$80 Million N.S.F. Program To Spur Reforms Unveiled
Washington--In an ambitious effort to spur comprehensive changes in science and mathematics education, the National Science Foundation last week unveiled an $80-million initiative to assist states in developing "systemic" school reforms.
Under the plan, which is scheduled to get under way this fall, the foundation will award grants of up to $2 million a year for five years to as many as eight states. Depending on the success of the program, officials said, the agency may expand it in future years.
Erich Bloch, the nsf's director, said the program will be flexible, to allow states to meet their own needs. But, he said, participating states must present plans to overhaul the entire education system, including teacher preparation, retention, and continuing education; curriculum; student motivation; and facilities.
"We will look for comprehensive plans to improve statewide science and mathematics education significantly--not simply to tinker with the details," he said at a press conference here.
"We want to move beyond studies, and beyond planning in the abstract, to real action," he added.
Raymond Sheppach, executive director of the National Governors' Assocation, applauded the initiative and said it would help states move toward meeting the national education goals set by President Bush and the nga The first of those goals calls for making U.S. students first in the world in math and science achievement by 2000.
"The nsf is the first federal agency out of the box to move states forward toward education reform," Mr. Sheppach said. "It's positive. It will help our momentum."
Supplement, Not Supplant
The initiative, details of which are expected to be published in the Federal Register this month, is a variation on a proposal that had been discussed for more than a year within the agency and the advisory committee for its science- and engineering-education directorate. (See Education Week, April 26, 1989.)
When it was first proposed, agency officials and their advisers argued that the plan would help the nsf assert national leadership in efforts to turn around the country's well-documented problems in science and math education.
At the same time, they suggested, the plan would help the agency address a shortcoming of its existing programs: the lack of a comprehen8sive strategy for improvement.
In many cases, agency officials said, the nsf's curriculum-development and teacher-training efforts failed to make a lasting impact on science education because existing school structures have impeded their effectiveness.
Systemwide school reforms would help make improvements in science and math education more effective, Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, the nsf's assistant director for science and engineering education, said last week.
"You can't do science and math well if you can't read well, write well, or communicate well," he said.
But, he added, the new program will supplement, not supplant, the agency's existing efforts.
"We see this as complementing other concerns the nsf is engaged in and will continue to be engaged in," Mr. Shakhashiri said.
'As Broad as Possible'
Although the guidelines for the program have not yet been completed, Mr. Bloch stressed that they would be flexible enough to allow states to come up with creative solutions.
"We want to be as broad as possible, not as prescriptive as possible, in what we are asking states to consider," he said. "States can mold it to fit their own needs."
Nevertheless, Mr. Shakhashiri added, many states are likely to come up with similar ideas, since there are common problems in the field.
"The issues in science and math education have been studied for the past several years repeatedly," he said. "It isn't that states are going in so many different directions."
Where the proposals may differ, he added, will be in the areas states choose to target their efforts.
"Not all states will deal with all issues at once," he said. "One state may focus [initially] on K-6 math; another, on the preparation of middle-school science teachers; another, on high-quality materials for teaching introductory high-school biology."
Mr. Bloch added that states interested in the grants would have to signal their commitment to carrying out reforms by submitting a preliminary application--in effect, a "letter of intent"--before submitting a formal proposal. In addition, he said, the applications will be judged, in part, on the extent to which states can effect their proposed reforms.
To that end, he said, proposals must reflect a consensus of state officials, teachers, administrators, and parents on goals for improving education and strategies for meeting those goals.
Such consensus-building would be useful even in states whose grant applications are not accepted, he suggested.
For the states selected, Mr. Sheppach added, the agreement among such parties would build an "infrastructure" that would help ensure that the reforms stay in place after the nsf funding is phased out. He noted that similar coalitions helped sustain education reforms in states such as South Carolina and Tennessee after the governors who initiated them left office.
Mr. Bloch predicted that the nsf funding would serve as a "catalyst'' to encourage state coalition-building.
"Ultimately, however," he added, "the funds to support better schools will have to come from the states."
"But if we can achieve the catalytic effect that we are looking for," the director predicted, "the results will persist well past the end of nsf's involvement."
The deadline for preliminary proposals for the program is July 9; the deadline for formal proposals is Oct. 15. More information is available from Charles Eilber, Program Director, Statewide Initiatives Program, National Science Foundation, 1800 G St., N.W., Room 635, Washington, D.C. 20550; telephone: (202) 357-7751.