COMET • Vol. 2, No. 35 – 4 December 2001


“Veteran Legislator O’Connell Cites Work on Education Issues” by Susan Herendeen

Source:  Modesto Bee – 1 December 2001


State Sen. Jack O’Connell…, a Democrat from San Luis Obispo, wants to be the state’s next superintendent of public instruction and lead the massive state Department of Education…

O’Connell, who was an assemblyman for 12 years and has been a state senator for nearly eight, said his extensive work on education issues makes him well-suited for the job. The former teacher is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee’s subcommittee on education, and he has spearheaded efforts to reduce class sizes and raise teacher salaries.

He also is known for his crusade against a law that required two-thirds votes to pass school bond measures. Voters agreed in November 2000, by approving Proposition 39, which allows passage of some bond measures with 55 percent approval.

Term limits prevent O’Connell from seeking another term in the Senate.

Assemblywoman Lynne Leach, R-Walnut Creek, who is also facing term limits; and Katherine Smith, president of the board of trustees of the Anaheim Union High School District, also want the superintendent’s job.

The nonpartisan election could be decided in the March 5 primary. If one of the candidates gets a majority, he or she wins. Otherwise, there will be a runoff between the top two vote-getters in November.

Delaine Eastin, incumbent superintendent of public instruction, has endorsed O’Connell. Term limits bar Eastin from seeking re-election.

O’Connell is the favorite because he has a $1.6 million war chest and has long been an ally of Gov. Davis and the California Teachers Association. Leach had $176,600 on hand on Oct. 10, according to her latest campaign finance report on file with the secretary of state’s office. Smith did not have a report on file.



(1) “U.S. Students Prove Middling on a 32-Nation Test” by Diana Jean Schemo

Source: The New York Times – 5 December 2001


An examination measuring practical knowledge in math, science and reading among students in 32 industrialized nations shows that those in Canada, Finland and New Zealand lead the world in all three categories, with American students performing at only average levels.

The exam, administered to a quarter-million 15-year-olds by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, measured reading, science and math skills with questions that approximated real-life situations. It was meant to gauge the ability of students to operate in the world as they neared the end of their time in elementary and secondary school…

Of the 28 O.E.C.D. member nations that took part in the testing — 4 participants were not members of the organization — only Greece, Portugal, Luxembourg and Mexico did significantly worse than the United States in science. And only those countries plus Italy did substantially worse in math.

The United States education secretary, Rod Paige, said he was disappointed that American students had not stood out. “In the global economy,” Dr. Paige said, “these countries are our competitors. Average is not good enough for American kids”…

The report also showed a variety of differences in performance by sex. In every nation, girls did significantly better than boys in reading. In half the countries, boys did much better than girls in math, a subject in which girls did not perform significantly better anywhere. In science, boys did much better than girls in three countries, although girls in New Zealand performed significantly better than boys there.

(2) “U.S. Students on Par With Peer Nations” by Martha Groves

Source:  Los Angeles Times – 4 December 2001


…The [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] exam was managed by the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. The [O.E.C.D. member] nations developed the test to devise a periodic, dependable measurement that could help steer education policy…

In math and science literacy, the U.S. was…average. In math, eight countries, including Japan and South Korea, scored significantly higher than the U.S. average and five nations were significantly below. In science, seven countries scored significantly higher than the U.S. average and four nations fell below…

The test will be given every three years. Each cycle will focus on a particular subject, although all three subjects will be assessed each time. Reading was the chief focus of the 2000 version; math will be the featured topic in 2003, science in 2006…

Many educators noted similarities between these results and those of the Third International Math and Science Study, an ongoing look at math and science performance in industrialized and developing nations.

An average performance by U.S. students is “not surprising, given . . . the fact that the U.S. is in the middle on the [math and science study’s] eighth-grade results, which these would be most similar to,” said James Hiebert, a professor of math education at the University of Delaware. Unlike this real-world test, the math and science test for eighth-graders probes how well students do on items related to their school curricula…

In the United States, 7,000 students in the ninth and 10th grades participated in the test, with each student taking a 90-minute assessment and a 25-minute questionnaire.

