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NSF No Longer Funding NSTA Project in High School Science

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A leading national effort to reform science education suffered a major setback last week when the National Science Foundation withdrew its financial support.

The federal agency rejected a request for a two-year, $3.1 million grant for the Scope, Sequence, and Coordination of High School Science Education project run by the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association. The decision makes the program's future uncertain.

The program, which was designed to serve grades 9 to 12, has been operating under a $4 million award that the NSF announced in March 1994. The grant covered the first phase of work for the 9th and 10th grade portions of the curriculum.

The new proposal would have subsidized teacher training and support for the 10th grade and development and dissemination of materials for the 11th grade.

"The reality is, there's no way in the world that the ... project can continue in a coherent way," said Bill G. Aldridge, the NSTA's director of special projects and the administrator of the scope-and-sequence program. "It's a nightmare."

But Gerald Wheeler, who succeeded Mr. Aldridge as the executive director of the science teachers' group, was more stoic. "It's time now for us to take the NSF results, roll up our sleeves, and come up with some creative solutions to keep the experiment going," Mr. Wheeler said.

Mr. Wheeler said his group would reapply next year for NSF funding. In the meantime, he said, project leaders will try to secure some stopgap money from private donors.

The scope-and-sequence program has had trouble securing NSF funding before. In 1993, the agency turned down an NSTA proposal for a five-year, $38 million grant to expand the program from the middle grades into high schools. The next year, however, the group won its current grant.

The program is designed to replace the traditional "layer cake" approach to teaching high school science, in which students take one year each of earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics. Instead, it offers a multidisciplinary curriculum each year.

About 6,400 9th and 10th graders in 13 high schools in California, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Montana, New York, North Carolina, and Texas have been participating in the project.

While there are some funds remaining for this school year, Mr. Aldridge said, the project will be unable to offer workshops to prepare teachers to use new curricular units. "They have to go in and wing it on their own," he said.

The award was first turned down Aug. 6, Mr. Aldridge said. He unsuccessfully pursued an appeal through last week. Then, in a move highly unusual for someone seeking NSF grant money, he issued a press release--independent of the NSTA--announcing the funding setback.

Peers Made Decision

Two peer-review groups assessed parts of the proposal for the NSF and found that it "wasn't strong enough" or didn't have instructional materials "of high enough quality," said Margaret Cozzens, the division director for elementary, secondary, and informal education at the science foundation. She said NSF officials agreed.

Ms. Cozzens said she and others advised Mr. Aldridge to wait and submit his proposal last July instead of in February. "I told him at the time I thought he would be better served waiting. I couldn't understand the urgency," she said. "I still don't."

But Mr. Aldridge argued that he submitted unrevised drafts of 9th grade instructional materials last winter because he couldn't afford to wait to learn if further work for the project could get under way.

Mr. Aldridge, who developed and shepherded the scope-and-sequence project, acknowledged he is very emotional about the loss of funding. He and Ms. Cozzens offered sharply different views of the NSF review of the proposal.

Mr. Wheeler of the NSTA said timing was key in the proposal's failure. The difficulty came, he said, in balancing the need to secure more funding at a time when evaluation data and instructional materials were incomplete.

'Bump in Road'

Mr. Aldridge said some staff would be cut, and the loss of federal money would also disrupt an independent evaluation. Without a comparison of students who have and have not been exposed to the program, "it messes up the study completely," he said.

Teachers involved with the scope-and-sequence project expressed their disappointment last week. They said that achievement has improved and that students enjoyed the program more than the regular science curriculum.

Brian Jacobs, the lead teacher for the project at Sacramento High School in California, said he anticipated that the science teachers at his school would pick up any slack to make the program work for the 1,300 9th and 10th graders enrolled in it.

"By gutting the program now," Mr. Jacobs said, the NSF is "taking away any impetus toward a national science curriculum and some kind of uniform standard we could teach to."

But Rodger W. Bybee, the executive director of the Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, which oversaw the project to set voluntary national standards for science, called the loss of funding "a bump in the road, not a roadblock to all the reform of science education." The project, he said, is one of many that is trying to align with standards and improve science education.

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