COMET • Vol. 7, No. 12 – 31 March 2006


(1) Fact Book 2006: Handbook of [California] Education Information

Source: California Department of Education

A Message from Jack O’Connell, State Superintendent of Public Instruction:

Californians need facts about our vast public education system to make informed decisions about our schools, but it often is difficult to know where to find current information. This resource, Fact Book 2006, includes a wealth of data and background about programs in California public schools and at the California Department of Education. The document answers many of the questions that educators, students, parents, elected officials, policymakers, media representatives, and others have about our school system…

[This 137-page volume includes information on a plethora of education-related topics, including enrollment figures and the number of California public schools by grade span, testing programs, instructional resources, support programs, number of teachers, average class size, the 2005-06 education budget, average salaries of public school teachers, a 2006 calendar of events, and much more. It can be downloaded free of charge from the above Web site.]

(2) “A Hard Look at School System” by Jim Sanders

Source: Sacramento Bee – 31 March 2006

California launched what is billed as the most extensive study ever conducted of its public education system Thursday–a yearlong, $2.6 million foundation-funded venture involving 23 separate projects by some of the state’s top education researchers.

The bipartisan project had been requested by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Educational Excellence*, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and Democratic legislative leadership–Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata–among others.

“For too long, we’ve let good intentions, rather than good research, really guide us in the process of funding our educational delivery system,” O’Connell said.

California traditionally has determined how much it will budget for education each year, then decisions are made by the Legislature and local school districts about how best to spend that money.

A key portion of the study will take a different tack, analyzing how much money is needed to provide a quality education for each student–not necessarily how much the state can afford.

“It’s a very loaded question,” Perata said. “Because implicit in the question is that once the answer is there, once it’s supported by data, then we have to decide what we will do about it.”

Collectively, the 23 reviews will target public education finance, governance and dozens of specific questions, including how money could be spent more effectively to improve student achievement and what barriers exist to placing top teachers in low-performing schools.

Though Thursday marked the formal launch of the project, called “Getting Down to Facts,” some of the research has been ongoing for several months. The multipart study is expected to be completed by year’s end.

Rather than using public funds, the project will be bankrolled by four philanthropic groups–the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the Stuart Foundation…

Note:  For more information on this committee, see

(3) Proposed Performance Standards (Levels) for Grades 8 and 10 Science Tests

Source: California State Board of Education

The State Board of Education is proposing to adopt performance standards (levels) for the new 60-item Grade 8 and Grade 10 California Standards Tests for Science that are being administered to students in grades eight and ten this year. Comments and suggestions are sought on the proposed “cut scores” (minimum number and percentage of correct responses) on the respective tests that determine students’ performance standards (levels)–Advanced, Proficient, Basic, Below Basic, and Far Below Basic.

The third and final regional public hearing will be conducted in Sacramento on Wednesday, May 10, in conjunction with the State Board’s regular May meeting.  It will begin as close to 10:00 a.m. as possible, but will be only as long as necessary to hear from those wishing to testify orally at that time.  Individuals not able to attend this meeting may send their comments by mail, email, or fax.

The full announcement, which includes a copy of the proposed cut scores as well as contact information, is available for download (MS Word document) from the above Web site.


(1) April is Mathematics Awareness Month


Mathematics Awareness Month (MAM), which is celebrated each year during April and is sponsored by the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics, is designed to increase the public’s understanding of and appreciation for mathematics. MAM began in 1986 as Mathematics Awareness Week with a proclamation by President Ronald Reagan, who said in part:

“Despite the increasing importance of mathematics to the progress of our economy and society, enrollment in mathematics programs has been declining at all levels of the American educational system. Yet the application of mathematics is indispensable in such diverse fields as medicine, computer sciences, space exploration, the skilled trades, business, defense, and government. To help encourage the study and utilization of mathematics, it is appropriate that all Americans be reminded of the importance of this basic branch of science to our daily lives.”

