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N.S.F. Urban Initiative Is Seen as Reform Tool

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Philadelphia

Amid the elegant adornments of the school board meeting room here, Luther S. Williams offers a stark assessment of why many urban districts have failed to teach meaningful science and mathematics to all students.

For more than a decade, education reform in urban areas has been no more than a "shell game,'' argues Mr. Williams, the head of the National Science Foundation's education directorate.

In most or all urban districts, he charges, resources have been continually reshuffled while the instructional status quo has remained virtually unchanged. "There has been no reform, in my view,'' he says.

It is not a message that the more than 100 educators, politicians, business leaders, and parents who gathered here last month would be expected to eagerly embrace.

Even so, Mr. Williams hammers away at the theme that the status quo is counterproductive because it offers too many students only the illusion of academic success. "It says, 'You have three ways to complete high school: You can do serious mathematics; you can do middle-level nonsense; or you can do abject nonsense,' '' he declares.

He is here today, though, to offer the district a chance to employ a new tool--the urban systemic initiative, which is a competitive grant program that he hopes will help shift the axis of instruction in math and science and in the curriculum as a whole.

Impetus for Wider Reform

While the initiative is focused on improving math and science programs, Mr. Williams contends that comprehensive reform in those areas will lead to basic changes in the ways other subjects are taught as well.

To be eligible for the program, which is aimed at the nation's 25 poorest urban areas, school districts must form alliances with local governments, businesses, and other institutions to restructure the way they employ their financial, human, and instructional resources.

In exchange, successful applicants that meet the terms of a "cooperative agreement'' with the foundation will receive as much as $3 million a year for at least five years to implement those plans. But those that fail to make sufficient progress at the end of the first year, Mr. Williams stresses, can expect nothing the next. And those that only tinker at the margins need not apply.

Based on the experience of the N.S.F.'s three-year-old statewidesystemic-initiative program, Mr. Williams argues, the total of $15 million each district would receive could have a strong "multiplier'' effect as districts rethink the way they use existing federal money and private contributions.

"Our desire for this program is that, at the end of the day, some student is offered the opportunity to attend a fully reformed K-12 system,'' Mr. Williams proclaims.

Theresa R. Lemme, the acting superintendent of the Philadelphia schools, said that Mr. Williams was voicing the realities of urban education. "What's particularly distressing to me is that I know we have students who can do better in math, science, and technology,'' Ms. Lemme said in an interview.

"We're not tapping into those bright young minds,'' Ms. Lemme added. "We're not providing a context in which they can achieve.''

Taking the Word on the Road

The Philadelphia meeting late last month was one stop on a whirlwind tour that Mr. Williams is continuing this month to explain the new program to potential applicants, many of whom share the same questions and concerns.

He must keep to a tight schedule because districts have only until Jan. 14 to apply for the first round of grants.

The impending deadline already had a few people here grumbling in the hallways after the meeting. "Reaction has been very positive to what he said,'' noted Rita Rice, one of the district's two principal investigators for the program. "But the second thing out of [people's] mouths is, 'It's very difficult to do.' ''

Mr. Williams was invited to undertake his national tour at a meeting for prospective urban-systemic-initiative applicants that the foundation held in October, when it announced that 17 cities had been awarded $100,000 planning grants to prepare applications. Three additional grants were awarded last month.

Mr. Williams's travels are also intended in part to counter widespread concern and disillusionment with the foundation and lack of confidence in the U.S.I. process that observers said exists in a number of cities.

The science foundation itself has yet to develop a "nuts and bolts'' idea about what a successful proposal would look like, some observers contend. Moreover, by emphasizing the need for success within the first year, applicants may be discouraged from advancing a radical reform agenda that might risk failure.

Minority Performance

Apart from the confusion, the initiative is seen by backers in the N.S.F. and Congress as having the potential to address the educational woes of inner-city districts.

In the N.S.F.'s budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, the education directorate received a 17 percent increase, to $570 million. The measure included some $90 million for systemic reform, including money to launch a separate rural systemic initiative.

While modeled on the statewide program, Mr. Williams said, the urban program is designed specifically to "obliterate the differential'' between the performance of white and minority students on standardized tests.

"The statewide initiative is going to deal with the generic issue of 'reform,' '' he said. "But it's ludicrous, if not abjectly insane, to imagine that that generic program is going to address the needs of [minority] students.''

But some observers also note that there is little hard evidence that the urban initiative will produce results.

Although anecdotal evidence suggests that the statewide initiative has prompted unprecedented cooperation around mutual goals, there has as yet been no formal, independent assessment of its effectiveness.

Mr. Williams indicated that the N.S.F. plans to evaluate the progress of the initial 10 statewide grants next month.

But launching a new initiative while the value of an existing program remains untested worries some in the Congressional committees with oversight on the foundation, according to a staff aide for the House Space, Science, and Technology Committee.

The aide added that the U.S. General Accounting Office has been examining the overall focus of the N.S.F.'s education directorate and, in particular, is looking at whether the agency has evaluated the effectiveness of its wide spectrum of K12 programs.

Mr. Williams suggested that his emphasis on stringent accountability in the U.S.I. program matches the recommendations of an independent panel of scientists and educators, which charged in a report released this month that federal agencies have largely failed to assess the efficacy of their math and science programs. (See Education Week, Dec. 8, 1993.)

No 'Facile' Solutions

Despite such questions, the urban initiative appears to be widely anticipated here and in other cities.

Gregory Rost, Philadelphia's deputy mayor for policy and planning, said Mayor Edward G. Rendell's administration "enthusiastically backs'' the district's application. Yet some city officials here argue that the N.S.F. may be asking a lot in exchange for what amounts to a relatively small addition to the district's $1.3 billion annual budget.

Some here also fear that the foundation's emphasis on central, overarching reform goals runs counter to a trend in the district toward site-based management.

Ms. Rice said she did not see the two as incompatible as long as schools are free to devise their own strategies to meet the goals.

Jack Steinberg, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that while the union supports the U.S.I. proposal, any implementation will have to be aligned with the diverse reforms the district already is undertaking.

Mr. Williams said he is well aware that the initiative presents challenges as well as opportunities. "There's nothing facile about what we're attempting to do,'' he said. "But that's fine. My general sense is that the entire country has exhausted its easy solutions.''

Philadelphia's first application was rejected, for example, leaving school officials concerned that their preparation may have gone to waste.

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