COMET • Vol. 7, No. 35 – 17 December 2006


State Schools Chief Jack O’Connell Offers Top 10 Gift Ideas For The Holiday Season

Source: California Department of Education

Last week, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell offered his top 10 ideas to parents looking for innovative education-related gifts for their children during the Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year holiday season.

“One of the most treasured gifts we can give our children is the lifelong love of learning,” said O’Connell.  “This is the kind of gift that keeps on giving. The joy of learning most often starts at home with children learning from their parents how to solve problems, acquire new skills, and develop a sense about themselves.”

Here are O’Connell’s top 10 gift ideas to accomplish those goals:

1. Educational toys: Some toys help foster children’s imagination, such as a science kit, ant farm, toy farm that grows real crops, aquarium, terrarium, chemistry set, model airplane, microscope, telescope, or magnifying glass…

2. Books or magazine subscription:  Any publication geared toward younger children helps them recognize that the printed word is a part of everyday life and that it that conveys useful, interesting, and amusing information. Getting children to read early is the gateway to learning throughout their lives. To find a book that is age or grade appropriate, search the California Department of Education’s list of Literature for Reading and Language Arts, K-12:

3. Bookstore gift certificate: Older children may appreciate a gift card at a local bookstore to select their own publications…

4. Visit the local library: An alternative to buying books is to introduce your children to a whole building full of books at your local library or school library. Make a visit to the library special by allowing your children to apply for a library card and to choose books that may encourage them to use the library frequently…

5. Tickets to visit a zoo, aquarium, or museum: Children are naturally curious and should be encouraged to find answers to questions by patient observation and through the use of references, either at home, in libraries, zoos, aquariums, or museums – especially interactive museums where children can learn through hands-on experiences…

6. Give a membership: Give your children a membership to a worthy organization like the zoo, library, museum, children’s theater or a nonprofit. This teaches children about giving and sharing, community responsibility and supporting worthy causes. Explain that for many nonprofits, membership dues can mean the difference between staying open or closing down, so your child’s membership will have an impact.

7. Explore your family history: Look through old photos, documents, and heirlooms, and start writing down your family history. Interview older family members and record their stories.  Look through genealogy databases to find more members of your family.  Visit the places your family used to live and explore the local churches and libraries for information on relatives. Exploring the family history will bring the family closer together and give them something to hand down to their families.

8. Volunteer or make a donation:  For many children, the holiday season is a time for getting gifts, but this is a great time to teach them the meaning of the old saying, “it’s better to give than receive.” Volunteer your time or donate money to a worthy cause. Your children will witness and copy your selflessness and generosity.

9. Make a commitment to family fitness time: This gift will benefit you and your child for a lifetime. Childhood obesity is an epidemic in California. Getting physically active is one of the best ways to combat this problem. If parents make physical fitness and good heath a priority, their children are likely to keep these healthy habits for the rest of their lives…

10. Time: The ultimate gift you can give your family is your time. Research shows that quality time with parents actually helps children succeed in school.


(1) Education Trust Releases 2006 Education Watch State Summaries

URL (includes link to reports and a PPT presentation with useful charts/data):
URL (Summary Reports):
URL (California Report):

Last Wednesday, the Education Trust released its Education Watch 2006 State Summary Reports, which provide a data-based snapshot of student achievement and the condition of public education in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

State-specific data is presented on the following:

Achievement Gaps:

—  How many students are proficient in reading and mathematics on state assessments?

—  How do proficiency rates on state assessments compare to proficiency rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)?

—  How do achievement gaps between groups compare across states? Where are gaps the smallest? Where are they the biggest?

—  What are the trends in student achievement over time? Which states are making the biggest gains?

High School and College Attainment Gaps:

—  What is the on-time high school graduation rate for different groups of students?

—  How many high school graduates enroll in college?

—  What is the college graduation rate for different groups of students?

Opportunity Gaps

—  What are the participation and success rates for different groups of students in high-level courses such as Advanced Placement (AP)?

—  Which students are most likely to have teachers who have even a college minor in the subject they’re teaching?

—  How much state and local per-pupil funding is provided to schools in low- versus high-poverty districts? Which states provide the most funding to low-income districts? Which states provide the least?

—  How affordable is college for each state’s lowest income students?

A Deeper Look at Achievement across States: NAEP Data Tables

While no state is yet where it needs to be in terms of educating poor and minority students, some are doing a much better job than others. To help state leaders, researchers, and advocates explore these differences and identify states from which they might learn, NAEP Data Tables allow for easy state-to-state comparisons of scale scores for different groups of students, as well as gap trends.

The wide variation between states in achievement for the same groups of students demonstrates just how important state policies and practices are. “If race and poverty mattered more than what happens in schools, then NAEP scores for low-income students and students of color would be more consistent from state to state,” said Daria Hall, senior policy analyst for the Education Trust.

Focus on Opportunities to Learn

The State Summary Reports provide data on the opportunities that students are given to learn in all states. The PowerPoint presentation accompanying the report delves deeper into opportunity gaps in individual states, illustrating more advanced ways to look at these issues. For example, while a teacher’s college degree provides just a very rough proxy for his or her content knowledge, researchers at the Illinois Education Research Council have devised a much fuller measure of teacher quality–one that includes certification status, years of experience, performance on licensure exams, and the teacher’s own academic background and skills. Using this measure as well as student ACT performance, the researchers demonstrate the profound impact that teachers have on their students’ college-readiness. They further demonstrate the hugely inequitable distribution of teacher quality between schools serving poor and minority students and those serving White and middle-class students.

“As our country pushes on into the 21st century, the international challenges will only become steeper. We need to focus NOW on the unfinished business of combining both excellence and equity,” Education Trust Director Kati Haycock said. “We owe it to the young people who are relying on public education to give them a path out of poverty, and we owe it to our country. Achievement gaps are not inevitable, but we can’t close them without profoundly rethinking and reshaping our public schools.”

California’s Response to the Report

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell issued the following statement in response to the release of the “Education Watch” report:

“I appreciate the Education Trust’s effort to highlight the areas where California schools are succeeding and where we still need to make significant improvement. This report makes clear that achievement gaps continue to exist that put at risk not only the futures of too many African American, Latino, and socio-economically disadvantaged students, but threaten the future well-being of our state. As I have consistently stated, it is imperative that all of us in California work in partnership to address this challenge.

“We know there are schools in California that are meeting the challenge of preparing all students to high academic levels. It will be my highest priority over the next four years to see these best practices of the best schools applied in every school for every student. We must do whatever it takes to ensure that all students have access to the instruction, support, facilities, and programs needed to achieve to their highest potential.”

(2) National Mathematics Advisory Panel Plans Fifth Meeting

Source: NCTM [National Council of Teachers of Mathematics] Legislative and Policy Update – 11 December 2006

In 2006, President Bush issued an Executive Order creating the National Mathematics Advisory Panel.  The Panel will advise the President and the Secretary of Education on the best use of scientifically based research to advance the teaching and learning of mathematics…  While the agenda has not been finalized yet, Xavier University of Louisiana (in downtown New Orleans) will host the fifth meeting of the Panel.  Wednesday, January 10 will be spent in task group work [groups include Conceptual Knowledge and Skills, Learning Processes, Instructional Practices, and Teachers], and there will be an open session on Thursday, January 11.  For more information, visit, where the agenda should be posted soon.

(3) “Schools Report Urges Drastic Change, Higher Salaries” by V. Dion Haynes

SourceWashington Post – 15 December 2006
URL (Executive Summary):

[Last Thursday] an independent commission…proposed dramatic changes that would shake up American public education in an effort to make the nation more competitive globally. The recommendations include authorizing school districts to pay companies to run all their schools; enrolling many students in college after the 10th grade; and paying teachers about $100,000 annually.

The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce — a bipartisan panel that includes former Cabinet secretaries and governors in addition to federal and state education officials and business and civic leaders — issued the recommendations in a report on the future workforce. The commissioners warned that unless improvements are made in the nation’s public schools and colleges by 2021, a large number of jobs would be lost to countries including India and China, where workers are better educated and paid much less than their U.S. counterparts.

“We’re calling for a complete shake-up from top to bottom,” Charles Knapp, chairman of the commission, said at a news conference.

“The United States has one of the highest costs of education but produces mediocre results,” added Knapp, former president of the University of Georgia. “The recommendations are absolutely necessary if we want America to maintain its standard of living.”

The 170-page report, “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” is the result of a year-long study by the panel, which includes New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg; Joel I. Klein, chancellor of the New York City public schools; former Michigan governor John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers; Roderick R. Paige, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Education; Marc H. Morial, president and chief executive of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans; and D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey. It was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education.Implementing all the recommendations, commission members said, would cost about $60 billion.

Education experts expect the study to spur public debates in legislatures and school board chambers across the country, much like the groundbreaking 1983 report “A Nation at Risk.”

The report will prompt “constitutional changes, cultural shifts and changes in political will,” said Andrew Romanoff, speaker of the Colorado House, who plans to introduce a measure incorporating a recommendation to increase offerings of early childhood education programs. “The report will provide the basis for our conversation.”

The most controversial recommendations include empowering school districts to sign contracts with companies and teachers to run the schools — which would replace schools’ administrative structures with something similar to that in charter schools — and forcing teachers to give up pensions in exchange for large pay increases.

