COMET • Vol. 9, No. 08 – 9 March 2008


(1) In Memoriam: Nicholas Branca (1942-2008), Former Executive Director of the California Mathematics Project

URL (obituary): .html

[From the obituary] “Dr. Nicholas Branca died of a heart attack February 25 while canyon-rappelling in Australia… A celebration of his life is scheduled for 1-4 p.m. on May 3 at the San Diego Zoo.”
Nicholas served as Executive Director of the California Mathematics Project (which funds COMET) during most of the 1990s, succeeding Dr. Phil Daro and preceding Dr. Susie Hakansson, the current Executive Director. Please visit the above Web sites for more information about Nicholas’s life.

(2) State Schools Chief Jack O’Connell Launches New Interactive Web-Based Resource for Middle Schools

Source: California Department of Education
On February 28, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell unveiled an innovative Web portal that enables the sharing of best practices in the middle school classroom through the use of technology.At the opening session of the California League of Middle School’s annual conference in Sacramento, O’Connell pressed the button to officially launch the dynamic new communications tool for middle school educators.

“The Web portal is a major step forward in ensuring success and closing the achievement gap for all of California’s middle grade students. This rich resource is full of relevant, time-honored ideas and practical solutions, and is available 24/7 at no additional cost to our schools,” said O’Connell.

In his State of Education address in January, O’Connell announced a reorganization of the California Department of Education (CDE) to help focus efforts on closing the achievement gap. One goal is to have the department become a “broker of expertise” by gathering all available educational research that meets high standards and to develop workable strategies specific to the needs of California’s diverse schools.

The new Web portal: Taking Center Stage–Act II (TCSII), Ensuring Success and Closing the Achievement Gap for All of California’s Middle Grades Students, was developed by CDE’s Middle and High School Improvement Office–and is a first example of the Brokers of Expertise program and the type of information the department can gather and disseminate to educators and administrators throughout the state and beyond.

The Web portal is a dynamic, interactive resource for middle level educators built on 12 recommendations for middle level educators that are organized by four focus areas: academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, social equity, and organizational structures and processes.

TCSII utilizes the latest technology, delivering hyperlinked research-based content, vignettes of school practices and provides a connection to middle grades organizations. Members of the California Middle Grades Alliance partnered with the CDE to produce the recommendations and assisted in the development of the portal.

“I believe this program is a star maker for middle school teachers,” said Peter Murphy, Executive Director of the California League of Middle Schools. “With this resource, every school will have the opportunity to share with others across the state and the nation practices that are working in the middle school classroom. This Web-based tool will become the standard for all other resources in education.”

“I am excited about having a one-stop place to shop for middle grades educators to find standards-based teaching practices that are current, tested, and proven to work,” said Creig Nicks, President of the Middle Grades Educators Council, a branch of the Association of California School Administrators. “Teachers no longer will be required to reinvent the wheel with every lesson but will be able to take teaching to the next level.”In 2001 Taking Center Stage published the 300-page “Taking Center Stage: A Commitment to Standards-based Education for California’s Middle Grades Students” that was distributed to schools and county and district superintendents. Taking Center Stage–Act II, which was four years in the making, contains more than 1,000 pages of information that will continue to change and be updated as new research becomes available and schools share their own expertise with one another.

“I am convinced that by providing easy access to research-based information and promising educational practices that engage young adolescents, middle level educators will inspire their students to become lifelong learners,” said O’Connell.

To access the TCSII Web portal, visit


(3) RFP is Now Available for the 2008 Improving Teacher Quality (ITQ) Professional Development Grants

Contact: California Postsecondary Education Commission


A Request for Proposals (RFP) for 2008 Improving Teacher Quality (ITQ) teacher professional development grants is now available for prospective applicants.  The California Postsecondary Education Commission, which administers the program, has posted the RFP on its website (see above).