Activities for Mathematics Awareness Month are typically organized by college and university mathematics departments, student groups, and professional associations. These activities have included a wide variety of workshops, competitions, exhibits, festivals, lectures, and symposia. Some years elected officials have issued proclamations for Mathematics Awareness Month, frequently in connection with special meetings and events arranged to observe the month…

In order to focus efforts and encourage participation, a national theme is selected each year, and Mathematics Awareness Month packets (including a color poster and announcement) are mailed to AMS, ASA, MAA and SIAM leaders; to mathematics department chairs; selected high school teachers; public policy representatives; and leaders of related associations. The Web site above contains a list of the themes of past Mathematics Months/Weeks, along with links to materials associated with these themes.

A sample press release for this year’s theme follows below:

The American Mathematical Society (AMS), the American Statistical Association (ASA), the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) announce that the theme for Mathematics Awareness Month 2006 is Mathematics and Internet Security.

When you use your home computer to log on to your bank account and pay a bill, to buy a book from Amazon, or to buy or sell something on eBay, you assume your personal details–your social security number, your bank account access password, or your credit card number–cannot be read by an unauthorized third party. What makes this possible is mathematics, pure mathematics, in fact.

Today’s Internet commerce makes heavy use of encryption techniques that depend upon number theory, a branch of mathematics that until relatively recently was thought of as strictly “pure mathematics,” with no real-world applications. In his book, A Mathematician’s Apology, the famous British number theorist G. H. Hardy declared, “The ‘real’ mathematics of the ‘real’ mathematicians, the mathematics of Fermat and Euler and Gauss and Abel and Riemann, is almost wholly ‘useless.'” Yet, ironically enough, it is the mathematics developed by those very mathematicians, along with Hardy himself, that keeps today’s Internet transactions secure.

(Visit for numerous resources related to the topic of Internet security.)

(2) “How We Learn” by Hal Pashler

Source:  APS Observer – March 2006

The March issue of the Association of Psychological Science’s APS Observer contains the first of a “two-part series on the role of cognitive sciences in improving educational instruction.” Included in that issue are summaries of four such projects, as well as overviews by series editor Hal Pashler, a psychologist at UC San Diego, and by Grover J. Whitehurst, Director of the Institute for Education Sciences.

[Excerpt] Within the past few years, there has been a great upsurge of interest and excitement about basic and translational research in instruction and learning. Much of the credit belongs to psychologist Grover J. (Russ) Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), in the US Department of Education. Whitehurst previously was chair of the psychology department of SUNY-Stony Brook where he authored more than 100 research papers on language development and reading…

From the time Whitehurst assumed leadership of the nation’s federal educational research efforts, he and his program staff began a sustained effort (perhaps struggle would be the more appropriate word) to promote empirical scrutiny of educational practice and to refocus educational research funding on rigorous assessments of what works and what doesn’t.

One of Whitehurst’s initiatives–modest in dollars but important to psychological science–has been a program of translational research known as Cognition and Student Learning (CASL). The program funds research that borrows and refines ideas from cognitive science and develops translational applications in the classroom, or embodies the ideas in educational technologies. Additional IES programs promote translational efforts from basic research on reading and mathematical cognition.

This Observer contains first-hand research reports by four groups of APS Fellows supported by CASL. A common theme is the application of what might be termed a “micro-level” analysis of learning and memory processes, seeking to determine what instructional choices can speed up learning and reduce forgetting with realistic materials and time-scales. In the May issue of the Observer, two more CASL-funded groups will report on ideas emerging from their research on cognitive development. CASL is supporting many other groups doing interesting work, much of it soon to reach the stage of publication; these six offer a sample…

(3) “Toward the Tipping Point” [Cognition and Student Learning Program of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES)] by Grover J. Whitehurst, Director, IES

Source:  APS Observer – March 2006

In education, we are now at the beginning of a metamorphosis–the transformation of education into an evidence-based field. By evidence-based, I mean an endeavor in which decision makers routinely seek out the best available research and data before adopting programs or practices that will affect significant numbers of students. Since its creation in November 2002, the Institute [of Education Sciences] has focused on moving the field of education to the tipping point, after which current modes of operating will be replaced with empirical ones. Critical to this effort is the production of rigorous and relevant education research. The Institute is building one component of this needed education research through the Cognition and Student Learning research program.

Over the past 25 years, cognitive science has generated important fundamental knowledge on how people learn. Cognitive scientists have identified a number of basic principles regarding how information is acquired, manipulated, and retained. For the most part, however, these principles have not been incorporated into education instruction or in materials that support teaching and learning.

One explanation for the limited use of instructional practices based on cognitive science rests in the differences between classrooms and laboratories. In contrast to learning in laboratory settings, learning in classrooms typically involves content of greater complexity and scope, delivered and tested over much longer periods of time, with much greater variability in delivery, and with far more distraction and competition for student time and effort. Before principles of learning from cognitive science can be applied to classroom instruction, we need to understand if the principles generalize beyond well-controlled laboratory settings to the complex cognitive and social conditions of the classroom.

A second explanation is that there has been little incentive for researchers to do the hard work of engineering solutions to improve learning based on cognitive science. Just as fundamental knowledge of biochemistry derived from the laboratory does not solve health problems unless effective therapies can be constructed from that basic science, so too knowledge of how brain and mind work does not lead directly and immediately to methods and approaches that will enhance learning in the everyday world. For each drug that proves effective in the field, there are hundreds that failed but appeared promising based on laboratory models. Education solutions, just like health care solutions, must be engineered and tested. Many that seem promising and aligned with the most up-to-date cognitive theorizing will fail.

At the Institute, the overarching priority is research that contributes to improving academic achievement. We believe that knowledge gained from cognitive science–and particularly knowledge gained from cognitive research conducted in education settings–can provide the foundation for building a new generation of curricula and instructional practices. The Cognition and Student Learning program is intended to provide incentive to researchers to extend their science to provide a basis for developing solutions to applied problems in education.

(4) “The Science of Learning and the Learning of Science: Introducing Desirable Difficulties” by Robert A. Bjork (UCLA) & Marcia C. Linn (UC Berkeley)

Source:  APS Observer – March 2006

Students’ performance during instruction is commonly viewed as a measure of learning and a basis for evaluating and selecting instructional practices. Laboratory findings question that view: Conditions of practice that appear optimal during instruction can fail to support long-term retention and transfer of knowledge and, remarkably, conditions that introduce difficulties for the learner–and appear to slow the rate of the learning–can enhance long-term retention and transfer. Such “desirable difficulties” include: spacing rather than massing study sessions; interleaving rather than blocking practice on separate topics; varying how to-be-learned material is presented; reducing feedback; and using tests as learning events.

Our project, funded by the Institute of Educational Sciences (IES), focuses on whether the benefits of desirable difficulties generalize to realistic educational materials and contexts. In a coordinated series of laboratory and classroom experiments involving college and middle-school students, respectively, we have examined whether introducing desirable difficulties can improve the effectiveness of Web-based Inquiry Science Environment (WISE, projects. WISE modules, on science topics such as astronomy, genetic inheritance, and chemical reactions, are customizable and are used extensively by middle- and high-school teachers around the world. Among the advantages of WISE as a research tool is that we can study variations in instruction delivered in the same classroom and also quickly propagate promising practices to new modules.

Laboratory versus Classroom

Bridging laboratory and classroom settings–the goal of IES’s Cognition and Student Learning (CASL) program–requires attention to factors such as classroom management and social expectations that can be controlled in laboratory studies but influence outcomes of classroom studies. Laboratory and classroom investigations also tend to differ in other ways. For example, laboratory research on learning tends to employ simple materials, short retention intervals, and controlled conditions in an effort to distinguish between completing theories, while research on classroom instruction and lifelong learning tends to employ complex curriculum materials and assessments of retention, understanding, and transfer across intervals extending to months or years. Our research bridges these contexts by studying learning from WISE modules in both the laboratory and the classroom.

