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N.S.F. Sets Goal To Triple Minority Science Teaching Force

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WASHINGTON--The National Science Foundation has proposed tripling the number of black and Hispanic teachers of science and mathematics by the end of the decade as one goal of a national "action plan'' for increasing ethnic diversity in technical fields.

The goal is included in an N.S.F. blueprint--aimed at altering the racial and ethnic makeup of the scientific workforce--that educators and researchers gathered here late last month to help shape and refine.

The context for the meeting, billed as the National Conference on Diversity in the Scientific and Technological Workforce, was set by Luther S. Williams, the N.S.F.'s assistant director for education and human resources.

Mr. Williams told the conference-goers that demographic changes make improving minority participation in technical fields an issue of national competiveness rather than equity. He also argued that the N.S.F., as a key federal agency that finances innovative science and math programs, must actively reshape the "landscape'' of educational expectations and opportunities for minorities.

"I state categorically that the paucity of minorities among the ranks of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians is not the result of some recent misdirected or unimplemented social policy,'' Mr. Williams said. "Rather, it is one dimension of a larger story of minorities in the American society.''

The conference was designed to initiate a long-range effort by the N.S.F. to encourage minority involvement in math and science "throughout the educational continuum.''

'Reformulating the Problem'

While the preliminary plan presented to the conference delegates is critical of all levels of the educational enterprise, it notes that "minority students are even more poorly served'' than white students by efforts to instill scientific literacy at the precollegiate level.

Mr. Williams also said, however, that despite a "nearly astronomical expansion'' in the size and scope of efforts to recruit minorities into the technical fields during the 1970's, many of which were revised and expanded in the 1980's, an "unacceptably high'' percentage of minority students who begin to study math and science at the collegiate level never graduate.

He pointed out, for example, that no African-Americans earned doctorates in any of 12 scientific disciplines, ranging from applied mathematics to microbiology, in 1990.

According to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, minority teachers made up 14 percent of the 181,457 math teachers in public elementary and secondary schools in 1987-88. The same year, 12 percent of the 147,162 science teachers in public K-12 schools were members of minority groups.

A National Commission

The document presented to delegates suggests establishing a national commission on minorities in science and engineering to articulate goals for reversing current trends.

It also suggests a number of goals that such a commission should adopt, including:

  • Tripling the number of minority teachers of science and math at the precollegiate level by 2000;
  • Reducing by half the differential in standardized-test scores of white and minority students in math and science over the same period; and
  • Establishing systemic and comprehensive science and math programs for all students "throughout the K-12 continuum'' in urban school systems by 1995.

The document recommends a series of "fundamental indices'' that should undergird future reform efforts, including an assumption that all K-12 math and science programs should be grounded in the "fundamental notion'' that minority students ought to be afforded adequate educational resources and be given access to a "highly competent cadre'' of teachers.

Some Are Skeptical

Some delegates here were quick to take issue with what they argued are unrealistic assessments of what can be accomplished to improve the education system.

"Our problem is that we do not have an adequate corps of trained teachers,'' said Harry Reynolds, the superintendent of the Chattanooga, Tenn., public schools.

And Frances Navarette, who teaches the children of farmworkers in California's San Joaquin Valley, argued that many of those who have called for increasing math requirements or mandating more stringent science coursework are far removed from the realities her students face.

"I see a real problem here,'' Ms. Navarette said. "How do you tell a hungry child that they need to study science and math?''

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