COMET • Vol. 9, No. 17 – 8 June 2008

This is the final issue of COMET for the 2007-2008 academic year. Past issues of COMET can be found at in case you missed reading an issue during the busy school year. Have a wonderful summer! 



(1) “Rethinking High School: Supporting All Students to be College Ready in Math” by Tracy A. Huebner and Grace Calisi Corbett

Source: WestEd – 2008

In mathematics classes across the country, many students identify themselves as being in one of two camps: those who can do math and those who can’t. Such labels may be assumed by the students themselves or unconsciously assigned to them by the adults in their lives based on students’ math achievement. Whatever its source, the “can’t” label may be a costly one.

This Rethinking High School report, the fifth in a series focusing on secondary reform and redesign, profiles three high schools supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that have successfully implemented mathematics programs that prepare all students for college: Interlake High School in Bellevue, WA; Granby High School in Norfolk, VA; and Fenway High School in Boston, MA.

The program elements identified by research and explored in this report are the following:
— Offering high-level math courses and supports
— Continually improving teachers’ skills and math content knowledge
— Using student information to drive instruction

According to this report, access to and enrollment in challenging courses had a greater impact than any other factor, including income level and parents’ level of education.

Visit to read this free report.


(2) “Web Opens Up Science School” by Samiha Khanna

Source: The News & Observer – June 2008

About 100 students who didn’t get into the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM; are getting a pretty sweet consolation prize. Starting in August, the runners-up may take school courses–they’ll just have to do it from home instead of living on the Durham campus.

“I guess it would be the next-best thing to getting into the school,” said Tyler Smith, a 16-year-old from Eastern Randolph High School in Ramseur.

If all goes as hoped, the school next year will enroll a second class of about 100 students in its NCSSM Online program, and eventually participants could receive a school diploma. For some students, having access to accelerated math and science courses isn’t just an exciting opportunity–it could be a lifeline. Teaching shortages in science and math have been weighing heavily on North Carolina, and the rest of the country, for years.

Frequently, schools lack a qualified teacher for an upper-level class or can’t enroll enough students in such a class to justify hiring a teacher, said Darlene Haught, NCSSM’s dean of distance learning. “It’s providing opportunities that schools can’t provide, especially in under-served areas,” she said.

The shortage of math and science teachers has become a broad source of concern. A report due out next week by the University of North Carolina (UNC) system on its 15 schools of education will show that its schools prepared 4,003 teachers last year, but just 12 percent were in math or science.

A student missing out on an advanced math and science course in high school is much less likely to pursue the field in college or as a career, said John Dornan, director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a Raleigh-based nonprofit education research and public policy group.

“This is such a big problem that we’re feeling a lot in education, but it’s not exclusive to education,” Dornan said. “The real issue is how can you get kids motivated to get excited about science and math leading to an interesting, challenging job”…

Students choose one or two classes from seven free advanced math and science courses in a Web-based program. Most class activities won’t be conducted in real time–students will complete the work on their own schedules, but may use Web conferences and chat rooms during live class discussions.

Participating students will need to have access to computers, but the state-funded school will provide textbooks, software and visits to the Durham campus for labs and other activities.

They’ll either take the course as part of their regular school schedule, or commit to completing the course after school, possibly to earn college credit, Haught said…

Taking courses online–a method suited to students who already use the Internet every day–was a way to broaden the school’s reach. The model isn’t far from the distance-learning NCSSM has already been doing for more than 10 years through videoconferencing…

Online and distance courses grow–30 percent annually in kindergarten through 12th grade–because they provide opportunities that may not be available in person, said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the North American Council for Online Learning.

Providing students additional opportunities for accelerated learning can only help, said Sam Houston, president and CEO of the N.C. Science, Math, and Technology Education Center in Research Triangle Park…

“To extend the power of that school virtually, on the Internet, is a great thing for [NCSSM] to do,” Houston said. “We need to have multiple solutions. Distance learning is certainly one of those.”



– The N.C. School of Science and Mathematics is a public residential high school specializing in science and math.
– This year, 1,021 rising high school juniors from across the state competed for 313 slots. An additional 70 were wait-listed.
– A total of 650 high school juniors and seniors attend the school.


