COMET • Vol. 4, No. 07 – 27 February 2003


STAR and CAHSEE Item Writers Sought

Source: George Powell (Executive Director, STAR Program) and Andrew Latham (Executive Director, CAHSEE Program)

The Educational Testing Service, contractor for the California Standardized Testing And Reporting program (STAR) and the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), is currently recruiting California educators to write test questions in the areas of mathematics, science, history, and English language arts. This is a terrific opportunity for teachers or writers with K-12 teaching experience.

Upcoming training opportunities:

*  STAR CST [California Standards Test] Item Writer Training Workshop in San Diego on March 20-21 (8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.).  The content areas to be covered are mathematics (grades 2 through 11), science (grades 8, 10 and 11), history (grades 8, 10 and 11), and English language arts (grades 2 through 11).

* CAHSEE Item Writer Training Workshops in Burbank on April 7 and in Sacramento on April 9.  The content areas to be covered are mathematics and English language arts, grades 8-11.

Participants will be paid $150 per day.  Local and surrounding area participants will be reimbursed for their mileage expenses.  Out-of-town participants will be provided with lodging and travel arrangements as appropriate.  A continental breakfast will be available from 8:00 to 8:30 each morning, and lunch will be provided both days.

If you are interested in joining the CA STAR team or CA HSEE team of item writers, please e-mail a letter of interest along with your resume to Deb Brown at or fax your letter and resume to her at (646) 219-0258. If you should have any questions, please feel free to contact Deb at (315) 778-1925.


(1) Congress Approves $101 Million for FY03 Math and Science Partnerships

Source:  NSTA Express – 19 February 2003

The Senate and House approved the appropriations bill for FY03 programs which included funding of $101 million for the Math and Science Partnerships (Title II Part B) at the U. S. Department of Education. The funding was included as part of a giant omnibus spending package, which rolled together funding for most federal programs.

The $101 million figure passed by the House and Senate is very important, because the authorizing law for these programs (Title II Part B of No Child Left Behind) requires the funds to be disbursed to the states when funding reaches $100 million. Currently, since the program only received $12.5 million in funding for FY02, the grants were administered by the U. S. Department of Education. Initially these partnerships were to receive $100 million, and were subject to a .65 percent across the board cut that Congress put in place for all programs. Since the $100 million trigger may not have been implemented because of the across the board cuts, the funding for the partnerships was raised to $101 million.  This means that now these partnership funds will go as formula grants directly to each State, and the State Education Agency will be responsible for administering local grants to partnerships throughout the state. (For an estimate of how much each state will receive, visit the NSTA website at

This huge increase to math and science education funding is largely thanks to Congressman Ralph Regula (R-OH), chair of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee. He has been a true champion for science and math education, both nationwide and in Ohio…

(2) “So You Think You Want to be in Pictures?” by Dan Rockmore

Source:  MAA [Mathematical Association of America] Online


…The movie Good Will Hunting… is a good Hollywood love story-but definitely not a movie about math! But most people did see it this way: genius mathematicians, often arrogant and surely born to the subject, puzzling over arcane diagrams on blackboards, and if not, sent to crack codes for some nameless government agency…

Certainly, there are mathematicians that fit this bill, but there are others too–many others. I began to think about making a film that showed what research mathematics was, in all of its diversity, both in terms of the people who do it, and the intellects that are attracted to it. I also wanted to give some insight into what it means to “do” mathematics. In short, I wanted to show that mathematics is more than just numbers and mathematicians are more than just the extreme personalities that periodically make it to the big, or little, screen.

It took a few years of knocking on doors at various agencies and foundations, but eventually I found a sponsor at the National Science Foundation: Joe Jenkins, a Program Officer in the Analysis Program, thought that it sounded like a good idea. So, backed by a budget on the scale of “The Blair Witch Project,” filmmakers Wendy Conquest and Bob Drake and I set out to show that mathematics is not so scary. Two years later, the result is The Math Life, a documentary film on the people, problems, and process of mathematical research. It’s now available for distribution through Films in the Humanities and Sciences, and will soon be appearing on a public television station near you.