Conceptual Background

As noted above, certain conditions that pose difficulties and challenges can both impede performance and enhance long-term retention; this emphasizes an important distinction that learning theorists…found essential decades ago: namely, the distinction between the momentary activation of a memory representation, which can be heavily influenced by local conditions such as contextual cues, versus its “habit” or “storage” strength, which is an index of learning and reflects how interassociated or integrated that representation is with related representations in memory…  From that perspective, two interrelated ideas from educational research are relevant and important: inquiry instruction and knowledge integration… Inquiry processes confront students with variability, require generation, interleave topics, and tap into other desirable difficulties. Achieving knowledge integration is akin to developing the kind of elaborated and inter-linked memory representation that laboratory researchers have shown will sustain access to knowledge, retard forgetting, and enhance transfer.

Nature of Our Findings

Our laboratory and classroom results are remarkably consistent with each other, but point to complexities and interactions not revealed by prior laboratory research on desirable difficulties. For example, the narrative/cumulative structure of science-learning materials results in manipulations such as interleaving and spacing having a mixture of positive and negative effects: Such manipulations can enhance retention, but sometimes impede the induction of principles and generalizations.

A more specific example is our discovery that the level and complexity of generation processes can impact learning in important ways…  In a WISE module on the habitability of planets, generation prompts that require free-response answers are more effective in fostering long-term retention than are fill-in-the-blank prompts. In addition, free-response prompts that require integrating pieces of information on the role of planet mass and distance from a sun (across-topic integration) lower performance during learning relative to prompts requiring integration of pieces of information about planet mass or distance (single-topic integration). Consistent with earlier research, however, across-topic integration prompts led to higher performance on new questions administered after 48 hours.

These results, and others, are consistent with the importance of knowledge integration in science learning. They also suggest that the desirable-difficulties perspective and findings can be an important source of design principles towards the goal of optimizing computer-based and/or classroom science instruction.

Additional Papers in this Series Include the Following:

(a) “Principles of Cognitive Science in Education” by Janet Metcalfe

(b) “Test Enhanced Learning” by Henry L. Roediger, III, Mark McDaniel, and Kathleen McDermott

(c) “Temporal Spacing and Learning” by Hal Pashler, Doug Rohrer, and Nicholas J. Cepeda

(5) “What Doesn’t Work: The Challenge and Failure of the What Works Clearinghouse to Conduct Meaningful Reviews of Studies of Mathematics Curricula” by Alan H. Schoenfeld

Source:  Educational Researcher – March 2006

[The following brief excerpts are from an article published by Alan Schoenfeld (UC Berkeley) in the March 2006 issue of the Educational Researcher and Schoenfeld’s rejoinder to a response from the What Works Clearinghouse.] [Main Article Abstract] An early version of this article, discussing curricular interventions in mathematics, was written for the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), which funds WWC, instructed WWC not to publish it. An expanded version, written at WWC’s invitation for a special issue of an independent electronic journal and a book to be published by WWC, argued that methodological problems rendered some WWC mathematics reports potentially misleading and/or uninterpretable. IES instructed WWC staff not to publish their chapters–thus canceling the publication of the special issue and the book. Those actions, chronicled here, raise important issues concerning the role of federal agencies and their contracting organizations in suppressing scientific research that casts doubt on current or intended federal policy.

[Main Article] The What Works Clearinghouse [WWC] was established by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in an attempt to do for education what “evidence based health care” has done for the health professions. The home page of the Clearinghouse website ( describes the effort as follows:

On an ongoing basis, the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) collects, screens, and identifies studies of the effectiveness of educational interventions (programs, products, practices, and policies). We review the studies that have the strongest design, and report on the strengths and weaknesses of those studies against the WWC Evidence Standards so that you know what the best scientific evidence has to say.

[Rejoinder] …To produce its middle school mathematics reports, WWC performed a comprehensive review of 20 years of published and unpublished studies. Of all those studies, only 10 met the WWC standards for evidence and were then described in WWC reports. My article discusses the ways in which some of those 10 reports are seriously flawed…

URL (Main article):

URL (WWC response):

URL (Rejoinder):