(3) Public Schools as Good as Private Schools in Raising Math Scores, Study Says

Source: News Bureau, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – 23 May 2008

Students in public schools learn as much or more math between kindergarten and fifth grade as similar students in private schools, according to a new University of Illinois study of multi-year, longitudinal data on nearly 10,000 students. The results of the study appear in the May issue of the education journal Phi Delta Kappan (PDK).

“These data provide strong, longitudinal evidence that public schools are at least as effective as private schools in boosting student achievement,” according to the authors, education professor Christopher Lubienski, doctoral student Corinna Crane and education professor Sarah Theule Lubienski.

 The new study is the first published study to show that public schools are at least as effective as private schools at promoting student learning over time, they say.

Combined with other, yet-unpublished studies of the same data which produced similar findings, “we think this effectively ends the debate about whether private schools are more effective than publics,” said Christopher Lubienski, whose research has dealt with all aspects of alternative education. This is important, he said, because many current reforms, such as No Child Left Behind, charter schools, and vouchers for private schools, are based on an assumption of the superior effectiveness of private schools compared with public schools.

The debate essentially began three years ago with the publication in Phi Delta Kappan of a previous study by the Lubienskis, which challenged the then-common wisdom (supported by well-regarded but dated research) that private schools were superior.

In their 2005 study (, the Lubienskis found that public school students tested higher in math than their private school peers from similar social and economic backgrounds. In another, more-extensive study in early 2006 (, they built on those findings, and also raised similar questions about charter schools.

Both studies were based on fourth- and eighth-grade test data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The conclusions of the husband-and-wife team seemed “crazy radical” at the time, Sarah Lubienski said, and generated significant controversy. They were supported, however, later in 2006 with similar findings in U.S. Department of Education studies comparing public schools with privates and with charters, which looked at NAEP test data on both math and reading. (Unlike literacy, math is viewed as being less dependent on a student’s home environment and more an indication of a school’s effectiveness, Sarah Lubienski said.)

Critics of these previous studies, however, have cited the lack of longitudinal data showing the possible effect over time of different types of schooling. The studies of NAEP data were only snapshots, they said, showing student achievement at a single point in time. The studies did not address the possibility that some students may have entered private school at a lower level of achievement. The new study was designed, in part, to address that issue, the authors say in their PDK article.
 The data for the new study came from the database produced by the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 (or ECLS-K), administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), part of the U.S. Department of Education.
 The ECLS-K database includes both student achievement and comprehensive background information drawn from a nationally representative sample of more than 21,000 students, starting with their entry into kindergarten in the fall of 1998. The most recent data available for the current study were gathered in 2004, in the spring of the students’ fifth-grade year…

After adjusting for demographics and initial kindergarten scores, the researchers found that achievement gains between kindergarten and fifth grade were roughly equal among both groups. The number of private schools in the study did not allow for drawing conclusions about other subcategories of private schools, such as Lutheran, conservative Christian or secular, Sarah Lubienski said. In their earlier NAEP research, they found that Lutheran schools, for instance, performed on par with publics, while conservative Christian schools performed lower than all other school types.

“It is worth noting,” the researchers write in analyzing their results, “how little variation school type really accounts for in students’ growth in achievement… Specifically, while all of the variables in our model together explained 62 percent of the achievement differences between schools, school type alone accounted for less than 5 percent of these differences, with demographic considerations accounting for a much greater share.”

The researchers go on to write that they “personally see private schools as an integral part of the American system of education” and “there are many valid reasons why parents choose private schools and why policymakers may push for school choice.” Academic achievement, however, may no longer be one of those reasons, they write.

“Claims that simply switching students from one type of school to another will result in higher scores appear to be unfounded. “They suggest “moving away from a simple focus on school type and instead examining what happens within schools.”


(4) McLarin’s Adventures–An Example of Digital Game-Based Learning and University-wide Cross-Departmental Collaboration

Source: National Science Foundation

Moving with the confidence of Indiana Jones, an eighth-grader makes landfall and begins to explore the island for potable water. She begins to test a pond for bacteria and to determine its level of acidity. She is interrupted by a message from Grandma. Grandma?

