parents and educators felt this still wasn’t enough.

The final plan provides for a one-year transition algebra-prep course for eighth-graders who still need to brush up. The course could be extended for additional years…

Romer gave the 11 mini-district superintendents permission to provide waivers for schools with successful programs to continue with their current curriculums, but none of the superintendents authorized the waivers.” They’re going to have to all go through the training, but they can supplement as long as they teach to the state standards,” said District K Superintendent Richard Vladovic. “I’m not the textbook police”…


Related information:

Sources: Sara Munshin, Specialist, Middle School Mathematics – Los Angeles Unified School District (213-625-6420); Caran Resciniti, Mathematics Coordinator – Fresno Unified School District (559-248-7163).

In Los Angeles Unified School District, six of the eleven Local Districts (“mini-districts”) adopted Harcourt Math for grades K-5. (This program has a Spanish-language version, which was a key factor in the decision for those districts.) The other five Local Districts adopted Scott Foresman California Mathematics for grades K-5. These are the only two programs that were recommended by the Central Textbook Adoption Committee. All elementary teachers will receive training in one of these programs.

McDougal Littell’s Concepts and Skills was adopted by all but one Local District for grades 6-8. All 8th graders will take algebra–either as a one-year or as a 4-semester program.

Fresno Unified School District adopted Harcourt Math for grades K-6, Prentice Hall Pre-Algebra for 7th grade, and Glencoe for 8th grade (Algebra I).


(2) “By 2002, LAUSD Math Will be Tougher” by Erik N. Nelson

Source: Los Angeles Daily News – 9 May 2001

Eighth-graders forced to take algebra next year will have a chance to take an easier algebra prep class, but in subsequent years, students will have to sink or swim with the tough new state-mandated math curriculum, the Los Angeles Unified board decided Tuesday after a 2 1/2-hour debate.

Several board members tried to extend the remedial math class as part of the five-year, $200 million math instruction program, arguing that half of district students fail secondary math.

But those voices were silenced by a majority of board members who agreed with Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Roy Romer, who argued that continued remedial math would weaken the district’s effort to boost its standards…



(1) Lessons: Weighing Students’ Skills and Attitudes” by Richard Rothstein

Source: The New York Times – 16 May 2001

Americans’ low math and science scores are well known. On the 1999 international math and science survey, our eighth graders scored below their peers in almost every other industrial nation that took part.

Students in Japan and Korea ranked near the top. In math, average American eighth graders would have scored below the 25th percentile in Japan or Korea.

But the study also asked students if they liked math and science, thought it important and would want a job using these skills. Here, Japanese and Koreans scored at the very bottom. Only 9 percent of their eighth graders had positive attitudes toward math; only 10 percent felt positively about science.

In the United States, 35 percent felt positively about math and 32 percent about science, more than in almost every other industrial nation.

For 20 years, Americans have tried to remake schools, partly to be more like high-scoring East Asians. A Reagan administration report, “A Nation at Risk,” warned in 1983 that America would soon lose its competitive edge to countries with superior schools, like Japan and Korea. Since then, our graduation requirements have been raised, testing has been increased, with severe penalties for failure, and instructional time has grown.

Meanwhile, schools in Japan and Korea have been trying to copy ours. Across East Asia, leaders are trying to reform education so students will know fewer facts and spend less time preparing for tests but, like Americans, be more willing to take risks and more creative in applying what they know.

The Japanese and Koreans also believe that economic survival demands education reform. Jaekyung Lee, a University of Maine professor who studies schools in his native Korea, said Korean employers realized that disciplined and highly skilled workers were not what they needed most. Instead, companies had to develop new products for new markets, and for that, workers unafraid to question authority or take initiative were essential.

A Korean presidential commission in 1994 demanded reform, much like President Ronald Reagan’s group a decade before. The Korean commission proposed a de-emphasis of testing, more electives that depart from standardized curriculums and college admissions based more on recommendations and overall high school records than on standardized tests.

