N.S.F. Shifts Effort to Lower Grades, But Budget Maneuver Trims Its Scope
Washington--The National Science Foundation has announced plans to spend up to half of its $82 million in science-education funds this year and in fiscal 1986 on projects that strengthen the teaching and learning of science and mathematics in middle and elementary schools.
The "special focus" marks a shift in the foundation's precollegiate science-education program, which previously concentrated on the high school.
The increased focus on younger students is the first major initiative of the agency's new assistant director for science and engineering education, Bassam Z. Shakhashiri.
Mr. Shakhashiri, who came to the nsf last June from the Institute for Chemical Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the foundation decided to make a special effort in the lower grades, "because those are the years where the attitudes of preadolescents begin to develop, where opinions begin to harden. We want to make sure that students have a good exposure to science and mathematics so they don't get turned off at an early age."
Funding Problem Seen
That shift in focus is being applauded by members of the scientific community. But last week, in the wake of the Administration's budget proposals for fiscal 1986, some also said that the foundation's proposed fiscal 1985 and 1986 budgets for science education mask a cut of about $63 million in actual spending.
The genesis of that cut goes back to the first two years of the Reagan Administration, when officials abolished the science- and engineering-education directorate, which is responsible for precollegiate education, and tried to eliminate the nsf's precollege science-education program altogether. The foundation re-established the directorate in fiscal 1984 under pressure from the Congress. Mr. Shakhashiri joined the staff this summer to rebuild what was by then an ailing program.
The directorate had shrunk in size from 82 members to 20 members. In fiscal 1984, it failed to spend $31.5 million of the $75 million appropriated by the Congress because it could not find projects of sufficiently high quality and because the budget was too large for its small staff to handle, nsf officials said.
The Congress reluctantly allowed the nsf to carry over the funds into fiscal 1985 on the condition that the foundation spend the money this year, in addition to $82 million in newly appropriated funds.
But the nsf is now proposing to defer spending the $31.5 million until fiscal 1986. Although the proposed budget includes $82 million again in fiscal 1986--the same as would be spent this year--only $50.5 million of that would be new money for science education.
nsf officials say they are proposing the deferral because of constraints placed on the budget by the federal deficit.
According to Mr. Shakhashiri, there have been "fluctuations" and "a lot of turbulence" within the directorate in the past few years, in both the size of the staff and the availability of funds. "I think it's important to try to have stability and continuity in the program," he said. "Having the same available resources in both fiscal years is a step in the right direction."
"Of course, if we had more funds and more staff, we could do more things," he added.
Science educators noted last week that if the Congress approves the proposed nsf budget, it would really mean a total loss of $63 million in new money for science education.
Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said it amounts to the "biggest cut" in the entire foundation. And Congressional aides said the issue will undoubtedly come up in hearings on the nsf budget scheduled for February and April.
"Congress is always upset at deferrals," said one staff member. "When we pass a budget, that's what we mean to have spent. And this deferral is not based on programmatic considerations ... but on fiscal-policy considerations. To that extent, it is the Administration saying, 'We don't like your increase.' It is very much a policy dispute."
The nsf's total budget request for fiscal 1986 is $1.57 billion, or 4.4 percent above the fiscal 1985 level of $1.50 billion. That figure includes a 7-percent increase--to $1.40 billion--for research and related activities, and an 8-percent increase--to $120 million--for the U.S. Antarctic Program.
Creating an Agenda
The nsf's special focus on middle- and elementary-school children is part of a larger effort by Mr. Shakhashiri to engage in long-range planning for the science-education program and to create more systematic criteria for the kinds of proposals that the foundation would welcome.
In the past, the foundation pri3marily has responded to individual proposals instead of developing a specific programmatic area in which to grant funds. Mr. Shakhashiri said the foundation is not attempting to diminish its focus on the high school or to exclude unsolicited proposals.
"We still welcome those," he said. "In fact, we invite those. But we're trying to provide some coherence, some identity to the various programs."
Capitalize on Curiosity
According to the nsf, recent studies have emphasized the need for more attention to curriculum in the middle and early grades.
