NSF Cuts Off Funds to D.C.,Three States

By Millicent Lawton — October 02, 1996 7 min read
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The National Science Foundation has pulled the plug on millions of dollars it had planned to give to three states and the District of Columbia to run large-scale, multiyear projects to improve K-12 science and math education.

The foundation, an independent federal agency, withdrew about $16 million in all, citing reasons that ranged from a lack of statewide coordination or dissemination of reforms to a “crisis in leadership” in the District of Columbia’s case, an NSF official said.

The states had between one and three years remaining on their funding agreements. The District of Columbia lost the largest amount of money two years into its project--about $10 million of what was to have been a five-year, $13.5 million award.

But state education officials and others from states that are or were participating in the foundation’s Statewide Systemic Initiatives program place some of the blame for problems on the NSF’s shoulders.

They charge the foundation’s educational-system-reform division with demanding redundant paperwork, giving contradictory feedback, and making decisions capriciously and in an authoritarian manner. And though they acknowledge that the program’s bold goals are worthwhile, some state officials expressed relief in recent interviews at being free of the NSF’s demands.

As of this month, 17 states and Puerto Rico are participating in the program, which seeks to improve science, math, and engineering education through broad changes in such areas as student assessment and teacher training.

Two of the states that recently lost NSF money, Florida and North Carolina, were among the first 10 to take part in the systemic initiatives when they were launched in 1991. Florida’s program failed to get its final year of funding and was phased out in June, six months early. That cost the state about $1.6 million out of what was to have been about $9.5 million in funding. North Carolina learned last month that it would not receive its final year’s funding, about $1 million out of about $7.8 million it had expected over five years.

As of the end of August, Virginia also was phased out. Since 1992, when the second round of awards was made, the state has received three years of what was to have been a five-year, $9.6 million award. It spent about $6 million over four years, operating the fourth year with money carried from the third, a state official said.

The recent changes, all but one made in the past two months, were the first deletions in the lineup of participating states since the foundation dropped Rhode Island--also one of the original 10--in 1994.

All of the systemic initiatives are run under agreements with NSF that must be renegotiated every year and may be terminated if the agency sees what it considers to be inadequate progress.

Two of the first 10 states, Connecticut and Louisiana, recently won additional NSF awards that represent up to five more years of money. Other states applied but were turned down. Another of the initial awardees, Nebraska, had earlier negotiated a six-year agreement, worth $10 million, and has one more year of funding.

Adding Urban, Rural

The Statewide Systemic Initiatives were designed to encourage states to improve math and science education by prompting a broad web of changes, including in curriculum, goals, assessment, teacher training, and student achievement. The agency also sought to build partnerships and coordination between K-12 educators and the higher education and business communities. Between 1991 and 1993, 25 states and Puerto Rico received what were supposed to be five-year awards of about $10 million each.

Since then, the foundation has made Urban Systemic Initiative awards to 20 city districts, including four last month to Milwaukee, St. Louis, San Antonio, and San Diego. Each is to receive up to $15 million over five years. (“7 Cities To Share $105 Million in Science Grants,” Feb. 22, 1995.)

A year ago, the NSF announced four rural initiatives based in Alaska, Kentucky, New Mexico, and North Dakota and worth up to $10 million each over five years.

Together, all of the systemic initiatives have an annual budget of roughly $100 million. That is about one-sixth of the NSF’s budget for all of its education and human resources programs.

‘System in Chaos’

The District of Columbia’s participation was a special case from the outset. Washington was not technically eligible for the urban program because it is not one of the most impoverished cities in the nation. But because the majority of the city’s more than 80,000 public school students are black--and the program aims to improve performance of minority students--the NSF made a separate award. (“D.C. Gets $13.5 Million N.S.F. Grant To Reform Math, Science Teaching,” Sept. 14, 1994.)

But like other cities, beleaguered Washington has struggled for years with financial, leadership, and school system problems.

Peirce Hammond, the acting director of the division of educational system reform at the NSF, said his agency looks to create sustained change in projects it pays for. “If a system is in chaos, if it’s not clear they can manage their affairs, then it’s hard to have realistic hope that such a reform is going to take hold,” he said of Washington’s schools.

While Mr. Hammond noted some good work on professional development, for example, he called the quality control for the District of Columbia program uneven. He said that there was little change in student achievement and that a link to the business and higher education communities “wasn’t what it should be.”

Beverly Lofton, a spokeswoman for the school system, said that in the project’s two years, “we’ve built a firm foundation on which to grow, and we would have been able to do it in a much more substantial way” if the NSF funding had continued. She said the schools had provided professional development to more than 1,200 of the system’s nearly 6,500 elementary and secondary teachers and had seen some gains in the scores of college-bound high school students taking the SAT II: Subject Tests in science.

Ms. Lofton said the school system may try again for systemic-initiative funding in a year or so.

Questions in States

In Florida, Mr. Hammond said the foundation’s main concern was that the reform efforts were focused on a network of 35 schools rather than on the school district level. In addition, he said, there had not been sufficient impact on secondary schools. And the agency believed there was little promise that the initiative would be sustained with state or other funding after the NSF aid ended, he said.

Thomas Baird, the director of area centers for educational enhancement at the Florida education department, was one of the principal investigators for that state’s SSI project. He said the project leaders and the federal agency had a longstanding disagreement on how quickly the project could be disseminated throughout Florida’s 67 school districts. Toward its end, Mr. Baird said, the project was in about 40 districts.

In North Carolina, the NSF had had concerns for a few years about the project’s effectiveness and about reforms reaching the entire state in a coordinated way, Mr. Hammond said. But the questions became more serious, he said, and the foundation felt more money was not going to help the North Carolina officials achieve “the kind of systemic reform we’d hope they’d have.”

Over the life of the initiative, the state had a change of governors and a change in the team running the SSI in the state. Tom Houlihan, the senior education adviser to Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. and a principal investigator on the systemic initiative, said that when he took over after the program’s third year he knew there were “major, major problems” and that the initiative would have to show in two years the results that would have been expected after five.

Virginia’s SSI had strong points, Mr. Hammond said, including staff training. But, he said, the project’s “elements didn’t cohere, they were uneven in their strength, and there was not as much strength as we would have liked.”

Patricia Wright, the principal specialist for mathematics at the Virginia education department, said the state never agreed with the review the NSF gave the project at its midpoint, and the level of agreement between the two agencies deteriorated from there.

Mixed Signals

State officials were reluctant to criticize the NSF openly. One such official, who asked that his name not be used, said: “No one will criticize them [the NSF] because they hold all the money.”

But some consider the problems with the NSF’s management of the systemic-initiatives program to be significant. One state official quoted another as saying: “The greatest assistance to systemic reform is NSF. The greatest impediment to systemic reform is NSF.”

Mr. Houlihan in North Carolina said that direction from the foundation was often unclear and that the program had three NSF program officers in one year. Virginia’s had four in four years. “Some things we were praised for early on, we were criticized for later,” said Ms. Wright of the Virginia project.

Indeed, what really creates problems, one state official said, is when “the opinions or directions of one program officer are reversed by the next one. The whole program gets turned on its head.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 1996 edition of Education Week as NSF Cuts Off Funds to D.C.,Three States

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