In Japan, too, policy makers are trying to relax standards. Recently, the government required new textbooks to reduce content by 30 percent so study time could be cut to encourage nonacademic leisure. And Saturday school has been dropped. Officials hope that with less textbook material to cover, teachers will encourage more student inquiry and initiative.

Teiichi Sato, director of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and a former deputy minister of education, argues that the 21st-century economy requires such reforms. He says Japanese education, emphasizing obedience and standards, is ill-suited to help students adapt easily to the rapid change that characterizes the new economy.

Japanese reform, Mr. Sato said in a recent speech, should inspire “zest for living,” a trait he thinks characteristic of Americans but not of his own students. He defined it as “development of abilities to uncover issues, to study and think alone, reach judgments independently and to act and solve problems well.”

Japanese officials, Mr. Sato said, no longer attach great importance to students’ high rankings on international tests because the exams measure skills valued by the old education system, not the new. A zest for living cannot develop, he added, “under the former style of education in which students simply acquired as much knowledge as possible.”

In Korea, as in the United States, the biggest bar to reform is poor teacher training. Dr. Lee said it was hard for Koreans to teach differently from the way they were trained. Many only know how to dictate information for students to memorize. Teachers have not been equipped to show students how to question, try different ways of solving problems or make informed guesses about the unknown.

None of this means American school reform is misguided. Americans may have veered too far from high standards, just as East Asians veered too far from developing the inquisitive boldness they now find lacking. But it is also too mechanistic to conclude simply that the ideal is halfway between these extremes.

The apparently inverse relationship between these nations’ rankings on skills and their rankings on love of math and science should certainly be a warning. Can American schools inch up the skills scale without sacrificing their place on the attitudinal scale? Nobody knows which may ultimately prove more important.


(2) “More Sunshine for Japan’s Overworked Students” by Howard French

Source: The New York Times – 25 February 2001

… Starting next year, instead of piling on yet more work for its famously hard-studying students, Japan will let its young take a rest.

The changes are in striking contrast to the most recent trends in New York, California and elsewhere in the United States, where schools are considering lengthening the school day or year in order to help children learn–and to try to keep them out of trouble.

In recent decades, Japanese schools have developed a system that in some respects is what some American schools are talking about now: long hours, emphasis on basics rather than electives, school uniforms and a premium on order rather than on creativity. Yet just as some American schools are taking tentative steps toward such a system, Japan is talking about dismantling it.

The reason is a growing concern that an orderly and unimaginative school system excels at producing pliant, disciplined workers, which the nation needed for its rebuilding effort after World War II, but is failing to produce the problem solvers and innovators needed for the future.

Japan has been floundering economically for more than a decade, and the change is meant in part to help ensure the country’s ability to compete. Somewhat paradoxically, the drive to give millions of students more electives and unstructured time out of school for their personal use comes as public anxiety over dropouts, adolescent crime and what is perceived here as an epidemic of underachievement among the young is higher than ever.

Some parents oppose the shortened hours for this reason, while many others fear that a lightening of the curriculum by an estimated 30 percent will make it harder, rather than easier, for Japan to compete with its rivals in Asia and the West.

“The direction that New York City is taking is exactly the right direction,” said Ryoko Zaitsu…”I wonder why this change is being made in Japan.”

She speculated that the all powerful Ministry of Education was trying to remedy the problems of rough schools–from elementary through high school–by “trying to reduce everyone to the same level.”

Officials at the Education Ministry acknowledge that the problems of disaffected and poorly performing students enter into the thinking behind the changes. But they say the main issue is that year after year of overworking students has left people exhausted, and destroyed creativity and individual initiative, qualities officials say the country sorely needs.

“Our current system, just telling kids to study, study, study, has been a failure,” said Ken Terawaki, a senior Education Ministry official who nonetheless dismissed the idea that Japan and school  systems in places like New York City were going in opposite directions on the scholastic escalator. Instead, he insisted, Japanese reformers were responding to features of their own country’s culture and history that had no parallels in America.

