N.S.F. Initiative Emerges as 'Topic Number One' on State Agendas
In an unusual statewide broadcast earlier this year, Louisiana's public-television stations aired a program that featured segments on the role of part-time teachers in reforming mathematics and science instruction in the state and on its nationally recognized educators.
The telecast--and a similar, soon-to-be released public-service announcement--are part of a coordinated effort by the state's education department, its higher-education governing body, and legislative, community, and business leaders to redesign math and science curricula, change teacher certification procedures, and improve in-service education in those subjects.
Although the comprehensive strategy was developed to serve Louisiana's specific needs, the unprecedented cooperation that made it possible was due in large measure to a new National Science Foundation program called the Statewide Systemic Initiative.
"It is unique in the history of this state in untold numbers of ways,'' said Kerry Davidson, the deputy director of the state board of regents and the director of the Louisiana Systemic Initiative Program, "especially in terms of the various constituencies of this state being brought together for a common purpose.''
Under the terms of the widely acclaimed initiative, launched last summer, policymakers in 10 states have signed cooperative agreements with the N.S.F. that grant them wide latitude to craft long-range, localized reform strategies.
With the second round of cooperative agreements approved late last month by the National Science Board, observers suggested that the S.S.I. could signal a major change in the way the federal government supports reform in math and science teaching.
Such a change--from numerous small grants to individual investigators to large ones to state coalitions--may also be signaled by the recent agreement between the N.S.F. and the Education Department to pool their resources in support of reform, observers say.
"I think this is the model,'' said Janice Earle, the director of the S.S.I. program.
'Number One Topic'
The flexibility of the national program and its openness to a variety of reform strategies have generated intense interest.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, held a daylong session featuring the project's state coordinators during its recent annual meeting in Chicago.
"It's topic number one on the agenda in many, many states,'' said Lynn Glass, the president of the National Science Teachers Association, who, as a professor of science education at the University of Iowa, helped write two unsuccessful applications for the program.
Even though Iowa did not win a grant, Mr. Glass said, the cooperation the application process engendered among the various education, policymaking, and business entities in the state made the program "one of the best things that has happened [in math and science reform].''
The initiative also is serving as a national laboratory for experimenting with various reform strategies, participants said.
South Dakota, for example, is working to integrate the teaching of math and science from kindergarten to the college level to better address the particular needs of schools in the largely rural state.
"We have many schools where teachers are required to be self-sufficient,'' noted Katherine Pedersen, the director of the state program. "And there is a realization that preparing teachers to do either [just] science or mathematics is not appropriate to South Dakota's classrooms.''
And from that premise, she noted, flows many other aspects of the state's plans, including research into applying technology to teaching and the development of new methods of assessment.
"Once you make the decision for integrated mathematics and science, then you just are not talking about measuring the student's progress with 'bubble sheets,' '' she said.
Ohio, meanwhile, has chosen to focus on improving science education at the middle-school level, using its N.S.F. funding in conjunction with a grant from a Carnegie Corporation middle-schools project, to make science teaching more responsive to female and minority students, said Jane Butler Kahle, the principle investigator for the Ohio systemic initiative. The effort includes developing new curricula and instructional methods.
The state chose to focus its math- and science-reform efforts on the middle school for several reasons, including the fact that "it's the key point in the pipeline'' when many students, particularly those in the program's target populations, lose interest in science, she said.
"And if you look at curriculum materials in this country, they are not particularly encouraging at any level, but they're worst at the middle-school level,'' she added.
In Florida, meanwhile, the N.S.F. funding will help revitalize an existing effort to reform K-6 science teaching, said Pamela Engler, who is coordinating the program for the Florida Department of Education.
"What we're promoting is the use of Florida's environment as a living laboratory, a laboratory in which science is applied to solve the problems,'' she said. The S.S.I. funding will help the state develop model programs and to make changes across the board to help implement the program.
The roots of the S.S.I. can be traced to the late 1980's, when the N.S.F. developed a five-part strategic plan to guide a "national mobilization'' of scientists, educational researchers, and practitioners to speed the reform of math and science teaching, according to David Florio, a former N.S.F. staffer who helped draft the plan.
The philosophy underlying the approach is to spark coordinated and sustained reform, often bringing together constituencies that might otherwise never have worked together.
It stands in contrast to the more conventional N.S.F. system of funding smaller, individual grants to large numbers of independent researchers.
"I think the S.S.I.'s really portend the future at N.S.F.,'' Ms. Kahle of Ohio said.
"If you think of the size of the problem,'' she added, "having hundreds of individual projects and no efficient way of disseminating the information [has] been counterproductive.''
In addition to South Dakota, Ohio, and Florida, the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Rhode Island became eligible in the first round to receive up to $2 million annually for five years.
Late last month, the National Science Board selected California, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Puerto Rico, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia as the newest participants.
Before those states receive their funding, the N.S.F. will work to fine-tune their proposals based on the findings of agency workers who made site visits, Ms. Earle said.
"Basically, what we're saying is not 'You have the money,' but that 'You may now enter into negotiations with the N.S.F.,' '' Ms. Earle said. "We have some opinions about what's hot and what's not so hot about their proposals.''
Meanwhile, initial reports on the progress made by states in implementing their systemic initiatives are scheduled to be submitted for review by the N.S.F. later this month.
And, Ms. Earle said, the N.S.F. this month will award a contract for independent evaluation of the program.
"At the end of the line, we're going to be looking for changes in student achievement,'' she said.
It is possible, Ms. Earle said, that the grants could be adjusted and that existing agreements with individual states could be modified if the progress reports are less than satisfactory.
"It's a very interactive process,'' she said.
However, she noted, investigators already have some preliminary evidence that the program has had some effect.
"We have now funded 24 teacher in-service projects throughout the state,'' Mr. Davidson of Louisiana noted, adding that teams of independent assessors began last month to evaluate all of the teacher-preparation programs at state-funded colleges and universities.
Perhaps most important, participants said, the N.S.F. funding has allowed states to "leverage'' money and in-kind contributions from other sources, particularly from the U.S. Education Department's Eisenhower grant program for mathematics and science.
The program in many states, added Ms. Kahle of Ohio, also has forged links "between people who never spoke to each other before,'' such as officials of the state departments of education and the boards of higher education.
But, because of the complex nature of the initiatives, it will take time for the cooperative efforts to have a measurable impact, Ms. Engler of Florida noted.
"It has more potential for success [than piecemeal grants],'' she said. "But it requires more time to build a consensus among the stakeholders.''
Mr. Davidson also noted that, in Louisiana, where conflicts over education funding are often fractious, the involvement of the N.S.F. gave the program an air of neutrality and independence.
"The reputation and the image of the N.S.F. was critical,'' he said. "The fact that the N.S.F. was sponsoring the program persuaded many people of its importance even before they were aware of the details.''
Despite the generally positive reaction at all levels, the program is not without its critics.
They note, for example, that no state can receive more than $10 million over the life of the program, regardless of the size of the student population it serves.
But Ms. Earle counters that, because states vary in their ability to obtain additional funding, the process is fundamentally fair.
"There's no question that California and Idaho won't do the same thing with the same amount of money from the N.S.F.,'' she said, citing a hypothetical case. "But California's got incredible resources compared to Idaho.''
Other observers note that the Congress has only authorized the initiative to continue for three years and that the N.S.F. proposes to fund, at most, 25 to 27 projects.
"It seems to me that the N.S.F. has a pretty big tiger by the tail,'' Mr. Glass noted. "How do you permanently deny the other [states]?''
Ms. Earle said the N.S.F. will award a $3-million to $5-million technical-assistance grant within the month to develop ways to share the knowledge developed by the states within the S.S.I. program.
She also noted that the N.S.F. is considering launching an urban
systemic initiative to help cities coordinate reform and to provide
additional resources to urban areas, which seldom have much in the way
of discretionary funds to devote to reform.