The student’s execution of her mission, including answering the e-mail from a virtual Grandma (requesting details about her adventures), is part of an online survivor game included in her school’s science curriculum. The game, “McLarin’s Adventures,” was conceived by the University of Oklahoma’s (OU) K20 Center ( and is an example of digital game-based learning (DGBL). A grant from the U.S. Department of Education supported initial development of the game.

The K20 Center has the broad goal of developing and sustaining innovative, technology-enriched learning communities that motivate and engage K-12 students in pursuing scientific and technical careers. It offers programs for students and teachers at all levels, from pre-kindergarten through postgraduate. It also integrates the university’s college of education with other colleges at the university, representing all the scientific disciplines and the college of engineering, to support teacher development and student learning in STEM.

While online gaming is not a new concept, DGBL as an educational tool is still in the research phase. There are only a handful of research centers in the U.S. that are working on DGBL, and the K20 Center is the only center that built both the gaming engine and the game.

Off-the-shelf software couldn’t provide the kind of experience sought by K20 Center leadership. The center wanted to engage young minds rather than simply offer passive entertainment and wished to avoid shooting and other violence.

“We couldn’t find a game that could support what we wanted to teach,” says Mary John O’Hair, OU vice provost and director of the K20 Center. “So we worked with the computer science department to develop the game and turned to the fine arts department for the graphics.”

The team that developed the game embedded into its learning scenarios state standards for science and math as well as literacy. Indeed, the K20 Center’s digital game-based learning program is designed to benefit the student, school and research. While the students are busy applying physics to map an uncharted island, or using other sciences to advance their avatar, teachers can monitor each student’s progress online and see what subject areas need further instruction…

Through McLarin’s Adventures, students undertake interdisciplinary study encompassing chemistry, environmental science, botany, zoology and earth science–developing math and writing skills in the process…

“The K20 network began with six elementary schools and the College of Education,” says O’Hair. “It has evolved from a small group of schools sharing best practices, to a shared commitment to accept and grow innovation, especially in the STEM disciplines, at 500 schools across the state.”

O’Hair credits NSF for funding that has helped the K20 Center advance research evaluating its integrated approach; create professional development opportunities that link K-12 teachers with higher education faculty; and promote innovation through alliances between university and community organizations.

“Support from NSF through the REESE, GK-12, and Partnerships for Innovation programs has been crucial,” says O’Hair. “It has taken a good 10 years,” she adds. “And we’re not close to being finished.”

More on McLarin’s Adventures, including a clip from the game, is available at


(5) Bridging the Math Gender Gap

Source: Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University – 29 May 2008

New research published in the May 30 issue of the journal Science demonstrates that girls perform better in mathematics in more gender equal societies, in some cases besting male peers.

The research, led in part by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management Professor Paola Sapienza, sought to address the issue of whether social and cultural factors influence women’s success in math and science. Sapienza and her colleagues Luigi Guiso (Instituto Universitario Europeo) and Ferdinando Monte and Luigi Zingales (University of Chicago), empirically investigated whether a global gender gap exists in math.

“The so-called gender gap in math skills seems to be at least partially correlated to environmental factors,” says Sapienza. “The gap doesn’t exist in countries in which men and women have access to similar resources and opportunities.”

In search of bridges across the math gender gap, Sapienza and her colleagues analyzed data from more than 276,000 children in 40 countries. Each child took the 2003 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an internationally standardized assessment of math, reading, science and problem-solving ability.

Based on the PISA analysis, Sapienza and her colleagues determined that while the global pattern shows that boys tended to outperform girls in math (on average girls score 10.5 points lower than boys), this advantage was not always the case. In a few countries, including Iceland, Sweden and Norway, girls scored as well as boys or better.

Sapienza and colleagues examined social features that might explain the variance from country to country. The team used four tools to measure how well women were integrated into each society compared with men. These tools were the 2006 Gender Gap Index (GGI) developed by the World Economic Forum (WEF); the World Values Survey; the percentage of women aged 15 or older who are eligible to work in each country’s labor force; and the WEF political empowerment index, which measures the representation of women in government.