“Endless studying worked in the past,” he said, “when there were many kids in the school system, Japan was rebuilding and the competition was very fierce. But that is no longer the case, and the kids are far fewer, things are not as competitive anymore, and just telling them to study more will no longer work.

“Now we are going to try the sunshine approach, giving them more chances to play sports, or read books. We would like to give them some free time and the psychological freedom to do things that they are interested in. In other words, we want to give them some time to think, rather than force everybody to stay in school to study the same thing.”

Noboyuki Tose, a professor of mathematics at Keio University in Tokyo, is a prominent critic of Japan’s education system, but opposes the planned changes because he fears that they will further drag down performance.

About two years ago he began testing students at some elite colleges for basic mathematics aptitude and was shocked–as was the nation when the results were widely publicized–to find that many students were incapable even of elementary level mathematics.

Mr. Tose said he traced the inability to Japan’s traditional style of learning–cramming–and to a subtle shift that began more than 20 years ago that allowed high school students some electives and lighter classroom workloads.

Standardized mathematics tests suggest, he said, that Japanese students are among the best in the world in junior high school, when such classes are obligatory. But by high school, when the students already have more options, their performance in mathematics has already become mediocre.

“What is happening in Japan happened a long time ago in the U.S.,” Mr. Tose said. Referring to an American white paper of the early 1980’s that warned of a “nation at risk,” because of falling educational achievement, he added: “There are a lot of similarities between the two countries, only a time delay of 20 years.

“Twenty years ago the education in America was like eating in a cafeteria: high school students just chose what they wanted, avoiding mathematics and science and other difficult subjects.  Japanese schools at this moment have exactly the same system. We don’t need to increase students’ free time. We need to reduce it.”

At the secondary school level, however, many educators seem more enthusiastic about the changes, even if they harbor doubts about whether the announced restructuring alone would transform Japanese education.

“This reform is almost like an expression of remorse for the way Japanese people had to live after the war,” said Eiko Iwatani, the principal of Daichi Zaitsu’s Bunkyo Ward Junior High School No. 6, an almost antique seeming but colorfully decorated middle school of about 270 students in the shadow of Japan’s most prestigious college, Tokyo University.

“After the war,” Ms. Iwatani said, “education was so important to our reconstruction that we resorted to cramming, education became automatic, and people didn’t need to think for themselves. Nowadays, people are feeling that we are lacking in the faculty of creative thinking and problem solving.”

The theory seems to have taken little account of parents’ penchant for sending children to private after- school classes known as juku. However much bureaucrats plan to increase the free time of students and give them more freedom over their time, anxious parents continue to send their children to the juku, and many students, mindful of keeping up, are themselves eager to go.

Ms. Zaitsu sends Daichi to a juku three times a week, and a private tutor also goes to their home sometimes. All this costs the family about $400 a month, but they see it as a requirement.

“It shouldn’t be necessary, but other parents will keep sending their children, so you feel that you have to, too,” Ms. Zaitsu said. “Frankly speaking, I would like to start a revolt. But not everyone feels that way, so we are left with a feeling of helplessness. You want to do something but you can’t move. In the end, you feel that you just have to take care of yourself.”


(3) “Ability to Question is Lost in Testing” by Amy Biancolli

Source: Contra Costa Times – 6 May 2001

From August 1985 through July 1986 I lived and taught at a large private girls’ school in Edinburgh, Scotland…By the end of my year, exhausted from the effort of trying to engage my older pupils in subjects that weren’t related to any exam, I had come to one firm conclusion: Widespread standardized testing is an evil that the American educational system should avoid at all costs.

Amid the talk these days of establishing rigorous national standards, amid all the grousing and moaning about failed education and crumbling schools, few have given any credit to what American pedagogy actually does well–better than the British, maybe even better than other Europeans or the Japanese.

