Several hours prior to an April 14 House Science Committee hearing
featuring winners of the 2004 Presidential Awardees for Excellence in
Mathematics and Science Teaching (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/059.html),
Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) addressed the awardees at
a breakfast in their honor. Below are selected portions of Boehlert's
speech. Some paragraphs have been combined in the interest of space:
FEDERAL FOCUS ON EDUCATION:
"It's also a pleasure to speak to you this morning because,
quite frankly, Members of Congress don't spend enough time with teachers.
We talk about teachers and teaching a lot - more than ever, perhaps.
But we don't spend enough time truly listening to you, the people
on the front lines of our educational system. I'd like to hear ideas
and questions from you this morning, as well, but first let me make
some relatively brief remarks about the context of your visit to Washington.
"The first thing to be said is that this is a critical
time to be in Washington. The debate on the fiscal year 2006 budget
is just beginning, and this is likely to be one of the most stringent
budgets in recent memory. What to do about education funding will
be a central feature of the debate.... The President put education
on the front burner' early in his term, and that had real impact.
Both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization,
and the Mathematics and Science Partnerships Act,' which I introduced,
were signed into law.
"Education funding has increased in each of the past
three years. In fact, overall funding for the Department of Education
has grown by $13.8 billion during that period, with the largest increases
going to the Title I program for disadvantaged students, special education
and teacher quality. But all this attention may be a cause for concern
as well as satisfaction. First, everyone is focusing on education
because of a sense that our educational system - one of the great
inventions of American democracy - a sense that our educational system
is failing. Obviously, there are plenty of schools and teachers and
students who are doing well, but the system as a whole seems deficient.
"The evidence is all around us, but perhaps the best
known damning evidence comes from the TIMSS exams, the Third International
Mathematics and Science Survey.... One can raise legitimate questions
about the accuracy and meaning of the TIMSS international comparisons,
but the decline over the years of schooling alone is cause for alarm.
We have simply got to do better.
"But how? Well, here's the second way in which all this
relatively new-found Washington attention may be cause for concern.
Intervention from Washington can make things worse as well as better.
"I don't say this from a conservative perspective. I'm
a proud, card-carrying moderate. I think the federal government has
an important role to play in K-12 education. I think we need more
federal money, not less, flowing into our local school districts.
And my guess is that when all the debates on next year's budget come
to a close, that will be, once again, where we end up."
TECHNOLOGY, TESTING AND RESEARCH:
"But there are still many policy questions that need
to be answered before we're sure that federal policies will lead to
improvement in education. For example, how can we ensure that technology
actually improves education? The government's focus needs to shift
from merely providing access to technology to figuring out how to
use it in a manner that truly offers education, not distraction or
empty entertainment or even mere information. I'm not sure how we
"Or another question: how can we use exams in a way
that promotes critical thinking, retention of knowledge and a love
of learning? The current mania for measurement is a necessary antidote
to an era marked by a lack of accountability. But the wrong kinds
of tests will not only mask evidence of a continuing decline; they
could contribute to it. We need to think more seriously about this
issue. Too often, the discussion in Washington about testing degenerates
into an ideological debate - an unusual one, though, where the left
and the right unite - each for their own reasons - in opposing anything
that smacks of a national testing requirement.
"But it seems to me that the issue is not whether to
have tests, but what kind of tests to have and how to use the results.
And there's remarkably little discussion about those matters.
"Another question: are we taking full advantage of the
latest research on teaching and learning?... [W]e seem often to still
be in the mere guessing' stage when we talk about curriculum
and teaching methods.
"And a final question: what can we be doing to help
attract more top students into teaching science and math? It seems
to me that this is the most critical question of all. No curriculum,
no technology, no test will improve education unless we have the best
qualified, best trained people teaching our students."
BILL TO EMPHASIZE TEACHING AS A CAREER:
"[T]he federal government needs to start sending a stronger
signal that teaching is an honorable - indeed, a critical - career.
Just earlier this week, I introduced, along with my colleagues Frank
Wolf and Vern Ehlers, and with Senator Warner a bill to create another
incentive for math and science students to become teachers. This bill
would provide student loan forgiveness for math and science majors
who work at least five years in virtually any career related to math
and science, including teaching. The bill is based on an idea that
former Speaker Newt Gingrich floated in his recent book.
"I don't mean any of these issues I've raised to be
rhetorical questions. They are tough questions for which we don't
seem to have ready answers. My goal is simply to ensure that we don't
sweep these questions under the rug."
FEDERAL PROGRAMS, MATH AND SCIENCE PARTNERSHIPS:
"In the Science Committee, we continue to explore these
questions as we continue to work to improve the education programs
of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Our Committee oversees NSF,
but does not have any control over the Department of Education - two
agencies that should be coordinating their efforts much more closely,
by the way.
"That's also improving - a bit. NSF and the Education
Department are working together on the Math and Science Partnerships
that are designed to bring the expertise and resources of universities
and businesses to bear on the problems faced by K-12 teachers like
you. NSF and the Department each have their own particular attributes
and assets, but they must coordinate their work to get the most bang
for the buck.'
"In any event the Partnership program at NSF, which
was proposed by the President, is a promising idea. That program is
receiving $79 million this year, and would receive $200 million if
fully funded. I believe our universities - and not just in their education
departments - ought to be doing much more to help K-12 teachers.
"Last year, Administration proposed what was frankly
a crazy idea - shutting down the NSF program and merging it with a
different partnership program at the Department of Education. Congress
blocked that move, but we were not able to get enough money to NSF
to allow them to make additional grant awards this year.
"What's at stake is not a turf battle between two agencies
- it's the nature of a successful program. At NSF, the program focuses
on bringing higher education together with school districts, and the
program funds only those applications that pass a rigorous peer review.
The NSF program funds innovative efforts involving a variety of subjects
at different levels of schooling. The Department of Education program
is distributed by formula, is geared to disseminating approaches that
already exist, and is focused on middle-school mathematics. Real benefits
would be lost by moving the program.
"The budget proposal for the next fiscal year would
once again not provide enough funds for NSF to make new Partnership
awards, and the budget also proposes to cut other NSF K-12 education
programs. We will be doing everything we can to fight those cuts in
a tough budget.
"But all this debate simply underscores the point I
started with - you're in Washington at precisely the right time. We
need your guidance and your experience to figure out how to turn our
good intentions toward education into good results. In science and
math education, those results need to include an educated and scientifically
literate populace; a large, diverse and well trained workforce; and
an intellectually curious culture.
"That's a tall order. And it's one we're going to have
to address together. For as the writer H.G. Wells said long ago, Civilization
becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.'
"I look forward to hearing your ideas. Thank you."
Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics