Science Panel's Work Elicits Praise but Uncertainty on Costs
Washington--Education leaders and policymakers are praising the science-education report issued last week by the National Science Board for its "clearly defined" and "substantive" recommendations.
But there was some evidence last week--in the terse statement by a White House official and in the suggestion by one official that the report's multi-billion-dollar recommendations took the Education Department by surprise--that the executive branch was not quite prepared to offer similar praise.
Most observers agreed that it is too early to judge whether the recommendations will make their way into either the Reagan Administration's or the Congress's budget considerations for upcoming fiscal years, or whether the $6.5-billion, 12-year program could get off the ground during an era of tight budgets. (See Education Week, Sept. 14, 1983.)
At its Sept. 15 meeting, the National Science Board voted to accept the report. Such a vote, however, does not imply that the report is now the foundation's official policy.
Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell was preparing a response to the report, but as of Sept. 15, the statement had not yet been released.
As of late last week, George Keyworth, President Reagan's science adviser, was the only White House official to comment on the report. "By adding to the consensus that serious problems exist, this nsb commission's report can be a useful reminder to the nation that we have much to do before this problem turns around," Mr. Keyworth said in a statement.
"The Administration is receptive to recommendations for improving science and mathematics education, and the nsb commission's findings will be taken into consideration," the science adviser said.
But knowledgeable observers suggested last week that the report may be more than a "useful reminder." They cite several of its components as important contributions to the debate on how to improve science, mathematics, and technology education.
Among the key points of the report, they suggest, are its inclusion of estimates of cost, its attention to the mechanisms--including levels of responsibility--needed to put the recommendations into effect, and its emphasis on elementary education.
In their official reactions, the two major teachers' organizations praised many recommendations in the report but reiterated their doubts about the use of differential salaries for science and math teachers.
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The report is "truly unique" in laying out a practical plan that could, if put into effect, remedy the deficiencies in science and mathematics education, said Lewis M. Branscomb, chairman of the National Science Board and chief scientist for the International Business Machines Corporation.
Mr. Branscomb pointed also to the report's attention to the role of the primary schools, "which has been somewhat ignored," he said, by other commissions.
"I like the report," said Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences and science advisor to President Carter. "I think they did the unexpected, and they added a new dimension to the current debate, namely specific recommendations." The discussion is "at the stage where we have to go to specific programs, and this kicks the ball off. That's a very positive contribution," Mr. Press said.
"I think it's an excellent report," said Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. Mr. Aldridge said the estimated costs set forth by the science group for the major elements in the 12-year proposal seemed "realistic"--or, in some cases, too high. He added that the "investment" would have substantial educational and economic payoffs.
"It did one stunning thing, which is make an effort to estimate what kind of funds would be involved," said F. James Rutherford, chief education officer for the American Asso-ciation for the Advancement of Science. "Whether one agrees with the arithmetic, what it says is that to do any sort of a decent job, it will take a substantial federal effort, even though most of the costs are on state and local levels. That was an important step."
Senator Jake Garn, Republican of Utah and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a short statement following the commission's briefing for Congress: "It's a very thorough job. It's specific, it's candid. Whether people will like it and do anything with it is another thing."
Mr. Rutherford also noted that the commission's recommendation that the President appoint a council on educational financing was an important step toward resolving the troublesome question of financial responsibility. Without a deeper understanding of the dynamics of education funding, he suggested, it will be difficult to build a program of self-sustaining excellence.
In its briefings for members of Congress and the press, the commission stressed that the federal role was primarily one of leadership; despite substantial federal dollars, the primary responsibility for improving science and mathematics education would fall on states and localities, the commission members said.
"They recognize that education is a local matter, but in certain instances, there are historical precedents" for federal initiatives, said Mr. Press. "I think that the federal government is not taking over local responsibility but taking a leadership role.
"It's a good compromise, that education is local but federal leadership can play a role," he continued. "In any case, whether you agree or not, you have specific recommendations and that's always a useful starting point."
The National Education Association (nea) described the report as "an excellent blueprint for educational progress."
Mary Hatwood Futrell, nea president, said in a statement: "The nea agrees wholeheartedly with the commission's emphasis on building a strong and lasting commitment to science in the schools--and backing that commitment with federal dollars."
"I think one of the strong things about the report is that it points to an important federal role," Mr. Rutherford said. "My guess is that it is not what they set out to do, but it came out that way, and they said so."
Many observers suggested last week that it is too early to speculate on the extent to which the federal government can, or will, assume the role outlined for it in the report. Several noted that the legislation now pending in Congress is too far along to be influenced by the report.
Mr. Aldridge suggested, however, that if the Senate approves the bill that is expected to reach the floor within the month, a conference committee could conceivably work out a final bill that incorporated at least some of the recommendations. The funding level for the Senate science-education bills stands at $425 mil-lion; the House has passed a $400-million version.
Ronald Preston, an aide to Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, who sponsored the Senate science-education bill, said such a compromise measure struck him as highly unlikely.
Mr. Preston suggested it was also unlikely that the Reagan Administration would approve a science-education package that cost $1.5 billion during its first year. "Anything like that, the President would surely veto," he said. "It would have to pass by an overwhelming majority."
Others, however, were reserving judgement. "I can't predict how the Administration response will go," Mr. Press said. "It's not an enormous sum of money on the scale of things; the federal education budget is much larger than that and the national interest at the highest levels, in terms of politics as well as government, is clear."
Mr. Rutherford noted that the prospects for the federal government's "picking up the whole thing ... are pretty slim in this Administration. Maybe they would be in anybody's Administration for the moment." Getting Administration support for the proposed level of funding, Mr. Rutherford suggested, will hinge on "building up public pressure."
"I don't know how the politicians will react to this one," he said. "At least it has some substance to it, and maybe it will turn the debate away from the empty things like merit pay. We don't really have to argue at the federal level how long the school day will be."