A Man With a 'Systemic' Science-Reform Plan
Luther S. Williams strides purposefully into the lobby of the National Press Club here, pumping a reporter's hand with the air of a man on the move.
After exchanging polite, though terse, greetings, Mr. Williams sets the pace for the short walk down the hall. Setting the pace, his admirers and critics agree, is something to which the 54-year-old biochemist is quite accustomed.
As the assistant director of the National Science Foundation's education and human-resources directorate, Mr. Williams has embarked on a difficult task. He seeks to increase dramatically the opportunities for precollegiate students, particularly poor and minority students, to study "serious" science and mathematics.
With the support of Congress, his strategy for achieving that goal has been to funnel much of the directorate's budget into three "systemic" programs.
Mr. Williams hopes through these efforts to achieve unprecedented cooperation among teacher educators, institutions, the education bureaucrats, business leaders, parents, and politicians to reform schooling in 26 states, the nation's poorest cities, and in rural areas. Each of those areas, he argues, faces unique obstacles to reform.
The three programs are unusual because they require the local school officials and political leaders involved with the projects to sign cooperative agreements with the science foundation spelling out specific benchmarks for reform projects.
Failure to meet those benchmarks can quickly result in a loss of funding under the program, as officials in Rhode Island found out earlier this year. (See Education Week, 04/13/94.)
The stringent rules are designed to reverse what Mr. Williams characterizes as decades of "tinkering at the margins" of reform.
"What absolutely terrified me in moving into this arena was the record of the previous 25 years," he said. "On a very favorable day, I would give the [existing system] a D-plus. And the country doesn't have, in my judgment, multiple decades to solve the problem."
It is not surprising, then, that in guiding the directorate through a fundamental change in philosophy, Mr. Williams has become a magnet for both criticism and praise.
Critics have called him aloof, arrogant, directive--even dictatorial--for his unyielding adherence to reform on such a wide scale. They argue that the agency demands too much of local governments for its relatively small financial contribution, which is limited under the program to $15 million over five years.
They also say that the N.S.F. has been hesitant and contradictory in describing its goals for systemic reform.
The N.S.F. is often "more of an obstacle to reform," argued David Molina, the principal investigator for the systemic initiative in Texas, which has been threatened with a funding cutoff.
But supporters such as Rep. Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, a longtime friend of Mr. Williams's, maintain that he "is the right man, at the right time, in the right position" to bring about lasting reform. Representative Stokes is the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the directorate's budget.
Unfazed by the mixed reviews, Mr. Williams speaks of his mission with the pace of a sprinter and the passion of a visionary.
"If you detect some intensity on my part, well, part of it grows out of my personality," he conceded in an interview. "But part of it grows out of the fact that I recognize the incredible challenge that is associated with what we're trying to do."
Observers point out that it is almost impossible to assess Mr. Williams's tenure in the education directorate without weighing the value of the systemic-reform program. The identities of both, they say, are closely intertwined.
Mr. Williams said that in challenging policymakers to "break ranks with the old ways of doing business," he is in a sense applying stern lessons his father taught him when he was growing up as an African-American in segregated Sawyerville, Ala.
Expectations were set, he explained, and excuses for failure were not accepted.
Mr. Williams credits those hard lessons for allowing him to reach his current position as one of only a handful of black men in the nation who not only hold advanced degrees in the sciences, but who also wield enough authority within the federal government to shape education policy.
He is quick to admit the symbolic value his race and background bring to his task.
"When I think about what [students] should be asked to do, I'm not inclined to defer to the fact that they're impoverished," he said.
Mr. Williams believes the educational system has failed to challenge minority youths to succeed in the sciences. That, he said, has denied them the knowledge and habits of mind vital to success in today's technological world.
He said evidence gathered by following students in N.S.F. programs proves that systemic reforms, if thoughtfully implemented, can disprove some damaging myths about minority students' ability to learn.
"One, they can. Two, they will. But they will only do it under a very demanding construct," Mr. Williams said.
Too often, administrators have accepted substandard performance in exchange for political stability, he added.
"I'm not being unkind to these people, but they know, despite all of these [reform] efforts, that the enterprise for which they have the leadership role is getting worse, year after year," he said.
While the systemic program is only the first step in an evolving effort, Mr. Williams said that in some states, such as Louisiana, it has caused "nothing short of a revolution" in school reform.
There, Gov. Edwin Edwards and the state legislature have been successful in reallocating scarce state dollars to support reform. An aggressive advertising campaign has been mounted, and teacher training programs have been revamped.
Although the program is aimed specifically at improving math and science education, Mr. Williams argues that reform of those subjects will, by definition, force comprehensive change across the curriculum.
Although systemic reform has been the directorate's main focus, Mr. Williams has made his mark on science education in other ways.
Since he took the helm in 1990 after serving as the senior science adviser to the former N.S.F. director, Erich Bloch, the directorate's budget has soared, from less than $221 million in fiscal 1990 to $606 million this year.
And, Mr. Williams notes, roughly 40 percent of the directorate's 33 programs have been launched since his arrival.
Under his direction, the N.S.F. rattled the reform movement last year by declining to bankroll an expansion of one of the nation's premier science-reform efforts: the National Science Teachers Association's Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of Secondary School Science project.
The n.s.t.a. had asked for $39 million to expand its reform effort from middle school to the high school level. (See Education Week, 06/02/93.)
Mr. Williams said the agency's peer-review process revealed the application lacked any proof that the project would succeed.
In an interview, he noted quickly--in a nod to critics of the decision--that the N.S.F. does not run "entitlement programs."
Bill G. Aldridge, the n.s.t.a.'s executive director, conceded that the application was poorly prepared and later took a leave of absence to oversee a more tightly focused version of the project that emphasizes greater accountability. (See Education Week, 09/07/94.)