Education officials said the students constituted a highly representative sample. Sample items are available on the Web at

(3) “Free Choice Will Create Gender-Based Science Careers” by Patricia Hausman

Source:  UniSci – 26 November 2001


If students continue to have free choice of career direction, science careers will be gender-differentiated.

This is one of the conclusions of an article in the November issue of Science Insights, an on-line newsletter from the National Association of Scholars. The article, written by the newsletter’s editor, continues:

The data reported here and elsewhere suggest that (such) gender-differentiating outcomes are likely to ensue if intellectually talented adolescents and young adults are allowed to choose freely how they would like to develop…Several recent reports offer important new insights about who is most likely to pursue a scientific career–as well as the factors that shape the choice of a specific discipline.

The reports cover findings from a longitudinal study of gifted youth led by Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski of Vanderbilt University. Benbow is dean of the university’s Peabody College of Human Development; Lubinski is a professor of psychology. Along with colleagues at Vanderbilt and Iowa State, Benbow and Lubinski have been tracking more than 500 individuals identified as gifted when they were between the ages of 12 and 14.

Subjects took a battery of tests including the SAT and the Differential Aptitude Test (DAT). Unlike tests commonly used to assess academic aptitude, the DAT includes two subtests that measure spatial skills. One of these is space relations, which examines the ability to visualize and mentally manipulate objects. The other is mechanical reasoning, which tests for recognition of routine physical forces and principles. Scores from these two subtests were combined to create a composite for spatial visualization…

Results from the 20-year follow-up show noteworthy associations between ability profiles in early adolescence and ultimate college major and occupation. Subjects who majored in math, computer science, or electrical engineering had ability profiles that favored math and spatial skills over verbal ability; those who chose biology, social sciences or the humanities tended to more gifted in verbal than other domains. Spatial ability, which varied dramatically among the group, was superior to mathematical ability at predicting their educational and occupational outcomes…

In a separate analysis of the 20-year follow-up data, the team reported on almost 2000 subjects who had scored in the top 1% of mathematical reasoning ability when originally tested. Although all were mathematically gifted, pronounced sex differences in choice of major were clear. Males were much more likely than females to earn degrees in physical sciences and engineering. By contrast, more females than males received degrees in the life sciences, health, or medicine.

Sex differences also became more pronounced at higher degree levels. At the undergraduate level males outnumbered females among recipients of degrees in math or the physical sciences by a factor of about 2. At the doctoral level the male/female ratio increased substantially, with males earning four to six times as many degrees in these fields.

Although about 15% of females were homemakers at age 33, there was no evidence of differences in career satisfaction: about two-thirds of males and females alike described themselves as satisfied or very satisfied. Males who worked full-time outearned females by about 20%, yet females were slightly more likely than males to describe themselves as “successful” or “very successful.”

These outcomes suggested that sex differences in interests and life goals contribute to sex differences in occupational choice. Responses to questions about life priorities were in line with such a conclusion. Males and females gave similar ratings to the importance of education, developing their skills, and a happy marriage. Where they most differed were on questions about the importance of part-time vs. fulltime work–females rated the former more highly, and males the latter.

Males also gave greater importance to being well-off financially, inventing or creating something, and being successful at work. By contrast, females gave higher ratings to spiritual life, friendships, and living close to their parents and relatives. All of these differences, however were considerably smaller in magnitude than those regarding part-time vs. full-time work. These results indicate that in making career decisions, females may consider the compatibility of a particular field or position with their desire for part-time work.