Sapienza’s team found that in more gender equal societies, the gender gap in math disappears. For example, the math gender gap almost disappeared in Sweden (GGI = 0.81), while girls scored 23 points below boys in math in Turkey (GGI = 0.59). Not only did average girls’ scores improve as equality improved, but the number of girls reaching the highest levels of performance also increased.

Math and science rates for girls in the U.S., which ranks 23rd on the GCI scale with a score of 0.7, fell in the middle of the pack. On average, U.S. girls score almost 10 points lower than U.S. boys in mathematics, which is around the average for all countries analyzed in the study.

The research also found a striking gender gap in reading skills. In every country girls perform better than boys in reading. In more gender equal societies, the girls’ advantage in reading over boys increases further. On average, girls have reading scores that are 32.7 points higher than those of boys (6.6 percent higher than the mean average score for boys). In Turkey, this amounts to 25.1 points higher and in Iceland, girls score 61.0 points higher.


(6) Slide Rule Sense: Amazonian Indigenous Culture Demonstrates Universal Mapping of Number Onto Space

Source: ScienceDaily – 30 May 2008

The ability to map numbers onto a line, a foundation of all mathematics, is universal, says a study published May 30 in the journal Science ( but the form of this universal mapping is not linear but logarithmic. The findings illuminate both the nature and the limits of the human predisposition to measurement, a foundation for science, engineering, and much of our modern culture.

The research was conducted with the Munduruku, an Amazonian indigenous culture with a limited vocabulary of number words and spatial terms, little or no formal education, and little or no experience with maps, graphs, and rulers.

Munduruku adults and children spontaneously placed numbers on a line in a compressed, logarithmic function, such that smaller numbers appeared at greater spatial intervals. The study suggests that a propensity to relate numbers to space is universal, but that the mapping of successive integers and constant spatial intervals, as on a ruler, is culturally variable and linked in part to education.

The research was conducted by Stanislas Dehaene, professor of cognitive psychology at the College de France in Paris; Elizabeth Spelke, Marshall L. Berkman Professor of Psychology at Harvard University; Veronique Izard, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Harvard; and Pierre Pica of Paris VIII University in Paris.

“Our findings suggest that humans have a predisposition to relate two fundamental domains of knowledge: knowledge of number and of space,” Spelke says. “The Munduruku are able to place numbers on a line in a systematic way that educated adults employ as well, under certain conditions. This convergence suggests a universal relationship between numbers and space. Nevertheless, the Munduruku do not map numbers onto a line at equal intervals, as we do when we measure objects. Both universal cognitive abilities and culture-specific experiences therefore seem to contribute to the development of a linear number line and the activities that it makes possible: measurement, mathematics, and science.”

The researchers studied the ability of 33 Munduruku adults and children to map numerical representations on to a line, with “1” located at the left end of the line, and “10” at the right. In tests of larger numbers, “10” was at the left, and “100” at the right. After presentation of a number stimulus, such as spoken number word in Munduruku or Portuguese, or a visual array of dots or sequence of sounds, the Munduruku indicated the number’s appropriate location on the line. The test was presented on a solar-powered laptop deep in the Amazon.

In most cases, the Munduruku placed numbers on the line in a systematically compressed function, devoting more space to smaller numbers than to larger ones. Variation did exist in the amount of participants’ education, and some individuals were more familiar with Portuguese than others. Those with more than three years of education tended to place numbers indicated by Portuguese spoken words at equal intervals on the line. However, those same individuals showed a compressed mapping for arrays of dots and for spoken Munduruku words, as did all of the other Munduruku participants.

Munduruku adults and children were also compared to Boston-area adults, who were given a similar set of tests. The Boston-area participants showed linear or nearly linear mappings in all the conditions of the study when they were presented with dot arrays that were small enough to count or with number words. Nevertheless, adults in Boston also showed a compressed mapping when presented with sound sequences or with arrays of dots too large to count. These findings suggest that a compressed mapping of number onto space continues to exist in adults despite years of experience with counting, arithmetic, and measurement.

