Few Federal Math and Science Programs Deemed Effective
As Congress pushes ahead with legislation that seeks to improve math and science education, a new federal report questions the effectiveness of the federal government’s current investments in those areas.
The report, released May 10 by the Academic Competitiveness Council, concludes that there is too much overlap and too little coordination between mathematics and science programs, and no consistent way of judging their value.
The council’s work was mandated by Congress two years ago. Chaired by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, the panel included representatives of numerous federal agencies that oversee math and science programs.
An estimated 105 such programs exist across agencies, with a combined budget of more than $3 billion a year.
Currently, only a small number of math and science programs—10 out of 115 agency programs and individual projects reviewed—hold themselves to “scientifically rigorous evaluations” that have produced measurable results, the report says. Another 15, it says, use that standard but have not yet reported results.
“There is a general dearth of evidence of effective practices and activities” in math and science education, the report says. Even programs that have been studied extensively, it adds, have not yielded enough evidence to produce “decisions about education policy or classroom practice.”
The largest chunk of federal programs reviewed, or 29 percent, are housed within the National Science Foundation; 23 percent are overseen by the Department of Education.
The report does not single out weak programs that should be carved out of the federal budget. The goal was to study how such programs are being evaluated and to recommend a better process, said Kenneth R. Zeff, a senior consultant at the Education Department and the agency’s representative on the council.
“It’s important to understand how much the federal government spends on math and science education,” Mr. Zeff said. “I don’t think that was clear before.”
The language of the report highlights several Bush administration proposals that seek to improve math and science education. Those proposals have failed to win congressional support, however. Last month, House and Senate lawmakers instead approved separate pieces of math and science legislation, which would expand a number of existing federal teacher-recruitment and -training programs. ("Math-Science Bills Advance in Congress," May 2, 2007.)
The House and Senate have yet to reconcile differences between the two bills.
The administration has questioned the cost and effectiveness of the programs supported in the bills. But Mr. Zeff said the competitiveness council’s report was meant to provide “good-government-oriented” recommendations for evaluating programs, not fodder for a debate over legislation.
Federal programs place too little emphasis, the report says, on outcomes, or measurable results, from math and science spending. Improved test scores in math and science under the No Child Left Behind Act is a clearer method for judging results, it argues.
The council recommends that agencies establish a way of conducting “rigorous, independent” evaluations of programs, and make funding for them contingent on those reviews.
James Brown, the co-chairman of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education Coalition, said he was not surprised by the report’s findings, or its call for tougher standards in judging programs. His Washington-based group supports both of the math and science bills awaiting consideration by Congress; the teacher-training and other programs in those bills meet the council’s expectations, he said.
Those programs “have been proven,” Mr. Brown said. “You’re not adding programs that are off in left field.”
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