Summarizing the implications of their findings, the authors note:

Finally, if the United States is to remain true to the ideals that all students be given access to opportunities for developing their potential and that people be allowed to choose their life paths freely, this might require questioning whether males and females should be equally represented across the full educational-vocational spectrum…

(4) “Lawmakers Break an Impasse on Education” by Lizette Alvarez

Source:  The New York Times – 28 November 2001


Senate and House negotiators moved closer today to compromising on an education bill as four top lawmakers tentatively agreed on student testing and on a formula to give states and school districts more control over federal money…

The legislation, geared to help low- income students, seeks to reward good schools and penalize failing ones by carefully tracking improvement among students. It calls for annual testing and higher standards.

Under the tentative proposal, students in the fourth and eighth grades would be required to take the current standardized national test every other year to serve as a benchmark for progress. This test would be taken in addition to a battery of yearly tests designed by the states. But schools would not be penalized or rewarded for their performance on the national test, only on the state tests.

The proposal would also allow states and local school districts to shift up to 50 percent of their federal funding between various programs, as long as they do not touch money earmarked specifically for poor children. Seven states and 150 local schools districts would be given even more flexibility with their federal dollars as part of a pilot program.

And the legislation would allow for the first time parents of low-income children to use federal money for private tutoring…

Improvement would be measured over several years, not every year, and bilingual education programs would focus more on ensuring that children learn English.

The proposed compromise was reached among Senator Gregg; Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts; Representative John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio; and Representative George Miller, Democrat of California.

Despite today’s progress, the House, Senate and White House must still reach agreement on the crucial issue of money. Democrats want Congress to approve a greater budget increase to help states cope with the new accountability requirements, and they want the federal government to provide its share of money to help states deal with special-education students.

(5) “House Conferees Reject Fund Rise For Special Ed ” by Michael A. Fletcher

Source:  Washington Post – 1 December 2001


A congressional conference committee working to finalize President Bush’s sweeping education reform plan yesterday rejected an attempt to substantially increase federal special education funding, prompting some Democrats to say the entire reform effort may be in doubt.

Under the special education initiative, the federal government would have met its long-broken promise of paying 40 percent of the tab for educating disabled students — which would have required spending increases of about $2.5 billion for each of the next six years. The measure also would have made special education an entitlement whose funding levels would be automatically set in law.

While Senate conferees supported the measure, their House counterparts rejected it, saying that any substantial increase in special education funding must be linked to long-overdue reforms. Congress is scheduled to rewrite the nation’s special education law next year, a process that Bush administration officials hope will result in far fewer students qualifying for the program…

Many Democratic conferees say Congress must pump more money into the Bush education plan, hailed as the biggest change in federal education policy in a generation. It calls for annual testing of all students in grades 3 through 8, with educators and students held responsible for the results. The bill also would give states and local school districts more flexibility in spending federal money.

The plan won wide bipartisan approval in both houses of Congress earlier this year. A conference committee formed to reconcile Senate and House versions of the bill has made steady progress in resolving most of the differences between the two bills, but funding looms as a significant stumbling block. If the impasse continues, several Democrats warned, the entire education reform plan could be in jeopardy…

“We will continue to work on the education bill and the issue of special education,” said Rep. George Miller (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House education committee. “But it will be very difficult to move forward on the overall bill until we find some way to provide additional resources for special education.”

(6) “Education Bill Stalled in House: GOP Against More Funds for Disabled ” by Zachary Coile

SourceSan Francisco Chronicle – 1 December 2001


…The debate has huge implications for California, which received $650 million in federal help last year for special education students…

In August, after a California lawsuit was settled, Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation to fully pay the state’s share of special education costs. Since then, educators have hoped the federal government would also pay its mandated share, about 40 percent of costs.

Rhoda Benedetti, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal center in Oakland, said the state’s 650,000 special education students already are getting a “second-class education” because they are often segregated in separate classrooms from other students and are not taught the state’s core curriculum.

Starting in March, special education students — like other California students — will be required to pass a high school exit exam. In a trial run in May, 91 percent of disabled students failed the math portion of the test, and 82 percent failed the language arts portion. Benedetti’s group is suing the state Department of Education in federal court, claiming the exit exam will disproportionately deny diplomas to disabled students…

(7) “Reading Mastery Is New Requisite for Solving Math” by David J. Hoff

Source:  Education Week – 5 December 2001


…Over the past decade, a cutting-edge approach to math has been turning mathematics teachers into reading aides. The new curricula, in an attempt to introduce students to the subject in real-life situations, require more reading and writing than students have ever been asked to do before in math classes.