The making of The Math Life was one of the most interesting and enjoyable projects I’ve ever undertaken. We crafted a list of questions and began interviewing a spectrum of mathematicians (hmm, maybe that’s the collective noun?). We asked people how they came to mathematics, what their earliest mathematical memories are, what sorts of mathematics they work on, what it is like to work on mathematics, how is mathematics like art, and even asking what they find beautiful about mathematics. For many, this last question proved to be the most difficult to answer.

After several interviews a narrative line began to emerge. We decided that what we wanted to tell were stories of the possible lives of a mathematician, from tentative childhood beginnings to working researcher, and to show that this is a road which is often anything but straight and narrow. There are naive, wonder-inspired beginnings, as well as frustration-laden false starts. Stanford’s Persi Diaconis tells of being led to mathematics from mysteries of magic and card shuffling. Princeton’s Ingrid Daubecheis remembers discovering the wonder of p after measuring the diameters and circumferences of all the platters in the house. Dartmouth’s Dorothy Wallace, (recipient of the 2000 New Hampshire Professor of the Year award), recalls that as a schoolchild, her lack of facility with fractions led some teachers to label her as slow. The road to a career in math can be, and often is, a meandering one. Along the way we discuss some of the things that attract people to mathematics…

Indeed, Wallace’s story is but one of several cautionary tales for educators embedded in The Math Life. Cornell’s Steven Strogatz recalls almost, “being derailed,” by a classroom experience. Microsoft’s Michael Freedman (winner of the Fields Medal) reminds us that an aptitude for mathematics is reflected less in “getting A’s on all the tests” than in having a “quirky” mind, able to produce a different reason to explain why something is true. Many of the mathematicians we interviewed told horror stories of being browbeaten for not getting the right answer in the “right” way.

These are beginnings that as often as not almost led to ends. In essence it is the same process writ large, that many (if not all) of us relive during the long slow process which is mathematical research. As Arlie Petters says, this process is, in its own way, “a human experience”, one which, as Peter Sarnak says, is probably not for the person who “needs a daily high.” More often than not you are “stuck,” hoping, living for that brief and hard-earned moment of triumph when you “get it,” only to quickly return to being stuck once again. It is, for many of us, as much an artistic process as a technical one. References to the visual arts are scattered throughout The Math Life

The Math Life is but fifty-two minutes long, and in that short space of time we hope we have shown the general public that the inside of the head of a mathematician is not such a scary place–a good sense of humor is just as important as the ability to focus the intellect. Mathematicians are more than just the cartoon mix of genius and arrogance that we usually see on the big screen. We also think we have given the public a sense of what mathematics is…

Dan Rockmore is Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, where he is also Vice-Chair of Mathematics. His research interests focus on the mathematics of signal and image processing.

Dan Rockmore can be contacted at or by visiting his Web page at

(3) The Math Life, Reviewed by Henry Cohn

Source:  MAA [Mathematical Association of America] Online


The Math Life is a 50-minute documentary on mathematics for a general audience. It was created by filmmakers Wendy Conquest and Bob Drake and mathematician Dan Rockmore, with financial support from the NSF, and consists primarily of excerpts from interviews with fourteen well-known mathematicians, together with a number of video sequences as illustrations.

Rather than focusing on a narrow theme, The Math Life covers as much ground as possible given its length. It’s divided into nine sections: Doing the Math, Shape, Working, Number, Proof, Uncertainty, The Real World, Connections, and The Last Word. Each section features comments from the interviews…

There were several comments I found particularly striking, which I intend to keep in mind for use when talking with non-mathematicians. Dorothy Wallace explains that what mathematicians do is search for patterns nobody has noticed before, and that abstraction enters the picture when one realizes there are abstract patterns that describe and control concrete patterns. Mike Freedman points out that one can be successful in mathematics by being idiosyncratic, seeing what other people don’t look for and understanding things in new and different ways, even if one isn’t “smarter” than everyone else in the area. David Mumford observes that randomness should be viewed not as the absence of a pattern, but as a pattern itself. Each of these comments is a brief but effective way of showing people ideas that mathematicians often take for granted and don’t put into words. The Math Life contains many illuminating comments of this sort…

Despite my quibbles with the lack of context and some of the video sequences, The Math Life is quite an achievement. I consider it especially likely to have a positive impact on potential mathematicians who have never thought of mathematics as a plausible career choice, but even those with no intention of doing mathematics themselves should end up with a more realistic picture of what mathematicians do, and a better impression of them…

(4) “Searching for Great Teachers” by Patrick F. Bassett

Source:  Education Week – 26 February 2003


Every so often, a film comes along that reminds those of us who work in education why we do what we do. Such was the case with “The Emperor’s Club,” and, in particular, with Kevin Kline’s avuncular character, William Hundert. The film urges us to examine what is important in education, and spawns debate about high-quality teaching that extends beyond the walls of academia into the public sector.

