Published Online:

The Process of Change: Figuring Out Who Is Responsible For What

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

A bill to provide states, schools, and colleges with $425 million for innovations in mathematics and science next year is advancing in the U.S. Congress. Four national studies of education have focused public attention on the decline in achievement in those subjects and the urgent need for major reforms. In nearly all the states, projects to increase the supply of teachers, raise standards, and upgrade materials have begun or are being discussed. Schools--some assisted by foundations, private business, or federal funds--are initiating programs to redirect disinterested students toward the study of mathematics and science.

This multiplicity of activity comes in response to a rapidly emerging national consensus that continued neglect of mathematics and science in the nation's schools poses a serious threat to America's economic and military security and could undermine the effectiveness of the democratic process.

As efforts to address the problem proliferate, however, so do public-policy questions: How much math and science should a student know and why? Who decides what needs to be done and how best to proceed? How much will it cost to solve the problem? And who will pay? Can the problem of math and science education be addressed effectively without simultaneously confronting the larger--and some say far more urgent and difficult--questions about the goals and standards of the education system in its entirety? Are we, in the words of Paul deHart Hurd of Stanford University, trying to "reconstruct a house before we have a blueprint?"

Certainly, those who study the field agree, the issues of responsibility and authority in the formulation of public policy in education are made more difficult by the diversity of the nation's educational system, by its inherent complexity, and by the American tradition that gives the local community the right to decide who is taught what by whom.

"The problem," says Phillip W. Jackson of the University of Chicago, "is so large and multi-faceted that responsibility for remedying or even addressing it cannot fall on any single agency or group; it's just too large for that. We need professional concern, governmental concern, public concern."

"There's a great deal of clarity and of goals. But when you talk about the means ..., the silence is deafening," says Theodore Sizer, who is completing a study of high schools.

Many of those concerned with mathematics and science reform are searching for answers in the "lessons" gleaned from the nation's response to Sputnik in late 1950's and the 1960's.

Gerald Holton of Harvard University maintains that the nation would do well to imitate the post-Sputnik period.

At that time, "nobody waited for someone else to make the first step," he says. "The academics came in even before Sputnik and offered their services, teachers were ready to lay aside their summers, school districts increased their financing. A great many things happened at the same time without a causal chain establishing itself throughout the system."

But the post-Sputnik programs were spurred on by what Michael Kirst of Stanford University calls the "catalytic effect" of federal funds. Given the broader concern today--for increased knowledge of science and mathematics for all students--some say the need for federal efforts is even more critical.

THE FEDERAL ROLE

School and state representatives have consistently emphasized their inability to initiate programs in an era of fiscal constraints. "The persistent recession, federal program changes, and budget cuts, along with self-imposed tax and spending limitations, continue to threaten the financial security of many states and local school systems," Dr. Joan M. Parent, president of the National School Boards Association, told a House subcommittee.

Those who favor large-scale federal involvement have been supported by the Democratic Presidential candidates, each of whom has proposed a multi-billion-dollar package of educational programs that includes some emphasis on improving mathematics and science.

The contrary view--that improvements must occur on lower levels--is espoused principally by Reagan Administration officials and other conservatives.

"Local officials are the ones who pay most of the bills and govern the school district. It is at the local level where progress will be made," Mr. Reagan said this summer in California.

"We can have national problems that don't have national solutions," insists Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. "We can have tailored solutions that are cut and sewn at the state, local, and sometimes classroom levels."

As the debate intensifies at the highest levels, the National Science Foundation--the agency principally responsible for the post-Sputnik reforms--has returned to its former role. With $15 million this year, and more than triple that amount next year, it is reinstituting curriculum-development programs and teacher-training institutes.

The value of such a federal role is almost universally recognized; even the Reagan Administration recently put its support behind the effort.

Those who recall the former projects caution, however, that certain elements of the agenda must be fashioned differently.

As Mr. Holton puts it, "We know now what to do and what not to do." The curriculum, he and others say, must be geared more toward average students. Classroom teachers--along with scientists and teachers-of-teachers--should assist in the development of curricula.

In science, emphasis on "pure science" must give way to including real-world applications. In mathematics, emphasis must be placed on higher-order, inferential skills, including introductions to the principles of statistics. Most important, the experts say, the projects must be "marketed" more aggressively, toward the pre-eminent goal of encouraging classroom use.

"Before," says Mr. Jackson, "the National Science Foundation tried to 'end-run' the educational establishment. [The establishment] responded by sabotaging the efforts by refusing to use them. Another problem was that some of the designers understood nothing about the complexities that surround curriculum choice and textbook adoption by the schools."

"We've learned a lot from that earlier work," acknowledges Robert Watson, who is spearheading some of the new efforts at the science agency. "We will try to move the materials into the private sector as fast as possible."