“There are more words on the page of math textbooks than there were in the 1980s and the late 1970s,” said Andrew C. Isaacs, an author of Everyday Math, an elementary school textbook series produced in the new style.

“One of the functions that the words serve is to provide a story line that helps [students] have a framework to fit the ideas into,” Mr. Isaacs continued. “They retain things better when they’re part of a larger structure.”

But critics of the approach say that some students–because of disabilities, limited English proficiency, or even less severe reading deficiencies–struggle with the basics of reading so much that they can’t pick up such fundamental mathematical skills as dividing fractions or manipulating algebraic functions…

The debate on reading in math classes is a symptom of the bigger philosophical clash over how to teach the subject.

One side says it’s necessary to help students discover mathematical concepts so they can learn how to apply the skills of addition, multiplication, and other operations later. The other, meanwhile, insists that constant repetition of math operations helps students master the skills they need before engaging in higher-order thinking...

Students who have reading disabilities are especially disadvantaged by the new style of curriculum, some maintain.

Many of those students succeed in programs that emphasize mathematical algorithms, but then fail when a new curriculum requires them to read about the math concepts before they work through sets of problems…

Likewise, children from non-English-speaking backgrounds are presented with math that they struggle with, and their parents aren’t likely to be able to help…

Other educators contend that the amount of reading makes it difficult even for good readers to find the time to do the addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division that is the heart of the discipline.

“The verbosity of these math curricula is detrimental to all students,” argued Bastiaan J. Braams, a research professor of mathematics at New York University. “Understanding can only come from very good facility in carrying out operations.”

But the experience of students discovering mathematics through their own investigations is more valuable than teaching them procedures to do mathematical operations, supporters of the new curricula insist….

(8) “Governing Board Considers Scrapping Long-Term NAEP” by Michelle Galley

Source:  Education Week – 28 November 2001


The board that oversees the federal testing program has resurrected the prospect of abandoning its long-term trend assessment.

Members of the National Assessment Governing Board, or NAGB, considered scrapping that part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 1999 in order to give the assessment’s state-by-state tests more often. At that time, they decided to go ahead and administer the long-term test in 2002, but recent problems with the assessment have forced board members to reconsider their earlier decision.

A number of questions are outdated, while grammatical problems show up in others, according to Gary W. Phillips, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the branch of the Department of Education responsible for the nation’s “report card”…

The long-term trend test differs, for example, from the NAEP science test released last week. [For sample questions on the NAEP science test, see] In the trend test, the questions are always the same. In the so-called main NAEP, the questions vary from year to year and follow current pedagogical thinking and practices…

NAGB cut the trend writing assessment in 1999 after Mr. Phillips revealed that data were no longer reliable because of errors in the scoring model. Besides science, trend tests continue to be administered in reading and mathematics.

In addition to the problems with the content questions and background items, the trend NAEP suffered the largest security breach in its 32-year history earlier this year when a Minnesota group posted some reading questions from the test on its Web site. (“NAEP Security Breached by Posting on Web Site,” Oct. 24, 2001.)…

Changing the test to bring the questions up to date could irreparably alter the assessment that many educators and policymakers value because it has remained fundamentally the same for three decades.

“If you change the wording and update it, it’s no longer the same question,” said Ms. Ravitch, who advocated keeping the assessment until she had reviewed some questions in the reading section. Now, she said, she will wait to hear what comes out of upcoming discussions planned by the governing board before she voices an opinion.

Among other issues addressed at this month’s meeting of the governing board:

*  A new framework for the main mathematics assessment was adopted. The 12th grade assessment, for example, will include more advanced material in algebra, geometry, and statistics and probability…