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N.S.F. Weighing Grants To Assist Systemic Reform

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Washington--Concerned that its current strategies have failed to promote large-scale, lasting improvements in science and mathematics education, the National Science Foundation is considering a new plan to play a "visible and forceful role" in states' and cities' efforts to achieve systemic school reforms.

The proposal is contained in a draft document submitted to top agency officials last week. If approved, it could take effect as early as this year.

Under the plan, the nsf would provide grants to cities or states that are undertaking comprehensive projects to reform all components of schooling, including curricular content, teacher preparation, school structure and governance, and the allocation of time and resources.

Such funds, agency officials noted last week, could also serve as "risk capital" for other districts considering similar reforms.

"Schools, policymakers, and sources of funding have failed to do the job that needs to be done in science and math," said David W. Hornbeck, the former superintendent of education in Maryland, who serves on the advisory committee for the nsf's science- and engineering-education directorate. "It is imperative that there be new leadership."

"As the premier agency at the federal level in science and math education," Mr. Hornbeck said, "it is entirely appropriate that the nsf provide leadership in this way."

David H. Florio, a program director and policy analyst in the education directorate, said the initiatives would not replace the foundation's current emphasis on sponsoring demonstration projects and training individual teachers, but would make the existing programs more effective.

"We may be having tremendous success in raising the scientific knowledge of teachers," he said. "But if the school structure remains the way it is now, these teachers will have little opportunity to use this knowledge or share it with others."

In preliminary discussions, Mr. Florio said, agency officials and the directorate's advisory committee have expressed support for the plan. But some officials have questioned whether the nsf's $109-million budget for precollegiate education is sufficient to fund the necessary changes, he added.

In the coming months, officials expect to refine their plans to ensure maximum effectiveness for the federal funds, according to Mr. Florio.

"Congress could quadruple our budget, and we couldn't fund [reform projects in] the 50 largest districts," he said. "But we could have a major impact on systems committed to change anyway."

Largely at the urging of the Congress, the nsf has over the past few years re-examined its role in improving science education.

A Congressionally mandated study in 1987, prepared by the California-based research firm sri International, urged the foundation to take the lead in making "strategic investments" to broaden the pool of students with a basic interest in and understanding of science.

In addition, the agency has developed annual strategic plans that call for a greater emphasis on improving access to high-quality science programs for women and minority and handicapped students.

In the draft statement outlining the proposed new initiatives, foundation officials noted that the nsf's current programs have had limited success in achieving these goals.

"Many demonstration or pilot projects have a positive effect on learners," it states. "However, few of these demonstrations have traveled well, and examples of large-scale, long-term improvements in program quality are rare."

For example, noted Mr. Florio, attempts to train teachers in ways to teach "authentic," hands-on science have been impeded by school schedules that offer little opportunity for laboratory experimentation.

"We want to do real, authentic science," he said. "But that doesn't lend itself to 38-minute periods with five minutes for set-up and five minutes for clean-up."

"In order to pull it off," he added, "you can't change one piece, you have to change the whole thing--textbooks, tests, evaluation, the way school is organized, and staff development."

In seeking ways to achieve such changes, agency officials have proposed developing the initiatives with states and urban school systems attempting to institute systemic reforms.

By working with large cities with high concentrations of minority students, Mr. Florio said, the foundation could attain its goal of increasing access for underrepre4sented groups.

At the same time, noted Mr. Hornbeck, state governments, which have emerged as "crucial players" in education reform over the past decade, could help the dissemination of nsf-developed exemplary projects.

The foundation could also play a key role in effecting systemic reforms, said Mr. Florio, because of its strong ties to the scientific community. Support from that sector is essential for success, he said.

"We're hoping to bring them into the fray," he said. "We hope to get their intellectual support and energy to help schools think through these changes."

Under the draft plan, the agency would target either the 100 largest urban districts, or the largest districts in each state, and provide grants to encourage systemic reforms.

Such grants could include development or challenge grants to support systemwide reforms, or smaller grants supporting "key projects," such as leadership academies, curricular reform, or student-assessment redesign.

The plan proposes that the foundation provide similar grants to state governments as well.

Whatever initiatives the nsf undertakes, Mr. Florio said, will have development costs and technical assistance funded by the agency. The state and local governments would support the operation of the reform projects.

"It is unlikely we'll pay operating costs," the official said. "With soft money, when the money goes away, the program goes away."

Mr. Florio stressed, however, that the foundation's grants might provide the boost necessary to get new projects started.

"Our precollegiate-education budget could fit within the budget of some urban school systems," he said. "But when you look at discretionary money, they have almost none."

"It doesn't take a huge amount of money for a system that really wants to change," he maintained.

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