Federal Efforts in K-12 Science and Math Education
Elementary and secondary education is one of the top priority issues for Congress and the Administration this year. Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are brimming with proposals to improve education in the nation's schools. One step is expansion of Ed- Flex waivers (see FYI #39), which President Clinton signed into law on April 29. Another upcoming issue will be reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) for the Department of Education's K-12 programs.
Within this emphasis on the nation's schools, a major concern is science and math education, because of poor student performance and a shortage of teachers qualified to teach those subjects. The final version of the Ed-Flex bill retains language added by Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) which highlights the importance of science and math education, and requires that any state or school district applying to waive a federal requirement (such as science and math teacher training) must continue to meet the underlying federal purpose and intent in some way.
Ehlers, as Vice Chairman of the House Science Committee, has also focused on science and math education with a series of hearings. At an April 28 hearing, committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) noted that the federal government spends more than $2.5 billion annually on "63 separate math and science programs ...scattered across 24 different agencies and departments." There are many more state and local efforts as well. "The problem," remarked Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX),"is how to determine what works best.... Or put another way, are they actually helping the school systems?"
The two federal agencies with the largest responsibility for science and math education are the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation. NSF Director Rita Colwell testified that education is one of the foundation's top three priorities. While NSF collaborates closely with the Education Department, its efforts are unique in that the focus is solely on science, math, and engineering education, and NSF is able to link its programs to the nation's research enterprise. Colwell explained that proposals for NSF education funding are selected by peer review and can address teacher professional development, systemic school improvement, development of instructional materials, research on learning, and digital libraries for educational resources. Two new programs include a Teaching Fellows program to pair up graduate students with K-12 teachers for classroom experience, and an interagency Education Research initiative with the Education Department and NIH.
If students are to achieve high standards, they need to have "competent, well-trained teachers," said Department of Education official Judy Johnson. She stated that the Administration's proposal for ESEA reauthorization will include a new program to enhance teacher professional development in all areas, while keeping an "emphasis on math and science." The department, she said, maintains databases to help assess current programs, and is working hard to collect, evaluate, and disseminate that data. A national evaluation of the Eisenhower Professional Development program, she reported, "has taught us that professional development works best" when it is sustained, collaborative, and tied to content standards and curriculum.
The number of supplemental materials for teachers is "daunting," said Gerald Wheeler, Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association. However, many are not aligned with state or national standards, and teachers do not have the time or expertise to find the best. The challenge, his testimony concluded, is "to provide educators with increased support for professional development to enhance content knowledge and their ability to appropriately select curriculum resources."
Gordon Ambach, Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, agreed that "the federal government has a very legitimate role" in helping states and teachers determine what materials are most effective. Ambach's organization performs surveys to help NSF collect critical baseline data on state efforts in student achievement, teacher preparation, teaching conditions, and other areas. Ambach described what he considered "essential federal actions" to improve math and science education: supporting state and local efforts to develop and align their standards and assessments, funding state-by-state and international benchmarking, implementing learning technologies, and increasing support for teacher professional development in science and math. With the upcoming ESEA reauthorization, he warned, the Eisenhower program is at risk of being incorporated into a block grant or blended into a more general program. "I can assure you," he said, that if left to the states, "the focus on science and math...would disappear." He called on Congress to "protect what is in [ESEA] for science and math teacher development."
Ehlers commented that while the federal government should not be involved in setting student achievement standards, "the best thing NSF can do" is to encourage a national consensus on content and sequence. The Education Department's Johnson reported that the department provides funds for state and local efforts to develop curricula, standards and assessments. Several committee members raised questions about teacher recruitment. The witnesses agreed that better pay would be an important factor. Ambach and Wheeler reiterated their call for expanded support of professional development. When Ehlers asked if there was "something better than the Eisenhower program" for that purpose, Wheeler said it "serves the purpose, [but] the funding is just woefully low."
Ehlers then asked if there was "something to be gained from assigning all [math and science education] efforts to one department?" Colwell answered that no single agency would have sufficient funds, and the current approach "leverages...the various strengths" of different agencies. Ambach warned that math and science must have strong support from the general education community, and Johnson added that pulling science and math education out of the Education Department would separate them from research into learning and pedagogy.
Additional questions focused on computers and information technology for education. Johnson reported that more than half the nation's public schools are now wired for Internet connections. She cautioned that many teachers are not sufficiently trained to properly use the hardware and software, and that educational technologies must be seen as a tool, not an end in themselves.
Audrey T. Leath
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics