U.S. Science-Education Efforts Said To Lack Coordination

By Robert Rothman — November 15, 1989 4 min read

Washington--Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent by a dozen agencies to improve science and mathematics education, the problems in the field will not be solved until the Bush Administration develops a comprehensive strategy for attacking them, the chairman of a House subcommittee said last week.

Current programs are ineffective and will remain so until the agencies involved work together toward a common goal, argued Representative Doug Walgren, Democrat of Pennsylvania.

“No one is taking broad responsibility” for the issue, Mr. Walgren, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Science Research and Technology, said in an interview following a hearing at which officials from several agencies outlined their activities in the field.

“I take precious little comfort in the idea that each agency has a program,” he added. “I don’t see any broad-based effort.”

Such an effort must come from the Administration, he said, since the Congress, with its committee structure, is ill-suited to develop a comprehensive program.

“The old adage is, ‘The President proposes, and the Congress disposes,”’ he said. “We’re asking for the ‘propose’ part. We’re not getting it.”

Responding to such criticism, officials from the Education Department and the National Science Foundation acknowledged that the agencies need to do more to coordinate their efforts, and said that they have started to take steps in that direction.

In a related development, D. Allan Bromley, President Bush’s science adviser, said in a speech this month that he will convene a Cabinet-level committee to assess the federal science-education efforts.

“It is essential that we improve the coordination of programs,” Mr. Bromley said. “We will examine on a government-wide basis what agencies are contributing and should be contributing.”

The NSF, which currently has a $200-million precollegiate-education budget, has traditionally assumed the greatest responsibility for math and science education. But the Education Department, through its research centers and the $127-million Dwight D. Eisenhower mathematics- and science-education program, has also played a substantial role in the field.

The NSF is chiefly responsible for basic research in instructional methodology and curriculum, explained Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “But the implementation of new materials that will be used nationwide should be the function of the Department of Education,” he added.

At least 10 other agencies also have science-education programs, according to Congressional aides.

Last month, for example, the Energy Department held a conference to prepare an “action plan” to improve science literacy by 2007.

Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, the NSF’s assistant director for science and engineering education, said he welcomed all agencies’ involvement.

“I wish the Agriculture Department, the Department of Defense, and the Labor Department would get in the picture,” he said. “We need this. We need a full mobilization of government-wide activity.”

Undersecretary of Education Ted Sanders added that the growing involvement of federal agencies could help lead to a solution.

“The fact that a lot of people are getting involved is a clear sign that the problem permeates the fabric of society,” he said. “Out of the diversity of involvement ultimately will come both the will and the direction to solve the problem.”

But Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New York, the ranking Republican on the House science-research subcommittee, said that too often the agencies’ efforts are frustrated by “turf battles.”

As an example, he pointed to his inability to get a response from the Administration on his proposal to award scholarships to college sci4ence majors who agree to teach in public schools. Although his proposal would be administered by the NSF, he said, his letters were directed to the Education Department, which did not respond.

“I feel strongly the President has the best intentions,” Mr. Boehlert said. “But the bureaucracy is getting in the way of the progress we need.”

Senator John Glenn, Democrat of Ohio, said last week that he would introduce a bill creating an interagency council on science and math education to help bring about coordination.

But such a council might not be effective, Mr. Boehlert warned.

“We can mandate all we want,” he said. “We can’t mandate that a structure functions as a structure.”

What is needed, suggested Shirley M. Malcom, head of the directorate for education and human-resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is leadership to define what should be done and who should do it.

“We’re not getting the most effective bang for our buck,” she said. “We won’t be able to unless the groups trying to address the issues agree on what the issues are and what needs to be done.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as U.S. Science-Education Efforts Said To Lack Coordination