Another important federal role, in Mr. Kirst's view, is what he calls the "megaphone effect" of Congressional hearings, speeches by high government officals, and symbolic efforts such as the new Presidential awards program for teachers.

State leaders, he says, "tend to look for what's hot and what's needed. What goes through the federal megaphone seeps into their consciences. It's been very constructive in getting attention paid to math and science and in the push for excellence in the schools."

A third federal role--in coordination--is being considered by the federal Commission on Precollege Education in Science, Mathematics, and Technology. The commission, which is scheduled to complete its study of the nation's needs this fall, is expected to recommend the creation of a series of advisory panels. The panels, on the state, local, and national levels, would "guide progress" by "developing, coordinating, and implementing" improvement plans, according to an early draft.

That concept is not without opponents. When, asks Mr. Finn, does "coordination" become "control?"

Nevertheless, Herbert J. Walberg of University of Illinois, who has studied the educational systems of other industrialized nations--where national curriculum systems and centralized educational bureaucracies exist--contends that some kind of national system is necessary.

"Without a national curriculum or ministry of education, there's a definite cost to the efficiency of learning. Favorable arguments could be made for having this dispersed system. And having money come from all levels gives a good mix and balance. We may not have a national ministry, but we can have national leadership."

That role is applauded by Mr. Hurd of Stanford. "The federal government," he says, "is in the best position to bring together the talent to put together the conceptual framework on what a science education should be [at the precollege level]."

STATE AND LOCAL ROLES

State governments have become what some have described as the "fulcrum" of the reform effort.

"States are the suns around which all these other things revolve," says Mr. Finn. "They supply the lion's share of the money, bear the primary constitutional responsibility for providing education, and have the level of political leadership that is far enough away from the schools to keep from worrying about 'Miss Jones' and yet close enough to the schools to have a sense of what they need. "

"It lies within the power of the state to set standards, find out how to motivate and compensate teachers, administer programs, and define what's taught," says Lewis M. Branscomb, chairman of the National Science Board.

Improving education, says the report of the Task Force on Education for Economic Growth, "is indeed a national challenge, and it justifies national leadership and a national response. But important national commitments ... not only trickle down; they also bubble up."

The most important role for states in improving mathematics and science, according to many of those interviewed, lies in their development of general school-improvement efforts. Such statewide projects have begun in 23 states, according to data compiled by the Task Force on Education for Economic Growth.

But innovation is expensive, and state budgets are so gripped by revenue shortfalls that the National Governors' Association labeled 1983 ''the bleakest year ever," in which "almost every state has initiated austerity measures."

What's more, says Mr. Sizer, localized improvements are crucial to real change. "Everybody's got to start from where they are, and a lot starts with the schools. The important things about education," he maintains, "take place at the lowest level."

Mr. Sizer acknowledges nonetheless that "to do things locally will be painful. And the education lobbies are afraid that states will take general aid and put it on mathematics and science. There's a real fear of shifting funds around, robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Some observers of the intergovernmental system say that reform will be enhanced because the relationship between the state and federal governments has improved considerably during the past 20 years; others identify new tensions that are being created between states and local school systems.

Two recent, federally supported studies have confirmed the emergence of a state-federal "partnership" role--what some observers call a sense of "shared responsibility."

Mr. Kirst participated in a recent federally supported study, conducted by the research firm sri International, that found that the federal initiatives of the past 20 years--initially opposed or distrusted by the states--"settled in over time."

The research determined that "the tension [between the levels of government] has gone down some, and over time they have gotten used to the tension," he says.

A similar federally funded study, by the Educational Policy Research Institute, found "no significant general intergovernmental conflict between the states and the federal government." It calls the federal-state relationship "robust and diverse."

The mathematics-and-science reform effort will be the focus of even more cooperation because "everybody wants math and science improvement," Mr. Kirst says. "A lot of the tension created earlier was a result of the federal government mandating what states didn't want."

On the other hand, Mr. Sizer believes that tensions are growing between states and school systems, particularly in states that have mandated minimum-competency tests or, more recently, in those that have increased graduation requirements in specific academic areas, such as mathematics and science.

Increasing requirements, a school-improvement tool used by a growing number of states in lieu of drastic increases in spending for education, will result in "a bone-jarring shortage" of qualified teachers, he says.

And a task force of educators in Florida, where the legislature recently mandated three years of mathematics and science, found teacher shortages to be only one result.

The task force concluded that the requirements will result in a dilution of curriculum and teaching standards and an increase in drop-out rates. As many as 1,500 more teachers and $27 million for facilities will be needed, it estimated. Responsibility for determining academic-subject requirements in Florida previously was left up to local districts.

In addition, evidence that raising requirements does not necessarily result in improved achievement comes from studies by the National Center for Education Statistics (nces) and the Illinois education department.

The nces examined school-district records and policies, finding that the correlation between academic requirements and achievement was inconclusive. Illinois education officials--in response to legislative proposals to shift authority for academic requirements from the districts to the state level--compared similar factors using state data and came to similar conclusions.

Mr. Sizer says he also objects to state academic mandates because they interfere with the principles of local control. "I'm very disturbed about the willingness of legislatures to become school boards," he says. "I would prefer that state governments put a great deal of emphasis on goal-setting and stayed out of the means."

A more critical state role, according to many of those interviewed, is the training and motivation of teachers.

"The federal government can best do curriculum development, and states would do best to train and retrain teachers," says Mr. Kirst, who is the former president of the California state board of education.

In addition, Mr. Walberg says that states should create "incentives," such as merit pay, for teachers to raise student test scores. Specifically with regard to mathematics and science reform, he advocates "incentives for teachers to use the National Science Foundation's new curriculum projects."

NON-GOVERNMENTAL ROLES

The participation of parents, business officials, and, especially, teachers, in guiding, challenging, and supporting school improvement is said to be one of the most important components in revitalizing mathematics and science education.

"We have to get a new coalition of people, including parents, scientists, engineers, and other people of good will to bring about change,'' says Mr. Hurd. "Parents have lost faith in schools. They need to help build a good supportive environment for teachers."

"Attitude change" is the main issue, says Mr. Jackson of the University of Chicago.

"I don't know how you accomplish it," he adds, "but I know there have been times when the total level of respect for and concern about educational matters was higher than it is today."

Mr. Sizer points out that the diverse structure of educational governance makes imperative the participation by non-governmental groups in local school issues. "This call for national leadership we've been hearing is really a code word for saying, 'We don't know what we need to do to get from here to there, but if somebody does, they should sound off,"' he says.

Ronald Preston, a science-education staff member of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, maintains that while higher levels of government grapple with "things that cost a lot of money, such as giving teachers decent salaries and upgrading facilities," others should focus on "intangibles" that have a great effect on learning.

One issue that rightly concerns parents, he says, is, "With more and more money going into school systems each year on the local, state, and federal level, why has education gotten worse?"

He lists "lessening standards, lessening expectations, easier textbooks, the requirements down, faddishness, television, less homework." And he adds: "The best way to affect those is a lot of discussion and increased public awareness."

Teachers, those interviewed emphasize, are right to demand higher salaries. But, says Mr. Walberg, they should also advocate "lengthening the school year, mastery-learning programs, small-group learning, more homework."

"I know of 15 studies," he says, "that found that doing homework confers an enormous benefit to learning. And if homework is graded or commented upon, it's doubly effective."

Adds Mr. Sizer: "Requiring kids to take the courses gets them in the room, but it doesn't do much else. Ultimately, the most critical player is the individual teacher."

The increasing involvement of businesses in the schools is said likely to confer benefits on students and teachers alike. Business leaders, for example, have already participated in studies that bemoan the low salaries paid to teachers. And business-school cooperation, according to one corporate official, can also help teachers understand--and communicate to their students--the applications of learning.

"I believe that if parents and youngsters were told, if you have stronger training in math and science, you will have a much better chance of succeeding economically in your career, that will have a strong influence," says Owen Butler, chairman of the board of the Proctor and Gamble Company.

But Mr. Butler notes that he is wary about becoming involved in quick-fix solutions "before we're sure where the problems are." He is chairman of a subcommittee of the Committee for Economic Development, a consortium of 200 firms, that is conducting a study to determine how business can be most effective in school improvement.

The mathematics and science reform movement, and the school-reform movement of which it is a part, are viewed as necessarily long-term, painful, and contentious processes.

"I long ago gave up the hope of seeing sudden and dramatic changes in the schools," says Mr. Jackson. "I would ultimately like to see a very dramatic one in the long haul. But what was not understood [25 years ago] was that change of this magnitude could not be effected overnight with just the help of the scientific community and money. That's far too simple an expectation."

What must occur, those interviewed say, is a series of interdependent actions, initiated by independent levels of governance, as well as by the public. If the federal government develops teaching materials, will school districts adapt their curriculum plans to suit them? If states mandate more mathematics and science teaching, will they provide financial incentives to attract motivated individuals to fill the necessary positions? If teachers make greater academic demands on students, will parents oversee homework?

E. Alden Dunhan, a program officer of the Carnegie Corporation of New York--which is considering a long-term project to "keep the nation's feet to the fire"--says the likelihood that fundamental changes will occur is almost certain.

The corporation's officials, he says, have been discussing with other national leaders the possibility of creating a commission, supported by foundations, businesses, and governmental officials, that would take a leadership role "for at least a 10-year period in order to bring about the needed reforms."

"Educators," he says, "have the greatest opportunity in history to do something significant, with the leadership that is being provided by top business leaders, governors, Presidential candidates. The problem in the past was that education always set up its own agendas. Now there exists this extraordinarily powerful alliance."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented