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Published in Print: February 22, 2006, as Chat Wrap-Up: Science and Math


Chat Wrap-Up: Science and Math

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On Feb. 8, 2006, readers’ questions about math and science education in the context of President Bush’s State of the Union Address were fielded by Jim Rubillo, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics; Jodi Peterson, the director of legislative affairs for the National Science Teachers Association; and Sean Cavanagh, the staff writer who covers math and science issuesfor Education Week. Below are excerpts from their online discussion:

Question: Given the political philosophy of the current administration and its impact on how literacy education has been approached, as well as on real-world questions in and around the scientific community, [will] federal involvement in mathematics and science education be fundamentally anti-progressive and undermine efforts to move away from lecture-driven, teacher-centered instruction that primarily emphasizes rote memorization and recall rather than dynamic, conceptually oriented tasks?

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A full transcript of this chat is online at

Peterson: Politics aside, this administration, and many members of the business, science, technology, and engineering communities, realize how important science and math are to our nation’s competitiveness, and there is a real commitment to these issues. This has been very important in bringing much- needed focus to science and math education. … We hope that all stakeholders in math and science education are at the table when the math panel is formed and when work begins on these new programs.

Question: The No Child Left Behind Act has had the unintended effect of undermining social studies in the primary grades, as schools “teach to the test.” Do you agree that the American Competitiveness Initiative, a welcome development, has the potential to do the same at the secondary school level, as more resources are put into math and science, [while] resources for social studies, to say nothing of languages and the arts, remain stagnant?

Rubillo: Schools have a responsibility to provide a well-balanced curriculum for students, even as we increase the emphasis on math and science. We need to find ways to connect the disciplines and raise our overall expectations of what students will learn, not replacing content areas, but strengthening them. Some elementary schools have found that spending large amounts of time on reading, for example, doesn’t always yield the kind of dramatic results they might wish. There is something to the physics law about the point of diminishing returns. The key question for all of us is, “Are we using the time we have in the most productive way?”

Question: Please define rigor. What does rigor in the classroom look like? What will be expected of the students and teachers? How can we be sure that this will not become just another mindless mandate, and that it will instead promote higher-order thinking skills?

Rubillo: The dictionary definition: quality of being logically valid. However, the word is used differently by many people who call for “rigorous” mathematics. Mathematicians have particular criteria for “rigor” in certain circumstances. Many in the public believe it means “hard.” The bottom line is that we can generally agree that we would like students to do challenging mathematics that will equip them to tackle a wide range of problems or go on to higher-level study in math or science. Students should be challenged to validate their solutions, justify their reasoning, and explain their thinking.

Question: Why will increasing the number of math and science graduates in this country prevent jobs in these fields from continuing to be sent abroad because of the dramatically lower cost of labor there?

Cavanagh: You raise a good point. Amid all the talk about the need to improve math and science education in this country, advocates on all sides probably gloss over some of the more complicated economic issues in play—especially the fact that the shifting of jobs abroad is driven by many factors, not just students’ lack of understanding of algebra, physics, and so on. Many business and political leaders, however, do understand the point you’re making, and have argued that a central goal of our math and science efforts should be to promote future innovation in our economy, not just protect jobs. If you look at the oft-cited “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report, for instance, it makes the following point:

“Because other nations have, and probably will continue to have, the competitive advantage of a low-wage structure, the United States must compete by optimizing its knowledge-based resources, particularly in science and technology, and by sustaining the most fertile environment for new and revitalized industries.”

Question: What do you think about the use of science specialists in elementary schools? Do they improve the quality of science teaching?

Peterson: We’ve been watching the growth of science specialists in elementary classrooms for a few years now, and the programs look promising. Many schools seem to benefit from these master teachers or science specialists who can help elementary teachers set up and do experiments with the kids, get the right professional development, and provide mentoring when needed. We think this is definitely a program worth watching.

Question: Do you believe that the best time to start teaching good math and science skills is when children enter school? Also, can a teacher’s attitude harm students?

Rubillo: The teacher’s attitude and expectations are tremendously important. Perhaps our greatest shortcoming as a society is in the low expectations we set for both ourselves and our children. We should start engaging children with mathematics as soon as they enter school. Many early math-readiness skills are similar to, or consistent with, early language-development skills (sorting, classifying, matching).

Question: I have not seen any mention of an increase in pay for current math and science teachers. Is there any discussion in the president’s plan to increase salaries to be more competitive with the private sector?

Peterson: Not specifically in the president’s plan for the American Competitiveness Initiative. A current program at the U.S. Department of Education, called Teacher Incentive Fund, addresses this issue.

Vol. 25, Issue 24, Page 51

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