Congress Addresses K-12 Education Already in this session of Congress, both the House and Senate have been active on K-12 education issues. Recent Senate action focused on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. In the House, hearings are addressing the FY 2001 budget request for various education programs.
The Senate HELP Committee on March 9 passed S. 2, its version of the ESEA reauthorization, on a party line vote. (The House passed a series of separate bills reauthorizing parts of ESEA last year.) Of concern to the science community is the elimination of a specific funding allocation for teacher professional development in science and math. In the past, a specific set-aside was authorized for this purpose within the Eisenhower Professional Development program ($250 million in FY 2000). An amendment which would have restored the science and math set-aside was offered by Ranking Minority Member Ted Kennedy (D-MA), but failed. The House bill which reauthorizes this portion of ESEA (H.R. 1995), passed last year, contains language directing that local school districts continue to provide at least as much as they currently do for science and math professional development. Although the House bill provides ways to waive such federal requirements, local education agencies must first show that their needs for teacher development in science and math are being adequately met.
The Senate bill, S. 2, does not contain any of these safeguards for science and math professional development. It also sets up a pilot program known as "Straight A's" to allow 15 states to receive much of their federal education funding in a single block grant to use as they wish. (The House passed a comparable 10- state block grant bill last year.) The Senate ESEA bill may come to the floor next month. A conference will then be held, most likely over the summer, to reconcile the House and Senate bills. The issue of whether the final ESEA bill will contain a set-aside for science and math professional development will be ultimately settled in conference.
In the House, various committees have begun holding hearings to address the FY 2001 budget requests for Department of Education and for NSF's education programs. At a February 29 hearing on NSF's Education and Human Resources (EHR) Directorate, members of the House Science Subcommittee on Basic Research raised questions about the quality of education research, and how to assess whether federal education programs are effective. These issues are of particular interest to subcommittee chair Nick Smith (R- MI) and to full committee vice chair Vern Ehlers (R-MI), a physicist and former science educator himself.
Questioned about frequent criticism of past efforts in education research, witness Bennett Bertenthal of the University of Chicago declared, "I don't believe the issue is the quality of research." He added that it is a difficult problem that requires a sustained and consistent multi-disciplinary effort, but the inconsistent "roller-coaster" of funding has resulted in research that is "piecemeal and fragmented." Bertenthal stated in his testimony that "like other complex problems, [education research] requires large amounts of data that are densely sampled and extensively mined for valid interpretations. Regrettably, this requirement for valid and generalizable data is rarely satisfied at current funding levels, which are marginal at best."
The Administration is requesting an increase of $760.0 million for NSF's EHR Directorate for FY 2001. This is an increase of 5.0 percent above FY 2000 funding of $723.8 million. Noting that Congress has frequently increased NSF's EHR funding above what the Administration requested, Smith asked how the programs are evaluated for effectiveness. Judith Sunley, NSF's Acting Assistant Director for EHR, reported that there is evidence many programs are "having a positive impact" in terms of adoption and implementation of curricula and professional development programs for teachers. It takes longer to see an impact on student achievement scores, she admitted, and evidence for that is "spottier."
Smith also questioned NSF's request to increase by 175.0 percent (to $24.8 million) the funding for its Graduate Teaching Fellowships in K-12 Education (GK-12), which place science graduate students in K-12 classrooms to assist teachers. He pointed out that funding for NSF's normal graduate research fellowships would drop by 1.0 percent, to $51.8 million. The GK- 12 fellowships began as a pilot program in FY 1999, Sunley explained, and have gotten "a strong response from the community." To fund a second round of competition for them, and "to accomplish all we wanted to," she said, NSF had to make "a small cut in the graduate research program."
"How do we know they're doing any good?" Smith asked of the GK-12 program. The program is too new to have the answer, Sunley asserted; NSF plans to build it up, then assess it. Other issues discussed included ensuring cooperation across all agencies funding educational activities, and the difficulties involved in scaling up research results to apply in real classroom settings.
Audrey T. Leath