Districts, they said, should relinquish control to the most highly qualified contractors, who would be rewarded for successfully running schools — or fired if student performance languishes.The schools “would be like charter schools in one crucial respect: They would be highly entrepreneurial,” said Marc Tucker, vice chairman of the commission and staff director and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

But Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, said hiring contractors to run the schools would create “a huge new set of enterprises that we have no evidence will work.” Moreover, it would negate the administrative economies of scale provided by a central office and “add a great deal of costs to a school,” she said. “We’ve seen that to an extent with charter schools.”

Boosting teacher pay would draw better candidates to the profession, commission members said. They recommend that schools increase teacher pay by at least $20,000 — to $45,000 for beginners and $95,000 for experienced ones working a regular school calendar. Teachers who work year-round, they said, would be paid $110,000.Teachers would get the raises in exchangefor giving up pensions and switching to 401(k) retirement plans.

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, agreed that teacher pay should be increased. However, “it is shortsighted to call for salary programs that increase teacher pay but deplete retirement benefits,” he said in a statement.

The proposal also calls for:

— Setting up “personal competitiveness accounts” for all citizens to cover the cost of retraining if their jobs are phased out.

— Allowing students in vocational courses to graduate from high school after the 10th grade and enroll in trade schools or community colleges if they pass exams demonstrating academic competency. High-performing college-prep students would spend the 11th and 12th grades taking advanced courses and then, after graduation, enroll in college as sophomores and juniors.
Tucker said the recommendations would take 15 years to implement, but he predicted that they would result “in what will plausibly be the best national public school system in the world.”

[Also see a related report in The New York Times]

(4) Online Journal Combines Teaching Math and Studying How Students Learn

Source: National Science Foundation – 11 December 2006

When instructors at Bronx-area community colleges applied for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study how students think about fundamental concepts of calculus, they hoped togain a better understanding of how college students learn mathematics. During the 4-year project, the teacher-researchers integrated ongoing research theories with classroom teaching. As a result, their project has evolved into a tool for helping students reason their way through complex calculus.

The researchers found that when students are actively engaged in the learning process, they are more likely to sort out the logic behind mathematical problems. A give-and-take method allows the students to voice their fears about the subject, express misconceptions, and participate in open discussions to reach a solution. Using an online, peer-reviewed teaching-research journal, the teacher-researchers give updates on their progress and share best practices and procedures. They invite other mathematics teachers and instructors to document their experiences and successes.

“The journal project contributes to NSF’s goal to create an online network of learning environments and resources for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education at alllevels,”said Lee L. Zia, program director for NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education. “Through a relatively easy mechanism to share best practices with the local community, the journal stimulates and supports research on learning, which is one of NSF’s objectives.”

“The biggest strength of our project is that it ensures that mathematics is accessible to all students,” said Bronislaw Czarnocha, principal investigator at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York. “We focus on understanding how students think intuitively about calculus. We then design a method of instruction that develops their mathematical thinking to their maximum potential. This process offers our students, many of whom juggle families and jobs, the chance to establish fundamentals of mathematical thinking and to excel in a difficult mathematics course.”

“Our intent with the journal is to create a vibrant, supportive community,” said Vrunda Prabhu, co-principal investigator, who teaches mathematics at the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. “The journal offers teaching-research tools to deal with the complex problems of our multicultural, multilingual classrooms.”

For more information about this project, email or call Vrunda Prabhu: (267) 980-1650;

(5) California Learning Resource Network (CLRN)

URL (December newsletter):

CLRN provides educators with a “one-stop” resource for critical information needed for the selection of supplemental electronic learning resources aligned to the State Board of Education academic content standards.

CLRN objectives:

— Identify and review supplemental electronic learning resources such as software, video, and Internet resources.

— Identify learning units aligned to resources and the state academic content standards.

— Maintain an interactive Web site to provide information about electronic learning resources through an online searchable database and links to state education technology projects and resources.

California Educators with specific content experience are selected through an application process to act as reviewers once they have completed a rigorous training program. The review process utilizes the State Board of Education approved review criteria which covers three areas: Legal Compliance, Standards Alignment, and Minimum Requirements. (Resources on CLRN are approved for legal compliance only; resources are NOT state adopted.)

Visit to peruse CLRN’s online mathematics resources. The “Web Information Links” database for math is available at

(6) Federal Resources for Educational Excellence (FREE)

Source: U.S. Department of Education –
URL (Math Links–currently 49):

Federal Resources for Educational Excellence (FREE) makes it easier to find teaching and learning resources from the federal government. FREE is among the most popular K-12 websites maintained by the U.S. Department of Education because of the many useful resources being offered by participating federal agencies. More than 1,500 federally-supported teaching and learning resources from dozens of federal agencies such as NSF, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Security Agency are included.

