E.D. and N.S.F. Urged To Lead Science Reform

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WASHINGTON--The Education Department and the National Science Foundation should be the lead agencies in a new federal effort to spur local innovation in mathematics- and science-education reform, a new report by the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government asserts.

Although both agencies are in need of "strengthening' and some reorganization to better meet the challenges of reform, they are the logical agencies to lead such an effort, the report says.

To assist the two agencies in coordinating their efforts, the report calls for the creation of a new N.S.F.-Education Department unit-a Joint Office for Math and Science Improvement.

Moreover, both agencies, together with all others having a science and mathematics component, should devote a fixed percentage of their research and development funds to pre-college math and science education, the report says.

The commission, an affiliate of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, held a briefing on the report, entitled "In the National Interest: The Federal Government in the Reform of K-12 Math and Science Education," here last week at the National Press Club.

The report concedes that the primary responsibility for supporting public schools and setting educational policy lies at the state and local levels. But it argues that the White House and federal agencies are in a unique position to "build a national consensus for action" and to "persist with a specific program of reform long enough for it to take effect, at least a decade and maybe two."

"There is no shortage of motivated Americans with good ideas about how to serve our children better," the report says. "The challenge is to engage all elements of communities in the effort, and give their commitment a better chance to be effective than ever before."

In addition to N.S.F. and the Education Department, the departments of labor, energy, defense, and health and human services all have roles to play in spurring reform, the report says.

But for changes in federal policy to have a widespread and lasting effect, President Bush must "use the full prestige and influence of his office to mobilize all Americans for a sustained, national, bipartisan effort," the document states.

Four-Point Plan

The 76-page report is the culmination of a yearlong effort by the commission's 14-member task force on K-12 science and mathematics education, headed by Lewis M. Branscomb, the Albert Pratt Public Service Professor of Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The report sketches a broad, four-part strategy designed to ensure the effectiveness of the federal effort in sparking reform:

  • The Education Department and the N.S.F. should provide guidance on ways to improve schools organization and teaching.
  • The government's technology-based agencies should help improve education and expand the pool of scientists and mathematicians working as teachers.
  • All agencies should support effective change by emphasizing flexible and competitively evaluated funding mechanisms.
  • The agencies and members of the Congress should develop collaborative relationships with state and local leaders.

The task force also strongly encourages a comprehensive rethinking of how federal agencies allocate money to support pre-collegiate education.

It notes, for example, that in fiscal 1990 federal agencies spent a total of $515 million just 4 percent of the federal K-12 budget--on programs specifically aimed at supporting math and science.

Such a low funding level will do little to advance the national education goal of making American students "first in the world in math and science by the year 2000," the report argues.

The task force recommends that the enlarge the pot of available funds for math and science education, all federal agencies concerned with science and technology devote some portion of their research and development budgets to pre-collegiate programs.

It also recommends that the Education Department devote a fixed percentage of its budget, perhaps as much as 10 percent, to support "change oriented," competitive, peer-reviewed programs that encourage reform.

It suggests that the department's office of educational research and improvement administer the new grants.

Similarly, the report recommends that the Congress combine the formula-based Eisenhower State Mathematics and Science Education Program with the competitive Eisenhower National Mathematics and Science Program to create a "fully competitive" program "devoted to change and improvement."

The report also proposes that oversight of the program be shifted to the research office from the office of elementary and secondary education.

Combined with existing competitive programs administered by the N.S.R., "this would almost double the funding available for enhancing" math and science teaching, the report argues.

But, while members of the task force advocate a greater emphasis on federal spending in support of local programs, they note that the money should be used to "produce change in the system, not sustain it as it is."

Government's Role

The report also outlines eight "priority roles" for the federal government in math and science reform. These include:

  • Developing a variety of programs to help provide qualified math and science teachers by enhancing the knowledge and skills of existing teachers, ensuring professional training for teachers from a variety of backgrounds, and helping to recruit teachers for schools that currently lack them.
  • Establishing a federally funded, but independently operated, national center for educational content and assessment to develop a consensus about what students need to know and what competencies they will need to be productive in the world of work today and in the marketplace of the future.
  • Strengthening educational "systems research" and establishing "broad-based support" for basic cognitive and applied-learning research.
  • Ensuring more effective diffusion of successful innovations.

The report notes that federal agencies devoted only $5 million in fiscal 1991 to disseminating examples of "best practices"to educators in the field.

"This is wholly inadequate," the report notes. "If diffusion and adoption are not facilitated, the expenditures on school reform, education research, and other activity that the states cannot hope to fund themselves, will have been wasted."

  • Empowering all federal agencies to assume leadership roles in education reform.
  • Encouraging the private sector to develop educational materials, curricula, textbooks, and software.
  • Encouraging science centers and museums, educational televisions and other sources of "informal" education to continue their work.
  • Providing a centralized information-and-referral service to document innovations and to help reformers find information about programs that have proved effective.
  • The report also notes that efforts to convince taxpayers of the need for reform have run afoul of apathetic parents and others who entertain false notions about the ability of schools to teach effectively growing numbers of poor, minority, and non-English speaking students.

Older Voters' 'Cynical Attitude'

"The most difficult group to reach may well be the public, particularly some older voters whose children are no longer in school and who take a cynical attitude toward the likelihood of real improvement in the schools," the report notes.

The burden of carrying the message of reform, and particularly of the need to improve conditions in poor and urban areas, falls squarely on the President, the report says.

"His crusade in the cause of education, if taken up by governors, congressional and other leaders, and by presidents who follow, can turn this situation around," the report states.

Vol. 11, Issue 03, Pages 1, 15

Published in Print: September 18, 1991, as E.D. and N.S.F. Urged To Lead Science Reform
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