Namely: American schools teach American kids to ask questions. They teach students to be curious, skeptical, even contrary, to ask for the whys and hows behind the whats in the rote acquisition of facts. At their best, they teach kids to challenge the teacher.

It took months of badgering before I was able to get some of my Scottish teen-agers to speak up in class. They simply weren’t accustomed to asking questions or tossing around their observations…I wasn’t allowed to give tests in a non-exam subject…In the faculty room, teachers grumbled about students whose attention shut down when they realized a subject wouldn’t be covered by exams. “Will this be on the A-level? Will this be on the O-level?” If not–slam went the notebooks, down went the pens. The damnable lie of standardized tests is the implication–no, the insistence–that learning is neither more nor less than accrued knowledge, some stamped-for-approval collection of facts. What a stifling definition, devoid of creativity or that singular Yankee zeal for innovation…

Granted, facts are important. All children should know the multiplication table, and it’s a crime that many of them don’t. There are gaping holes in the American education system that need to be plugged: President Bush is doing the right thing in mixing the Spackle. But as we plug them, let’s not hack away at the bedrock philosophy beneath our schools; let’s keep our classrooms open to discussion and dissent–and not question the need to question. We must always teach our children to raise their hands and ask. Our pugnacious American character demands as much.


(4) “Reading Between the Lines” by Jay Mathews

Source: Washington Post – 15 May 2001
[The 1992 scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress] were a shock: Nearly 40 percent of U.S. fourth-graders scored below the basic level of competency in reading…Yet a year before that 1992 test, fourth graders scored near the top of the list of 30 countries on a different reading test, the equally respectable International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement exam.

The same has happened in science and mathematics. About 36 percent of U.S. fourth-graders scored below basic levels in math and 33 percent below basic in science on the 1996 NAEP test. But the year before, those allegedly TV-addled fourth-graders were above the international average in math and just below Korea and Japan at the top of the list in science in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS}.

Testing experts–accustomed to confusion and contradiction–caution that every assessment involves different assumptions and different questions given to different children.

But such sharp contrasts in achievement for such an important age group…make some education researchers and analysts concerned about the tests and how they are presented to the public.

For some, the problem is the NAEP test’s grading scale, which they say is unrealistically strict. The tests, supervised by the congressionally appointed National Assessment Governing Board, are billed as “The Nation’s Report Card”…

Gerald W. Bracey, a Fairfax County-based educational psychologist, said the way the test is graded–with levels set at advanced, proficient, basic and below basic–makes little sense. He noted that the levels are based on the opinions of adult judges who were asked to give their impression of which questions students should be able to answer, rather than by examining how students actually perform on the tests.

If the levels are set too high, that could leave journalists, public officials and parents with an overly negative impression, said Lyle V. Jones, a research professor in quantitative psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

At the same time, U.S. fourth-graders look good when compared with their overseas counterparts because other countries do not set as high a standard for younger pupils, testing experts say. But when the U.S. students get older, their achievement levels no longer look as good in comparison…

In science and mathematics, his specialties, Shakrani said he believes that U.S. fourth-graders may do relatively well on international tests because “the same content is taught to all students.”

Ina V.S. Mullis, co-director of the International Study Center at Boston College, said that “in actuality, we have more science instruction in elementary school than other countries,” so U.S. fourth-graders have an advantage.

Results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study show that U.S. students lose ground in grades 8 and 12. This may be, in part, Shakrani said, because of the “massive tracking system” in U.S. schools that shifts many students into watered-down divisions of algebra and chemistry.

But the most widely accepted explanation for fourth-graders’ less-impressive performance on the NAEP tests is that the tests are hard and stiffly graded. Test supporters say this is good, because U.S. schools cannot improve while using a limp measuring stick.

