Thompson Calls For Major Math-Science Overhaul

By William Snider — February 08, 1989 8 min read

Illinois should undertake a major initiative to improve mathematics and science education at all grade levels, Gov. James R. Thompson urged in his State of the State Address last week.

If lawmakers provide the needed funding, the state will use the recommendations of a forthcoming report on mathematics and science education by the nation’s largest science organization as a basis for overhauling teacher training, curricula, and testing in these areas, according to Ted Sanders, the state superindent of education.

The plan, however, faces an uncertain future, given lawmakers’ reluctance to raise taxes in recent years and local school officials’ complaints about unfunded state mandates.

In an interview last week, Mr. Sanders said the Governor’s plan was aimed “in large part [at] carrying out the expectations and the intent” of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061.

Planners of the project--which is named for the year of the next expected return of Halley’s Comet--are scheduled to release a report this month outlining a new definition of what high-school graduates should know and be able to do in science, mathematics, and technology.

Educators and scientists who attended the aaas’s annual meeting last month predicted that the report would propose a “revolutionary"4shift away from a curriculum that emphasizes mastery of facts, and toward one that aims to impart a better understanding of the concepts that underlie mathematic and scientific thinking. (See Education Week, Jan. 25, 1989.)

The Governor’s proposal casts “a direct eye towards the definitions of scientific literacy contained in Project 2061 as well as its underlying philosophy--a ‘results’ kind of focus,” said Mr. Sanders, a member of Project 2061’s board of directors.

Governor Thompson also proposed that the state modernize and expand science and technology facilities at its colleges and universities, and establish a fund to to attract research dollars to the state.

He also named the Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, to the newly created post of Illinois Science and Technology Advisor. Mr. Lederman will work with a task force of academic, labor, business, and science leaders to advise the state on needed reforms, the Governor said.

Mr. Sanders said some of the proposed curricular and testing changes can be accomplished by the state board of education alone. But, he added, the legislature will have to appropriate funds to support experimental restructuring projects and improvements in teacher training.

The Governor proposed raising the state’s tax on cigarettes by 18 cents per pack to fund the math and science initiative, to expand drug-education and enforcement programs, and to provide an additional $65 million in aid to education.

The Governor did not repeat his earlier calls for an income-tax increase that would have been earmarked largely for education. But he said he “stand[s] ready to support and sign” such an increase if legislative leaders drop their longstanding opposition to it.

The Governor warned lawmakers that if they fail to support a tax increase, “we will see local property taxes go through the roof or public education pounded into the ground.”

Pressure for a tax increase is expected to mount in the wake of a recent report that found that over the last 10 years, Illinois has dropped from a ranking of 7th to 44th among the states in terms of per capita spending for elementary and secondary education.

“In eight of the last 10 years, we’ve seen a decline in constant-dollar support for education from the state,” Mr. Sanders said. As a result, he added, “a number of districts are literally going down the tubes.”

State officials are currently pressuring eight school districts to adopt austerity measures to eliminate significant operating deficits, and 150 more have been placed on a “financial watch list.” More districts are likely to come under increased state monitoring this spring, Mr. Sanders said.

Given the state’s financial climate, Mr. Sanders said, it is difficult to predict how school officials and their supporters in the legislature will react to the Governor’s science and mathemetics proposals.

“Clearly districts have, and rightly so, balked at new mandates when the state has failed to fund its ongoing commitments,” he said.

Governor William P. Clements of Texas last week unveiled a plan to financially reward school districts that improve student performance, combat drug and alcohol abuse, and reduce their dropout rates.

The plan would also reduce state aid to districts that did not lower dropout rates.

In both an address before the Texas School Administrators Mid-Winter Conference and his State of the State Message to the legislature, Mr. Clements said his $39-million plan would “renew our state’s commitment to quality.”

The Governor’s “Educational Excellence Program for Texas” would encourage school districts to compete for the special improvement awards, change the state’s accreditation law to free high-performing districts from regulations, and address the dropout problem by lengthening the period of compulsory attendance and sanctioning districts that failed to stem their dropout rates.

“Now is clearly the time to enhance our educational system so that all our children have the opportunity to prosper. Certainly no goal is more precious,” Mr. Clements told administrators.

The financial-awards plan, dubbed texas for Texas Educational Excellence Award System, would provide an initial $30 million for the improvement competition among districts. Committees would be established, Mr. Clements said, to develop criteria for the awards.

He also proposed changes in the state accreditation system that would include surveys of parents to gauge their views on a district’s quality.

His proposal would change the categories of accreditation to recognize exemplary school districts. Those districts would be less closely overseen by the Texas Education Agency and would also be allowed to request waivers from state mandates to try innovative programs.

To bolster dropout-prevention efforts, Mr. Clements suggested broadening the compulsory attendance law to cover students ages 6 to 17; the current law mandates schooling from ages 7 to 16.

State funding based on average daily attendance would be adjusted during the school year to reduce aid to districts with persistent dropout problems, under Mr. Clements’ plan.

The Governor also proposed an early-intervention program to help families on public assistance.

Social workers from the state human-services department would identify “at risk” children and refer their parents to counseling and training programs that would emphasize the importance of education, parenting skills, and school activities.

In his State of the State speech, Mr. Clements called for mandatory anti-drug education starting at age 9.

He also endorsed the concept of a capital-improvement plan suggested by State Comptroller Bob Bullock. Mr. Bullock has suggested using state-based bonds to finance construction projects in districts that lack adequate financing.

The Governor mentioned no plan for changing the state’s school-finance system, which is under legal challenge by property-poor districts. Overturning a lower-court decision, the appellate court recently ruled that the current system was legal.

But Mr. Clements said the decision, now on appeal to the state Supreme Court, does not allow state officials to “dodge the bullet” on the issue.

The Governor also declined to offer his own budget plan, endorsing instead the Legislative Budget Board’s plan. The board favors a $13.8-billion spending level for public schools for the next two fiscal years--a 4.9 percent increase above current levels for the biennium.--nm

Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. of Maine will take his campaign to lengthen the state’s school year one day at a time.

In his Jan. 26 State of the State Address, the Republican Governor repeated a pledge he made last summer that lengthening the school year from 175 to 180 days would be one of his highest priorities during this year’s legislative session.

“Maine has the second-shortest school year in the nation,” ranking only above Missouri in terms of days of instruction required, the Governor noted in his speech. “It will cost us $4 million for every additional day we add. It’s time we made that investment. Simply put, it’s time for more time in the classroom.”

Mr. McKernan’s plan received a lukewarm reception from the Maine Teachers Association and the Maine Secondary School Principals’ Association when he unveiled it in June. The groups’ leaders have argued that the state should explore other alternatives, including making more effective use of the existing school year.

The Governor’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year appears to address that view. Mr. McKernan said that while he still supports a phased-in five-day extension, he would request $4.4 million to add only one day to the school calendar. He also sought $1.8 million in grants to districts for studies of how to increase instructional time.

Mr. McKernan’s budget also seeks $5.5 million in new funding for early-childhood-education and dropout-prevention efforts geared toward at-risk children.

The Governor also proposed spending an additional $6.1 million to ensure that “no eligible Maine student is going to be denied access to higher education solely due to an inability to pay.”

Under his plan, grants under the Maine Student Incentive Scholarship Program would be increased over two years from $300 to $750 for students enrolled in public institutions, and from $600 to $1,500 for those attending private colleges.--mw

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 1989 edition of Education Week as Thompson Calls For Major Math-Science Overhaul