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Efficacy of U.S. Aid for Science, Math Questioned

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There is scant evidence that the billions of dollars the federal government spends each year on science and mathematics education have led to improvements in instruction and learning, a report released here last week contends.

Because few agencies have established mechanisms to measure the efficacy of their educational outreach, the report by a federal advisory panel states, "the effects and effectiveness of much of the federal investment remain unexamined.''

Moreover, various agencies have developed a "potpourri of programs'' in recent years with little overall planning and coordination, the study suggests.

While the array of programs "boasts some excellent components,'' the report says, "its weaknesses and possible redundancies diminish its overall effectiveness.''

The document--"The Federal Investment in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education: What Now? What Next?''--is described as the first independent look at federal science and math initiatives.

It was made public here last week at the National Science Foundation by a 15-member "expert panel'' of educators, scientists, and industry representatives.

The independent review represents the first step of a five-year strategic plan, developed by the committee on human resources and education of the Federal Coordinating Council on Science, Engineering, and Technology, to examine federal math and science programs in order to better coordinate support for reform.

The council, known as FCCSET (pronounced "fix it''), is composed of representatives of all the federal departments, together with independent agencies with science-, math-, or technology-related missions.

The expert panel--headed by Mary Budd Rowe, a professor of science education at Stanford University, and Karl S. Pister, the chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz--presented the report to Luther Williams, the N.S.F.'s assistant director for education and human resources and the acting head of the FCCSET education committee.

Mr. Pister noted that there is a "very solid foundation of individual, quality programs upon which to build for the future.''

But he also reiterated the report's central message: "A basic change in the way in which federal agencies view their role is needed.''

'A Portfolio of Investments'

The report suggests that, as part of a new, coordinated approach, federal spending on math and science education should be managed as a "portfolio of investments'' in the nation's future.

That investment is already substantial, the report notes, with federal agencies spending $2.2 billion in fiscal 1993 on almost 300 "core programs'' in math and science.

Currently, however, that "federal portfolio ... is unbalanced and lacks coherence,'' it says, making it "next to impossible to maintain fidelity to the overarching national goals.''

To improve management of the federal investment, the report suggests, agencies should:

  • Align their programs with the goals of the FCCSET strategic plan;
  • Coordinate their programs among themselves and across education levels;
  • Develop effective strategies for dissemination of exemplary programs;
  • Develop appropriate evaluations; and
  • Promote equity among students.

'Distressing Realities'

The panel examined the federal role in education at every level, with recommendations for each.

Precollegiate education, the report argues, is plagued by "three distressing realities.''

Many teachers lack adequate understanding of science and math content or effective teaching methods, it indicates. Moreover, effective teachers often lack the resources to teach well.

In addition, the report argues, too many students spend insufficient time on science--and no time on technology--in the early grades.

To make federal programs more effective, it recommends revising teacher-enhancement programs to avoid "quick fix'' approaches; establishing national goals for technology education; and placing an emphasis on disseminating research-based curriculum materials.

Despite the criticisms, Mr. Williams of the N.S.F. argued that interagency efforts already under way in K-12 education, such as a cooperative agreement between the Education Department and the N.S.F., represent the kind of changes called for in the report.

"The greatest collaboration, at the moment, is in K-12,'' he said.

But Mr. Pister took issue with that assessment. "That's a positive view of it,'' he said. "Let me qualify it by saying that, ultimately, [precollegiate education] presents the greater challenge.''

The problem, Mr. Pister said, is that federal agencies must coordinate their outreach with more than 15,000 school districts nationwide.

More Assessment Sought

The report also stresses the need for the government to boost its investment in program assessment.

Less than 1 percent of the federal budget for math and science programs goes to support assessment, Ms. Rowe noted, and only 20 percent of the 300 core programs have been evaluated. An additional 32 percent of programs have been "monitored,'' a less comprehensive form of oversight.

But Mr. Williams pointed out that programs have undergone critiques precisely because, independent of the expert panel's recommendations, the FCCSET agencies last year embarked on a five-year evaluation effort.

"The value of this report,'' he said, "is to validate that exercise.''

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