“The NAEP does set a really high standard for the nation to achieve,” said Michael T. Nettles, professor of education at the University of Michigan and vice chairman of the test’s governing board. But, he said, he does not think the standard is too high and feels the emphasis should be on helping more children meet it. “For those children who are below basic we have quite a lot of work to do to move them toward proficient,” he said…

Shakrani said that the international math and science test given to fourth-graders asks students to do basic tasks–add, subtract, multiply and divide. The NAEP test adds word problems, dreaded by many in that age group. “We may ask the question, ‘If you have 21 toys and you were able to purchase 31 more, how many will you have in total?’ ” Shakrani said…


Related article:

“NAEP Board Begins Preparing for Changes” by Lynn Olson (Education Week – 23 May 2001)


(5) “Bush Test Plan Fuels Debate Over Uniformity” by Lynn Olson

Source: Education Week – 9 May 2001

President Bush’s plan to test every student in grades 3-8 annually in reading and mathematics has set off a fierce debate about what those tests should look like.

The disagreement pits America’s history of state and local control of public education against the desire for greater uniformity in reporting student achievement. And its outcome is sure to be the subject of intense negotiations and a major test of the Bush administration’s commitment to its education agenda.

At issue is the amount of flexibility that states should have in designing their testing systems. The National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, among other groups, argue that states should be allowed to use a mix of state and local assessments to measure annual student progress toward state standards. Anything else, they assert, would constitute an undue federal intrusion into state policymaking, derail states’ education efforts, and cost too much.

But others, including influential members of the business community, say that such a mix of tests in different grades is essentially what Americans have now. Such tests, they contend, do not yield the kind of comparable information that would let parents know how each child is progressing or how schools are performing from year to year.

“My concern is that if we allow for a hodge-podge of tests that are not comparable from grade to grade and are not administered on a statewide basis, then we’ll have no real understanding of whether these federal funds are being used in a way that’s benefiting children,” said Krista Kafer, an education policy analyst for the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “If the testing is not done in a meaningful way, we’re really no better off than we are now.”

Under the administration’s original plan, each state would select or create tests for grades 3-8 that were aligned with its academic standards and that produced comparable data from school to school and grade to grade within a state.

Mr. Bush, who oversaw such a program in Texas, argues that the annual testing is needed for greater accountability in education, as well as to let parents and teachers gauge individual student achievement every year.

The federal government would financially reward states that made the most progress on their state tests, as confirmed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally mandated testing program. And it would cut aid to administer federal education programs for those that failed to improve. States, districts, and schools also would be responsible for improving test results and closing the achievement gap between groups of students.

But the proposal is slowly being whittled away on Capitol Hill. The Senate bill, S 1, which would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, calls for a “system of high-quality, yearly student assessments,” but does not specify that the tests be comparable across districts or grades within a state. The House bill, HR 1, which the House education committee began marking up last week, contains similarly vague language and would allow states to confirm their progress with tests other than NAEP.

“I don’t know what the point of it is,” said Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education in the previous Bush administration. “It would, in effect, reproduce the status quo and probably add more testing, much of it redundant and very little of it comparable….

(6) “None of the Above: The Test Industry’s Failures” — A series written by Diana B. Henriques and Jacques Steinberg

Source: The New York Times – 21 May 2001

The drive to raise academic standards in public schools has led to a boom in standardized testing. Congress will vote soon on President Bush’s education plan, including a proposal that would again greatly increase testing by requiring every student in grades 3 to 8 to be tested annually. These articles examine the largely unregulated industry of test makers and scorers and the costly errors they have made.

Articles in this series:

“When a Test Fails the Schools, Careers and Reputations Suffer”


Apart from the children, the most prominent victim of errors in the tabulation of standardized test scores may have been New York City’s schools chancellor, Rudy Crew.

“Right Answer, Wrong Score: Test Flaws Take Toll”

The industry that scores standardized proficiency tests, whose missteps have affected millions of students, is coming off its three most problem-plagued years.