Should the National Science Board establish another commission to make
recommendations on improving U.S. science, technology, engineering and
math (STEM) education? What have been the impacts of previous studies,
and why are U.S. students still in the middle of the pack in international
math and science comparisons?
On December 7, the National Science Board (NSB) held the first of three
public hearings to assess whether a new commission should be created,
and if so, what its charge should be. The Board members received a wide
range of advice and opinions from 18 witnesses over four hours, including
five Members of Congress who discussed the recent National Academies
report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," the importance
to America's competitiveness of a robust STEM education system and workforce,
and the need for stronger federal support for NSF. Other witnesses testified
on the findings, recommendations and impacts of an earlier NSB commission
report on the same subject ("Educating Americans for the 21st Century,"
1983), the state of education research and the role of NSF, and various
private sector initiatives in K-12 education.
Opinions varied on whether a new commission was needed, and what its
role should be. Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), Bart Gordon (D-TN),
and Vern Ehlers (R-MI) suggested that, instead of undertaking a comprehensive
investigation into the shortcomings of U.S. STEM education, a commission
could be most effective by helping build consensus on the appropriate
role for NSF in science education, and an implementation strategy for
achieving it. "I do not believe we need to create another commission
to take a broad look" at the issue, said House Science Committee
Ranking Minority Member Gordon. He commented that other such reports
over the past 20 years have been "fairly consistent" in identifying
the problems. Instead, he said, a new education commission "should
narrowly focus its work" on what NSF is doing and could be doing
in K-16 STEM education. He called the consideration of a commission
"timely" in light of "the erosion in Administration support
of NSF education activities." Science Committee Chairman Boehlert
pointed out that NSF's education budget has been targeted for cuts in
recent years. (After a peak of $944.6 million in FY 2004, NSF's Education
and Human Resources Directorate received $848.2 million in FY 2005 and
$807.0 million in FY 2006. The Administration's FY 2006 request was
$737.0 million). The funding debate, he said, reflects a larger problem:
the "lack of consensus" on NSF's role and its unique contributions
in supporting peer-reviewed research, its connections to the higher
education community, and its focus on excellence and innovation. Boehlert
warned that the commission "would be a waste of time" if it
did not clarify NSF's role.
House Science, State, Justice and Commerce Appropriations Subcommittee
Chair Frank Wolf (R-VA) urged the Board to "be bold...because we
may be falling faster and farther than many people realize." Rep.
Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) called for better understanding of the
education systems in countries whose children outperform the U.S. on
international comparisons; less emphasis on memorization and more on
the scientific method and problem-solving skills; better teacher pay
and better teachers.
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) declared that a new commission was not needed,
and would be "frankly, a waste of time and energy." Instead,
he made a rousing plea to the scientific, engineering and medical communities
to organize themselves and develop a comprehensive strategy to convince
Congress and the Administration of the looming risk to the nation's
competitiveness and the importance of improving STEM education and stemming
the decreases in research funding for the physical sciences and engineering.
Every scientist, every physicist and engineer "ought to have their
hair on fire," he said, "because we're going to drive over
a cliff if we don't reverse this trend." Rep. Ehlers agreed that
the science community has to "get activated," and reiterated
that any commission effort should be focused on what NSF's role should
be and how to achieve that outcome. "It is legitimate," he
said, for a commission to ask why little changed after the previous
NSB commission released its report.
Cecily Cannan Selby of the New York University's Steinhardt School
of Education, the Co-chair of the previous NSB Commission on Precollege
Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology, agreed that there
are "many parallels between today and 1982." Regarding response
to that commission's study, she stated that significant progress had
been made on three of its recommendations: focusing on all students,
focusing on technology, and focusing on informal education. On the issues
of what should be taught and learned, she added, "good outcomes"
had also been achieved. But the "bad news," she said, was
that the commission's recommendations on finances and on solving the
teaching dilemma, which required the most resources, were "ignored."
The first three recommendations, she noted, were inexpensive, apolitical
and "touched a public nerve." She advised that for major changes
to take place, any future commission would need to address public attitudes
in two areas: first, that good teachers and students "are born
and not made;" and second, that all scientists are alike and that
science is "a universal abstract" devoid of personality and
While many of the morning's speakers testified that the problems are
understood and all that is needed is to implement solutions, David Shaw
of D.E. Shaw and Co. argued that this is "not true," and that
more evidence is needed on what methods, tools and curricula work in
the classroom. He called for greater investment in educational research,
especially for "empirical, randomized, controlled trials"
that he acknowledged are "very expensive." Robert Tinker of
the Concord Consortium agreed that applied education research is underfunded,
and said that the biggest gains will come from expensive, large-scale
research trials. Gerald Wheeler of the National Science Teachers Association
(NSTA) called for NSF-funded education programs to focus more on scalability
to larger numbers of teachers and students; sustainability after grant
funding runs out; better success indicators and progress models; and
ensuring teacher science content knowledge. While teachers need help
in knowing how to teach and how students learn, he said, the "biggest
hole in the dyke of science education reform" is teacher content
knowledge. Wheeler also commented that when the National Science Education
Standards were issued, NSTA polled its members about the biggest barriers
they faced in teaching, and the top three responses were lack of time,
isolation, and lack of meaningful professional development. He added
that another factor is parental attitudes toward the importance of science
education, which he felt had declined since the Sputnik era.
Subsequent National Science Board hearings on this topic will be held
in Boulder, CO and Los Angeles, CA in the new year.