Funding Cuts Seen Imperiling 2 Projects To Reform Science
WASHINGTON--Funding problems have the potential to seriously disrupt two of the most ambitious science-reform programs in the nation, participants have warned.
Education Week has learned that the National Science Foundation has rejected a grant request by the National Science Teachers Association to expand its national initiative to reform the teaching of secondary school science.
In addition, officials of the American Association for the Advancement of Science are expressing concerns about the prospects for N.S.F. funding of Project 2061, the association's long-range science-reform program.
Critics say the N.S.F.'s funding decisions appear to call into question its high-profile commitment to the reform of precollegiate science education.
"If you read most of their literature they talk about the coordination'' between N.S.F. initiatives and other reform programs, said Tom Sachse, the manager of science and environmental education for the California education department.
"But they're saying some very different things in terms of their funding priorities,'' he added.
The N.S.T.A. had sought a five-year, $38 million grant to continue its science-reform program and to expand it into the high schools.
But Bill G. Aldridge, the N.S.T.A.'s president, confirmed in a recent interview that the N.S.F. in late April declined to fund an application to support the association's Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science Program.
The scope-and-sequence initiative, which was launched four years ago, seeks to replace the traditional "layer cake'' curriculum of biology, chemistry, and physics with a multi-year, interdisciplinary approach.
Mr. Aldridge expressed concern that in some of the six sites where the program is being pilot-tested, such as Houston, lack of money to expand the program into the high school grades may seriously affect the education of students who have been taught under the S.S.C. during their middle school years.
However, the N.S.F. has encouraged the S.S.C. pilot sites individually to reapply for federal funding in August.
Mr. Aldridge added that he was racing to put together a stopgap proposal to persuade the N.S.F. to reconsider its decision.
Previous Grant Rejected
The N.S.F.'s action comes just months after the U.S. Education Department declined a grant to the A.A.A.S. to develop a national science-and-mathematics-education clearinghouse, for which the N.S.T.A. was to have been a principal subcontractor.
The department, citing the opinion of its inspector general's office, argued that the N.S.T.A. had a "cash-flow problem'' and was a financial risk. (See Education Week, Oct. 14, 1992.)
Mr. Aldridge responded to those charges in a withering letter last fall that accused the department, which awarded the grant to Ohio State University, of political maneuvering in an election year. He also argued that the N.S.F.'s inspector general had recently found the N.S.T.A.'s annual audit to be "fine.''
Mr. Aldridge was quick to concede last month, however, that much of the blame for the failure of the recent grant application lay with the N.S.T.A. itself for submitting an inadequate application.
"Given the proposal, the N.S.F. staff did the best they possibly could do with it,'' he said. "Had I been on the panel, I would have declined it.''
Officials at the A.A.A.S., meanwhile, said that they are still negotiating with the N.S.F. over the amount of money to be awarded to their program. But they said they were worried that the association might not obtain full funding for its $15 million grant application.
It is not at all clear how much money the N.S.F. will approve, noted F. James Rutherford, the A.A.A.S.'s education director.
Mr. Rutherford added that Project 2061 already has expended nearly all the funds awarded previously by the N.S.F., and that funding from foundations and other sources is increasingly difficult to obtain.
Commitment to Reform
Margaret Cozzens, the director of the N.S.F.'s division of elementary, secondary, and informal education, said federal law forbids discussing the disposition of any grant application unless an award has been made.
"Legally, we are not allowed to say if a proposal was even [submitted],'' she said. "So, in the language of you people, no comment.''
Some observers, however, questioned privately whether the N.S.F. was shortchanging national reform efforts in favor of its own programs.
Last month, for example, the agency announced a final round of grants of as much as $10 million to five additional states under its State Systemic Initiative program, bringing to 26 the number of states to receive grants.
While he declined to discuss specific grants, Luther Williams, the assistant director for the N.S.F.'s directorate of education and human resources, stressed in an interview that the N.S.F. remains committed to a broad range of science-reform initiatives. In particular, he said, the N.S.F. places a heavy emphasis on programs for minority students and teacher education, and is supporting the National Academy of Sciences in its efforts to develop national science-education standards.
Mr. Williams added that the foundation expects to award planning grants to a number of large cities in September as the first phase of an Urban Systemic Initiative program.
He said the foundation does not distinguish between "the N.S.F.'s reform program and everybody else's reform program'' in making grants.
"I think any statement of that nature is naÃive,'' Mr. Williams said "The N.S.F. is committed to systemic reform of math and science.''
All grant proposals, regardless of the size of their constituencies or their previous status with the N.S.F., are subjected to the same peer-review process, he argued, adding, "I don't believe in entitlements.''
Falling by the Wayside
Mr. Sachse, the head of California's scope-and-sequence program, and other S.S.C. officials said they were discouraged by the N.S.F. decision. But they promised to pursue their own funding efforts at the federal level and in the private sector.
The California program received roughly $500,000 annually from the N.S.F., Mr. Sachse said.
Arnold Strassenburg, the N.S.T.A.'s project director, argued that the impact of the loss of funding on the pilot sites could be uneven because of their individual missions and other funds they may receive.
He also warned that in California, which has 208 S.S.C. sites, the lack of a central coordinating center for the program, which the grant would have funded, will isolate educators.
"Some of them will fall by the wayside,'' he predicted.
The N.S.F. has spent roughly $8 million over the past four years to support the six original sites, making it the single largest financial contributor to the $12 million project.
In addition, the Education Department has awarded the project a $3 million grant to establish an additional site in Anchorage.
In previous years, individual sites of the scope-and-sequence program have each submitted their own proposals to the N.S.F.
This year, partly at the N.S.F.'s urging, a single proposal detailing the diverse approaches to reform taken at the different sites was filed, Mr. Aldridge said.
But the N.S.F. evaluators found the proposal unfocused and were unable to discern a single overriding reform objective, Mr. Strassenburg said.
He said they also were not convinced that sufficient evidence of the educational efficacy of the S.S.C. approach at the middle school level existed to justify expansion into the high schools.
Mr. Aldridge added that he felt the organization was in a "Catch 22'' situation because of stringent requirements placed on the application by the N.S.F.
Just days before submitting the application, he said, N.S.T.A. officials discovered that proposals were limited to a length of 25 pages.
"When you cut [the volume of information] back, there was nothing left, and it was a very bad proposal,'' he said. "[The evaluators] themselves expressed frustration that the proposal lacked enough information.''
Mr. Strassenburg added that the evaluators' criticisms have prompted the N.S.T.A. to rewrite its "content core,'' a comprehensive guide to the S.S.C. approach to curriculum development released last year. (See Education Week, March 4, 1992.)