“It appears that we, as humans, can access two different methods of numerical mapping,” says Dehaene. “The logarithmic, ratio-based method is the most intuitive; we inherit it from our primate evolution and we still access it in the absence of precise mathematical tools. Through education, we also acquire a linear mapping. However, this does appear to be a cultural construct.”

Previous studies, conducted by the same researchers, have shown that the Munduruku are sensitive to geometry, and understand the differences between different shapes or angles.

Very young children have also been shown to access a logarithmic scale for number mapping, and animals compare numbers in accord with their ratios rather than their interval relationships. In contrast, linear numerical mapping is a uniquely human ability, not shared by animals, and develops in children between the ages of 5 and 7. Because Munduruku adults show the same logarithmic mapping as preschool children, it appears that education and culture-specific experience, rather than universal developmental processes, underlie the emergence of the linear mapping…


Also see “Aztec Math Used Hearts and Arrows” by David Biello

The Aztecs had more numbers than we do, or at least symbols denoting numerical concepts. When it came to measuring land–critical for levying the proper tax or tribute–these medieval Mesoamericans used arrows, hearts, hands and other units representing fractions, according to a new study in Science.


(7) Summit on American Competitiveness

Source: The AIP (American Institute of Physics) Bulletin of Science Policy News – 28 May 2008; U.S. Department of Commerce
URL (DoC):

On May 22, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez hosted the 2008 National Summit on American Competitiveness, the second meeting of premier business, government, and academia leaders to address the pressing issues facing American businesses in the highly-competitive 21st Century worldwide economy. The 2007 event, held in Washington, D.C., focused on innovative partnerships, education and workforce issues, and energy independence. (Visit to view a webcast of the first Summit.) Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley joined with former Helene Curtis CEO Ronald J. Gidwitz to co-chair the 2008 Summit, which was attended by over 500 people from across the nation.

Panel one, titled “Roadmap for the Next Decade,” was moderated by Maria Bartiromo of CNBC, who broadcast her show “Closing Bell” live in the afternoon. Participants included Craig Barret, chairman of the board of Intel Corporation; Louis Gerstner, retired chairman and CEO of IBM; W. James McNerney, Jr., CEO of The Boeing Company; Michael Porter, professor at the Harvard Business School; and Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness.

Panelists were prompted to discuss what is not being talked about in the public and political spheres. Education was the resounding answer. Gerstner stated that in a knowledge-based global economy, skills are what matter. Barret added that investments in research and development are too low, and that the K-12 education system needs attention… Porter explained that it was important to find a way to get students with skills into STEM studies in college. According to Porter, the K-12 experience does not convince students that STEM careers are attainable. He suggested that the decentralization of the American education system must change…

Steven Chen, co-founder and chief technology officer of YouTube; John Koten, CEO of Mansueto Ventures LLC; Steven Odland, CEO of Office Depot; James Phillips, managing partner of Pinnacle Investments, LLC; and Beth Williams, CEO of Roxbury Technology Corporation headlined the second panel simply called “Entrepreneurship.” Ronald Gidwitz, former CEO of Helene Curtis, and moderator began by declaring that he would steer the second panel away from a discussion on education, because the previous panel had done such a thorough job…

The fourth panel began their discussion almost immediately on the subject of education. Paulson opened by saying that–looking forward–there are a wide range of issues confronting America in the 21st century; among others he listed education and job training. Daley suggested that Chicago was facing a serious shortage of specialized workers, forcing employers to look outside the U.S. for new hires. As a remedy, Daley suggested a new focus on math and science education. Napolitano was the most vocal in her support for STEM education. Among other comments, Napolitano emphasized the importance of teacher training, STEM in K-12, technical skills, robotics competitions, and innovative learning strategies…

At the conclusion of the Summit, Secretary Gutierrez said, “Today we’ve heard from some of the world’s top thinkers and leaders on how to move America forward in the new era of globalization. I applaud all those who participated in this summit and provided insight into ways of strengthening America’s leadership in the worldwide marketplace.”