“The Emperor’s Club” couldn’t have come at a better time, as America simultaneously seeks to attract a huge number of new recruits to replace a generation of teachers who are about to retire, and to redress the failures of the educational system at large, so that, in fact as in rhetoric, “no child is left behind.” It is imperative that we, as a nation, develop strategies for dealing with these pressing issues. But, first, we must ask, “What makes a good teacher good?”…

Using a meta-analysis of the available research, the Abell Foundation determined that verbal ability and the selectivity of the college the teacher attended are the key factors in teacher quality. The U.S. Department of Education’s 2002 report “Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge: The Secretary’s Annual Report on Teacher Quality” concurs: “Studies have consistently documented the important connection between a teacher’s verbal and cognitive abilities and student achievement,” it says, adding that “subject-matter background can also have a positive effect on student performance.” Thus, schools with high-achieving students tend to be those where the teachers have a deep knowledge base about the subjects they are teaching, where the teachers were themselves high-performing students in school and college, where the teachers are impassioned about their subjects, and where the teachers care about the kids they teach.

It’s nice to have this research, but it’s usually the story that makes the case in people’s minds much more persuasively than the theory (especially when the story’s effect is cinematically multiplied by memorable drama and vivid imagery). What does good teaching look like? Let us go back to “The Emperor’s Club.”

The film takes place in 1976 at an all-boys college-prep school, the fictional St. Benedict’s School for Boys, where William Hundert teaches ancient history…

For Mr. Hundert, history tells a story with powerful lessons about where we came from and who we are. As he intones to his class, “Great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance. What will your contribution be?” Even the motto over Mr. Hundert’s door invokes this theme: The powerful tyrants of history are largely forgotten, victims of the rubble and ruin they created…

I’m reminded what an incredible responsibility and opportunity teaching is. Witnessing students soak up knowledge is rewarding enough, but to hear from them, 20 years later, and learn that you have had an impact on their lives, that you helped shape who they would become, is a professional satisfaction beyond measure…

(5) Next Steps in Mathematics Teacher Development

Source:  Jim Rubillo (Executive Director, NCTM) via Charlene Chausis – 25 February 2003 (NCSM listserv)


The Mathematical Sciences Education Board (MSEB) of the National Research Council is sponsoring a workshop on the Next Steps in Mathematics Teacher Development, Grades 9-12.  The workshop will be held March 7-9, 2003, at the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, D.C.  Its theme is Change & the Culture of Teaching

Mathematics:  The mathematical knowledge needed for grades 9-12 teaching, how it is acquired, and how it is used in the classroom…

The workshop is being called to provide the audience of about 75 mathematicians, mathematics educators and policy makers insight into such questions as:

*  What is “mathematics for teaching” and how can it be learned and used?

*  In what concrete ways can teachers continue to enhance their understanding and use of this mathematics?

*  In what concrete ways can those responsible for educating future and current teachers help them to begin to learn and understand this mathematics?

As you will notice from the enclosed agenda, we are planning an exciting two days of activities designed to help participants design programs to improve teachers’ knowledge and effectiveness.  A Webcast of a case study discussion will kick off this workshop.  Please encourage interested people to view and continue the discussion from the Webcast.

If you would like to attend the workshop, please complete [and email/fax] the Response Form [available at the web site above, to Dionna Williams at (202) 334-1294 or].  Meals will be served at the workshop but the participant must pay for all other expenses.  Should you have any questions, please contact Dionna via email or by phone at (202) 334-3012.  Space is limited and reservations for attending the workshop will be taken on a first-come, first-served basis.  Reservations will not be accepted after Friday, February 28th. You will receive a confirmation email within two days of our receipt of your response form.

[The agenda for the conference is also available at the above Web site.]