FREE was originally conceived in 1997 by a federal working group and launched a year later. It was redesigned and relaunched in November 2006. FREE is maintained by Peter Kickbush and Kirk Winters, Office of Communications and Outreach, with support from the Development Services Team in the Office of the Chief Information Officer, U.S. Department of Education.

FREE contains resources on a variety of topics, including Arts and Music, Health and Physical Education, History and Social Studies, U.S. History, Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science.

(7) The Total Cost of the Gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (2006)

Source: PNC Financial Services Group, Inc.

Since 1984, the PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. ( has been calculating the cost of Christmas. Each year, the PNC Christmas Price Index provides an interesting perspective on the events and news that helped shape the economy during the year. For an historical look at PNC’s Index, please visit the updated Web site at

Each year, educators across the country use the Christmas Price Index to teach economic trends to students of all ages ( With that in mind, this year’s site has been updated to include more interactive activities, annual results and trends, a Flash presentation, MP3 download, and much more. Educators who visit the site will also find sample lesson plans on related topics from The Stock Market Game program, America’s premier educational stock-market simulation ( Available in all 50 states for grades 4-12, the SMG program teaches children core academic and investment skills. Individually, or in teams, students invest a hypothetical $100,000 portfolio, choosing equities and mutual funds over a 10-15 week period.

The Cost of Gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

Historically low unemployment is making it more expensive to give the gift of live entertainment this year, according to the PNC Christmas Price Index. The tongue-in-cheek economic analysis by PNC Wealth Management is based on the cost of gifts in the holiday classic, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

According to the 22nd annual survey, the cost of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is $18,920 in 2006, a 3.1 percent increase over last year. Gift prices mirrored the U.S. government’s Consumer Price Index–a widely used measure of inflation calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The Christmas Price Index reflects trends in the broader economy,” said Jeff Kleintop, chief investment strategist for PNC Wealth Management. “After years of stagnation, wages for skilled workers, including the song’s dancers and musicians, have increased as the labor market has tightened. Also, a decline in the housing market has dampened demand for luxury goods, such as gold rings.”

Drumming Up Raises or Milking the Minimum Wage?

The largest dollar increase this year resulted from rising labor costs–exceeding the rate of inflation for the first time in years. According to Philadanco, the Philadelphia Dance Company, nine Ladies Dancing earned $4,759, 4 percent more than in 2006, compared to a raise of 3 percent for Lords-a-Leaping. The musicians, Drummers Drumming and Pipers Piping, earned 3.4 percent more compared with 2005.

Maids-a-Milking, who are paid the minimum wage, were the only service providers not to see an increase this year. The federal minimum wage has been set at $5.15 per hour since 1997. Inflation since 1996 has steadily eroded the purchasing power of the hourly minimum, which would be worth $4.04 in 1996 dollars.

Pear Tree Prices Skyrocket; Bird Prices Fly Lower

The Partridge’s home saw the greatest increase of all the items in the index, as Pear Tree prices increased 44 percent from last year.

“Robust commercial construction is sparking landscapers’ demand for ornamental trees, such as the species of pear used in the survey,” said Kleintop.

True Loves will find no increase in the cost of Partridges and most other birds this year as the cost of fuel to ship them leveled off, according to The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens. The exceptions were birds purchased at retail stores.

Like many of the birds, the price for Gold Rings was flat compared to last year, even though the price of the raw material–gold–rose significantly.

“A slowing residential real estate market is making people feel less wealthy this year and is dulling demand for luxury items, like Gold Rings,” said Kleintop. “Investors have been buying gold as an inflation hedge and prices per ounce remain much higher than last year. This may put pressure on profit margins at retail jewelers, who have not been able to pass along the increased cost to consumers.”

Christmas More Expensive than Ever

For Internet-savvy True Loves, PNC Wealth Management calculates the cost of The Twelve Days gifts purchased on the Web. This year, the trends identified in the traditional index are repeated in the Internet version, with overall growth of 3.4 percent, compared to 3.1 in the traditional index. Wages are up, with the Drummers earning almost 100 percent more when purchased on the Internet in 2006 compared with an Internet purchase in 2005. And, as with the traditional Christmas Price Index, bird prices are even or, in some cases, down a bit from 2005 levels. In general, Internet prices are higher than their non-Internet counterparts because of shipping costs.

As part of its annual tradition, PNC Wealth Management also tabulates the “True Cost of Christmas,” which is the total cost of items gifted by a True Love who repeats all of the song’s verses. This holiday season, very generous True Loves will pay more than ever before–$75,122–for all 364 items, up from $72,608 in 2005. This 3.5 percent increase is substantially less than last year’s 9.5 percent increase.

Kleintop observed that Christmas Price Index inflation may reflect trends that led the Federal Reserve to pause interest rate hikes this year.

For more information, visit