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N.S.F. Urged To Assert Itself in Push To Improve Education

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Washington--A Congressionally mandated study of the National Science Foundation's precollegiate-education programs has concluded that the agency could play a lead role in the drive to improve science education in the schools.

But the pricetag for such leadership, the report says, would be substantial.

"The nsf clearly has the potential to be the national leader of efforts to improve K-12 science education," said Michael S. Knapp, co-director of the $1.6-million study. But to do so, he said, the agency will need to develop a more aggressive4plan of action that better targets resources.

Constraints on existing programs in the foundation's science- and engineering-education directorate, Mr. Knapp said, have meant that "other opportunities ... are simply ignored."

The two-volume report, prepared by sri International, a California-based research firm, was released last month.

Its basic conclusion is that the nsf can best serve science and society by enlarging the pool of students who are interested in and competent at science. And to do that, it recommends that the foundation take steps to improve course content and instruction, strengthen the teaching8force, and influence the educational "infrastructure."

The report's authors estimate that, to implement their recommendations, the nsf would have to invest an additional $600 million to $800 million over the next five years--more than twice what it spent on precollegiate education during the past five years.

Erich Bloch, the nsf's director, said the foundation would take the report into consideration as it develops its budget for fiscal 1989.

But whether or not the recommendations are implemented, said Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, director of the nsf's education directorate, will depend on how much money theel10lCongress is willing to provide.

"The levels of funding called for are quite in keeping with what the magnitude of the problem is," Mr. Shakhashiri said in an interview. "Programmatic approaches don't mean anything unless we have funding levels to deal with them."

Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, praised the report for stressing that the foundation's efforts should be directed at broadening the pool of science learners.

"That's a terribly important point," he said. "That's what the nsf should be doing, rather than 'skimming the cream,' the model followed by the foundation for years."

Mr. Aldridge added that his association was planning to send copies of the report's 60-page summary to 42,000 science teachers, along with a questionnaire asking them what they think of the recommendations.

Broadening the Pool

The study was designed to help the foundation develop a plan for rebuilding its science-education program, which was reinstated in 1983, a year after it had been eliminated for budgetary reasons.

A second part of the study, expected to be completed by February, will provide the foundation with methods for evaluating its science-education programs. The researchers presented a preliminary overview of their findings at the nsta's annual convention in March.

At the time, they stressed that broadening the base of science learners should take precedence over providing opportunities for the most able students as the nsf's primary mandate at the K-12 level.

"All kids, whether or not they go into the [science] pipeline, need a high-school-level interest in science and technology, as well as an ability to look at things scientifically," said Marian S. Stearns, co-director of the study.

The report identifies 10 general "opportunities" the nsf should explore to improve course content and instruction; strengthen the professional community, especially the teaching force; and influence state education agencies, publishers, and other parts of the education "infrastructure."

For example, it says, the foundation could help reconceptualize K-12 mathematics curricula, by investing in comprehensive curriculum development, supporting efforts to set standards for the math-education community, and developing new software for math instruction.

The foundation has already made a start in curricular reform, Ms. Stearns noted. But it has not yet pursued other opportunities, she said, such as improving science and math testing and seeking to influence state-level education reforms.

In addition to citing opportunities for improvement, the report urges the foundation to maintain support for certain "core functions," such as fostering professional interchange and building a base of information on science education.

Overarching Strategy

To ensure that its initiatives contribute to the long-term goal of broadening the pool of learners, the nsf should have an overarching strategy for investment, the report concludes. It should either stress incremental improvements, or encourage fundamental change.

"If they choose the incremental-improvements strategy, that doesn't mean they don't do exciting models," said Ms. Stearns. "It means their main new investments, the major part of their programs, should be aimed at achieving the strategy. They can't do that if they spread their funds too widely."

Though both strategies would require doubling the amount spent on precollegiate programs over the past five years, President Reagan has pledged to double the nsf's budget by 1992. Copies of the report are available free of charge from sri International, Room B-S142, 333 Ravenswood Ave., Menlo Park, Calif. 94025.

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