Approximately eight million dollars will be awarded in targeted grants to postsecondary education institutions in California to support partnerships that provide high-quality professional development to teachers in local school districts.  The grants are funded through Title II-A of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Grant proposals for 2008 Improving Teacher Quality grants are limited to projects that help elementary school teachers address the achievement gap among their students.  Successful applicants will develop whole-school approaches to serving teachers, and must include the development of teacher leaders as a key component of their proposals.  Successful applicants must also conduct scientifically-based evaluation research to demonstrate the effects of the project on teaching practice, student achievement, and the gaps between student groups.  There is no minimum limit for a grant, but no more than one million dollars will be awarded to any project for the four-year grant period.

Grants will only be awarded to partnerships with three mandated partners:

– An Institution of Higher Education (IHE) school of education, AND
– An Institution of Higher Education (IHE) school of arts and sciences, AND
– A high-need Local Educational Agency (must meet U.S. Census guidelines).Additional partners are encouraged, including community colleges, school districts, county offices of education, and non-profit community organizations.  However, all three of the mandated partners above must be represented in any proposal.

Further information, including an electronic version of the RFP, a list of qualifying school districts, information on technical assistance meetings for prospective applicants on April 1 and 2, contacts for questions, application instructions and forms, and additional resources, may be found online at 



(1) “Education Panel Lays Out Truce In Math Wars” by John Hechinger

Source: Wall Street Journal – 5 March 20008
URL: v=2

A presidential panel, warning that a “broken” system of mathematics education threatens U.S. pre-eminence, says it has found the fix: A laserlike focus on the essentials.
The National Mathematics Advisory Panel, appointed by President Bush in 2006, is expected to urge the nation’s teachers to promote “quick and effortless” recall of arithmetic facts in early grades, mastery of fractions in middle school, and rigorous algebra courses in high school or even earlier. Targeting such key elements of math would mark a sharp departure from the diverse priorities that now govern teaching of the subject in U.S. public schools.The panel took up its work amid widespread alarm at the sorry state of math achievement in America. In the most recent testing by the Program for International Student Assessment, released late last year, U.S. 15-year-olds achieved sub-par results among developed nations in math literacy and problem-solving, behind such countries as Finland, South Korea and the Netherlands.

“Without substantial and sustained changes to the educational system, the United States will relinquish its leadership in the twenty-first century,” reads a draft of the final report, due to be released next week by the Department of Education.
Unlike most countries that outperform the U.S., America leaves education decisions largely to state and local governments and has no national curriculum. School boards and state education departments across the country are likely to pore over the math panel’s findings and adjust their teaching to make sure it aligns with the nation’s best thinking on math instruction. The federal government could also use the report to launch a national program in math instruction, as the government did for literacy after findings from a similar advisory panel on reading in 2000.The math panel’s draft report comes amid the so-called math wars raging in the nation’s public classrooms. For two decades, advocates of what has come to be known as “reform math” have promoted conceptual understanding over drilling in, say, multiplication and division. For example, to solve a basic division problem, 150 divided by 50, students might cross off groups of circles to “discover” that the answer was three. Some parents and mathematicians have complained about “fuzzy math,” and public school systems have encountered a growing backlash.

The advisory panel’s 19 members include eminent mathematicians and educators representing both sides of the math wars. The draft of the final report declines to take sides, saying the group agreed only on the content that students must master, not the best way to teach it.

The group said it could find no “high-quality” research backing either traditional or reform math instruction. The draft report calls a rigid adherence to either method “misguided” and says understanding, which is the priority of reform teachers, and computation skills, emphasized by traditionalists, are “mutually supported.”

Larry Faulkner, the panel’s chairman and president of the Houston Endowment, a philanthropic foundation, said in an interview that the group had “internal battles” but decided “it’s time to cool the passions along that divide.” The panel held 12 meetings around the country, reviewed 16,000 research publications and public-policy reports and heard testimony from 110 individuals.The advisory group also doesn’t take a position on calculator use in early grades, a contentious issue among educators and parents. The draft says the panel reviewed 11 studies that found “limited to no impact of calculators on calculation skills, problem-solving or conceptual development.” But the panel, noting that almost all the studies were more than 20 years old and otherwise limited, recommended more research on whether calculators undermine “fluency in computation.”

Still, the draft report says calculators shouldn’t be used on tests used to assess computation skills. Some states allow disabled children to use calculators on tests of arithmetic.

The draft report urges educators to focus on “critical” topics, as is common in higher-performing countries. The panel’s draft report says students should be proficient with the addition and subtraction of whole numbers by the end of third grade and with multiplication and division by the end of fifth. In terms of geometry, children by the end of sixth grade should be able to solve problems involving perimeter, area and volume.

Students should begin working with fractions in fourth grade and, by the end of seventh, be able to solve problems involving percent, ratio and rate. “Difficulty with fractions [including decimals and percents] is pervasive and is a major obstacle to further progress in mathematics, including algebra,” the draft report says.These benchmarks mirror closely a September 2006 report by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which many viewed as a turning point in the math wars because it recognized the importance of teaching the basics after the group for years had placed more emphasis on conceptual understanding.

Francis Fennell, president of the math teachers group and a panel member, said the group’s specific recommendations could help parents determine whether their kids are on the right track.

The draft report recommends a revamp of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a widely followed test administered by the Education Department, to emphasize material needed for the mastery of algebra, especially fractions. The draft calls for similar changes to the state tests children must take under the federal No Child Left Behind Law.

The document urges publishers to shorten elementary and middle-school math textbooks that currently can run on for 700 to 1,000 pages and cover a dizzying array of topics. Publishers say textbooks often must cover a patchwork of state standards.


(2) 2008 American Stars of Teaching

Source: U.S. Department of Education

The U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher-to-Teacher Initiative is accepting nominations for 2008 American Stars of Teaching until March 31. Parents, students, colleagues, school administrators and others can nominate an exemplary teacher who they believe has the qualities to be an American Star of Teaching. We are seeking nominations of teachers across the United States who are improving student achievement, using innovative strategies in the classroom and making a difference in the lives of their students. Teachers across all grade levels and disciplines will be honored as 2008 American Stars of Teaching this fall. To nominate a teacher, go to U.S. Department of Education received more than 4,000 nominations for the 2007 school year. A list of previous honorees can be found at rs.html


(3) Girls in the Intermediate Grades Like Science and Math Better than Language Arts and Social Studies


A Miami [Ohio] University survey of nearly 2,000 girls in grades 4-8 found they liked science and math less in 8th grade than they did in 4th grade.However, they started out liking social sciences and language arts even less, and similarly lost interest in those subjects as they approached 8th grade.

Contrary to other studies that seem to show girls are turned off by math and science, “It doesn’t seem like girls are losing interest in science and mathematics any more than they lose interest in other subjects,” said study co-author Jennifer Blue, assistant professor of physics at Miami.
Blue and Debra Gann, a teacher in Hamilton City Schools, surveyed girls in public and parochial schools in southwest Ohio to find their overall enjoyment of basic elementary and middle-school subjects. The girls were to rank how much they liked a subject on a scale from one (strongly dislike) to five (really like).
Average enjoyment levels in 4th grade were 4.11 for science, 3.85 for mathematics, 3.5 for language arts, and 3.49 for social studies.
Gann and Blue were surprised that science and math weren’t singled out, but that girls “like science and mathematics as much as other subjects all the way through 8th grade.” They then lose a little interest across all subjects, with science falling to an average likeability score of 3.29 and social studies falling to 2.91, the lowest of the four subject scores in 8th grade.
However, the researchers noted that based on reviews of college majors, girls appear to regain their interest in science in college. At Miami’s Oxford campus, for instance, there are more female majors than male majors in botany, microbiology and zoology.