For more information on the 2008 Summit, please visit or

The Department of Commerce’s next major event, the second annual Americas Competitiveness Forum, will be held on August 17-19 in Atlanta, Georgia. Visit for more information. Webcasts of last year’s Forum are available at


NOTE: The 2008 State STEM Education Report Card series is now available and These data sheets were compiled for the STEM Education Coalition ( and are open source documents.


(8) Sen. Barack Obama and Rep. Mike Honda Introduce Bill to Make American Students More Competitive in Science Fields

Source: U.S. House of Representatives

On May 22, Rep. Mike Honda and Sen. Barack Obama introduced a bipartisan bill in their respective chambers that will make America’s students and future labor force more competitive in science-related fields. The bill was introduced at a time when other countries are gaining ground on America in science and technology fields.

Obama (D-IL) and Honda (D-CA) said this bill will help develop a coordinated strategy in the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math education, the fields collectively known as STEM. The “Enhancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education Act of 2008” (H.R. 6104; S. 3047) will create mechanisms for federal agencies and the states to coordinate STEM education strategies.

“We need to focus our efforts in teaching the scientists and engineers of tomorrow,” said Honda, a former science teacher and educator of more than 30 years. “Federal agencies unfortunately are not communicating among themselves. Current federal efforts in STEM education are neither coordinated, nor coherent, nor cooperative. This bill will create the mechanisms and venue for cooperative relationships to develop.”

Obama added that economic competitiveness depends on sound education policies.

“We must ensure our nation remains a global leader in scientific advancement and technological innovation, and that begins with strengthening America’s schools,” said Obama. “Our students deserve the education and skills they need to compete in today’s global economy and to understand the increasingly complex issues that face our democracy, and we must do everything we can to provide them with the resources and curriculum they need to succeed. This critical legislation will help students develop critical thinking and effective problem solving skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by coordinating federal STEM education efforts, consolidating federal education initiatives, and supporting states in collaboratively organizing their efforts. I am proud to introduce this legislation with Congressman Honda, and look forward to moving it forward in Congress”…

In 2006, the federal government sponsored 105 STEM education programs through 15 different federal agencies at a cost of $3.12 billion. Yet the following year, American students did poorly in a test offered world-wide that measures student proficiency in understanding and applying science. Microsoft’s Bill Gates summarized the concerns when he said: “When I compare our high schools with what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I’m terrified for our workforce of tomorrow.”

Honda’s and Obama’s bill would:

— Reorganize the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). OSTP has a STEM subcommittee that has remained largely dormant over the past few years. The bill would raise that subcommittee to a committee level, giving it a mandate to work proactively at designing coherent STEM strategies.
— Create an Office of STEM at the U.S. Department of Education at the assistant-secretary level. This office will coordinate STEM education initiatives among all federal agencies and have a seat at the OSTP STEM Committee.
— Institute a voluntary Consortium on STEM education. The Consortium would be integrated by no less than five states representing at least five of the nation’s nine geographical regions. Its mission is to develop common content standards for K-12 STEM education, engineered at the state and local levels.
— Create the National STEM Education Research Repository. This would be a clearinghouse for educators to research the latest innovations in STEM. This will break the silos that keep creative programs from being replicated.

“Our nation’s competitiveness in the global economy depends largely on our ability to graduate students who excel in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math,” Ehlers said. “We must do all that we can as a nation to prepare students at every grade level so that they have a genuine interest and demonstrated skills in these fields. The jobs of tomorrow will require STEM education skills and our next generation of innovators will need them to succeed.”

For educators, this bill promises to create tools and make available resources that are now scattered and isolated among federal agencies and the states.

“The Enhancing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education Act of 2008 will coordinate and enhance STEM education programs at the federal level and empower states to better address the critical needs in their STEM education systems,” said Gerald Wheeler, Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association. “We are pleased to support this legislation.” 
As the American economy attempts to recover from a deep economic downturn, losing sight of longterm strategies to manage the economy can be risky, said Rep. Rush Holt.

“Scientists and educators should not be the only ones concerned about STEM education. Those who care about our long-term economic health and the ability of future generations to compete in a new global economy should be concerned,” Holt said. “This legislation is part of our strategy to get STEM education back on track at a time when we can no longer afford to lose ground to our competitors.”