Patricia E. Nicely, a senior staff associate with the directorate, noted that while young children have great natural curiosity about the world around them, many elementary-school teachers are not well trained in science and are not comfortable answering their students' questions. In particular, she said, teachers are inexperienced at engaging students in "hands-on" science and mathematics experiments.
Most states, she noted, do not require more than one college-level science course for a prospective elementary-school teacher.
For fiscal 1986, the foundation plans to spend $22.7 million for materials and development research, $25 million for teacher enhancement and informal science education, and $2 million for studies and program assessments that emphasize work on national statistical indicators, data bases, and models for use in precollege science and mathematics planning.
Up to half the funds in the first two categories will be spent on projects for middle- and elementary-school students and teachers. The foundation also plans to focus on improving opportunities for women, minorities, and physically handicapped teachers.
Because the foundation has limited money compared to the total budget spent on science education at the federal, state, and local levels, it plans to emphasize model programs that can be replicated by others, Ms. Nicely said.
The directorate is also considering the development of science and mathematics "labs" or "institutes," similar to those sponsored by the National Institute of Education. "We are still considering that," said Ms. Nicely, "some kind of national institutes and regional centers for teacher training. But we're not going to do the full-blown activities as we had thought of them in terms of initiatives, because of the budget constraints."
Mr. Shakhashiri said the laboratory idea really represents the directorate's interest in establishing networks of scientists and educators to revitalize the teaching of science at all levels. But he added that the development of such networks takes time.
He is also particularly interested in maximizing the benefits of private-sector involvement in science.
"We would like to see proposals coming in that have significant contributions from the private sector," he said, "so that the projects the nsf funds are sustained after nsf funding has shifted to other projects. We're very much interested in establishing these collaborations,6these partnerships, between institutions of higher education, between local and state education agencies, and the private sector. And we're just about ready to start making plans for making these activities effective."
Last week, the directorate hired Dr. Fred Oettle, a former executive of the du Pont Company, to act as a liaison with private industry and other community organizations. Ms. Nicely said revised guidelines for grant proposals, which should be published in April, will make clear that proposals that involve partnerships and the participation of a number of groups at the local and state levels "will be given some preference."
Creating Order Under Fire
Mr. Shakhashiri admitted that he has been under "enormous pressures'' since coming to the foundation, but said he came to exercise some leadership in a "very important area."
"It's always more difficult to rebuild than it is to dismantle," he noted, "but we've made a lot of progress, and I hope that in the next six months we can double the progress that we've made."
Outsiders concede that to date, Mr. Shakhashiri has done an admi-rable job. "I think he's trying very hard; he's trying energetically," said F. James Rutherford, chief education officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "It's very difficult to come into a bombed-out enterprise."
Mr. Aldridge said, "He's one of the best people they've had in there in a long time."
Mr. Shakhashiri has brought the directorate's staff back up to 50 members. And he has conducted a major reorganization, dividing the precollegiate division into "manageable units," according to Ms. Nicely. He has also formed a new, 20-member advisory committee, headed by Kenneth M. Hoffman, a professor of mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The directorate's current budget for science-education comes from the Education for Economic Security Act passed last summer by the Congress. The act authorized more than $400 million for science education, but only $82 million of that went to the nsf Another $100 million went to the Education Department for grants to state and local agencies.
Approximately $10 million of that money will be awarded at the discre-tion of the new Secretary of Education, William J. Bennett. A list of priorities for those grants was published in the Jan. 22 Federal Register.
Priorities include curriculum development, exemplary teacher-inservice and retraining methods that use new or existing technologies, and projects designed to improve and strengthen the skills of elementary- and secondary-school teachers in the use of technology for classroom instruction. Mr. Bennett could choose to alter those priorities.
States will receive nearly $90 million under the Education Department's grants. The money will be distributed beginning next month according to a statutory formula based on the number of school-age children in each state between the ages of 5 and 17. The state may reserve up to 20 percent of the funds for state use. The rest, it distributes to local educational agencies according to state-devised criteria.
The act requires that states use 70 percent of that money to train precollege teachers and improve instructional materials in mathematics, science, foreign languages, and computer learning. The remaining 30 percent will be available for institutions of higher learning to train or retrain precollege teachers in those areas.