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FYI Number 30: March 16, 2001

Senate and House Committees Address K-12 Education

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee began marking up its version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on March 7, while on the other side of the Capitol, two House committees also addressed K-12 education issues. In the morning, Education Secretary Rod Paige appeared before the House Education and the Workforce Committee to describe President Bush's education reform plan, as he had done a month earlier before the Senate HELP Committee (see FYI #17). Later that same day, the House Science Committee heard from four Presidential Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching 2001 awardees about what the government can do to improve science and math education.


The HELP Committee completed its mark-up and passed its reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) on March 8. The committee's bill is generally similar to President Bush's plan, but does not include such controversial elements as charter schools and vouchers for private schools. The bill was passed unanimously by the committee's 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, but partisan conflicts over issues such as vouchers and class size reduction are expected when it goes to the Senate floor, possibly in late April or early May. As expected, the bill would eliminate the Education Department's existing $250 million annual set-aside for teacher professional development in science and math by consolidating the Eisenhower program into a broader $3.0 billion Teacher Quality program, but it would authorize new funding of $500 million in FY 2002 for Mathematics and Science Partnerships between university science and math departments, states, schools, and other participants for a variety of activities to improve science and math education.


The House Education and the Workforce Committee, the House committee with jurisdiction over Education Department programs, is now beginning work on its own version of ESEA. Paige testified that he was "pleased and proud President Bush has made education the top priority" of his budget request, with "the highest percent increase of any Cabinet increase in his first budget." (Bush would increase the Education Department budget by 11.5 percent, to $44.5 billion.) One concern voiced by many committee members was the cost of developing and implementing the tests Bush has advocated to track student progress in math and reading on a yearly basis. Paige explained that the President's proposal provides funding to assist states in developing tests aligned with their standards - something many states are already doing or have completed. He also hopes to be able to provide some money to help states with test implementation. Paige agreed with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) that multiple measures, rather than a single annual test, are best for important decisions such as promotion and graduation.

Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI), co-sponsor of a Democratic alternative bill to Bush's proposal, raised concerns that block grants to states would lead to de-emphasizing areas where the federal government sees a national need; Paige responded that if the federal government demands accountability and results, "those people on the scene will do what's necessary" to get the money where it is most needed. Noting that the President's proposal does not maintain the Eisenhower set-aside for science and math, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) asked Paige whether he would be amenable to bill language conveying an expectation that some of the Teacher Quality money be used for science and math professional development. Paige expressed a willingness to discuss such an approach.


"We spend a lot of time in Washington talking about teachers," commented committee chair Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), "but too little time talking to them, and most importantly, listening to them." The four witnesses, recipients of the presidential awards for excellence in math and science teaching, all believed the federal government could have a positive impact on science and math education. The discussion focused primarily on encouraging good people to enter teaching careers, supporting their professional development, providing an adequate work environment, and making funding available for equipment and materials needed to make science interesting to students. Two of the witnesses had gotten their start in the classroom through the Teach for America program, which is federally funded through Americorps, and praised it and other alternative certification programs as a way to attract bright and talented people to teaching. Jonathan Brenner, who taught in New York City but is now pursuing a medical degree, recommended a systemic review of teacher preparation programs. Other suggestions included financial incentives, loan forgiveness, and tuition reimbursement for prospective teachers. Brenner stressed the importance of an adequate workplace and administrative support: "you can't attract people to a working environment where they can just keep their heads above water." Julia Anne Lewis from the Academy School in Vermont added, "there's too much on teachers' plates."

Brenner advocated ensuring that teachers have the tools needed to teach science, including smaller classes and appropriate equipment. Most of the witnesses had utilized federal dollars for equipment and educational opportunities for their classes: Michael Lampert, a physics teacher from Salem, Oregon has enhanced his classroom with innovative projects and now plans to establish a robotics curriculum; Felicity Messner Ross sought federal funding to take low-income students on educational excursions; and Brenner developed a model science classroom, involved students from different localities in a science exchange, and brought in scientists to help mentor a science club. In response to a question from Rep. Christopher Shays (R- CT) about the most critical component for attracting students to science and math, almost all emphasized the importance of teacher training and professional development: "Get teachers who are excited about it" and have the necessary content knowledge, said Ross. Support from school administrators for professional development and planning time was considered vital. Lampert said in his experience, administrators may have money available but at times "it goes more toward sports than academics."

The hearing also touched on Bush's call for accountability through annual testing. Ross cautioned that "we must be very careful we're testing what we intend," and too much testing "can turn kids off." Lewis added that teachers who understand different learning styles and how to give performance-based assessments "are best able to create and administer" good annual tests and "need to be a part of the test development from the ground up."

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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