Science Board Calls on Educators To Reach Consensus on Content

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The National Science Board last week issued recommendations that are intended to inject more expertise into science and math classes and swell the ranks of qualified teachers in those subjects.

In an attempt to raise the nation's disappointing student achievement levels in both science and mathematics, the governing body of the National Science Foundation took the unprecedented step of formally calling on educators, who have often been at odds over the best ways to teach those subjects, to work toward building consensus on what students need to know.

The board also urged colleges and universities to offer incentives for cultivating well-trained science and math teachers and encouraged national and local education leaders to set reliable measures of accountability.

To complement the board's recommendations, the NSF also announced a $7.5 million program--part of the federal agency's proposed fiscal 2000 budget--to place graduate students from the fields of math, science, technology, and engineering in elementary and secondary schools to mentor students. Under the program, institutions with graduate degrees in those areas would be eligible for $200,000 to $500,000 each in grants annually.

The board said its specific policy recommendations, which it rarely makes, were necessary because of U.S. students' disappointing rankings in the Third International Mathematics and Science study in 1995. In one of the largest global studies of educational achievement, the United States ranked 28th out of 41 countries in 8th graders' math performance and 17th in 8th graders' science achievement. ("8th Grade Performance," Nov. 27, 1996.)

Beyond mentoring students, the universities that receive the NSF grants also would dispatch teaching fellows to schools as "technical backup" to educate teachers on the latest engineering or computer information, for example. Currently, 75 percent of science and math teachers in the United States did not major in the field that they are teaching, NSF officials said.

"We cannot expect the task of science and math education to be the responsibility solely of K-12 teachers while scientists and engineers and graduate students remain busy in their universities and laboratories," Rita Colwell, the science foundation's director, said in a written statement last week.

Teacher Shortage

Gail Burrill, the immediate past president of the 115,000-member National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, applauded the plan. Ms. Burrill said that federal aid likely would spur institutions to devise creative ways of providing mentors and tutors for schools, rather than just "corralling a bunch of math tutors" who might not be interested in working in the classroom.

But Alice Artzt, a professor of mathematics education at Queens College in New York City, said she was dubious about the idea of having graduate students tell veteran math teachers how to teach.

"If you pick a graduate student who has not taught, they can't be a mentor for a teacher. That's a joke," she said. But the professor added that she hoped the experience of working with children in the classroom would inspire more graduate students to make a career out of teaching.

Ms. Artzt knows firsthand how hard it is to recruit qualified math and science teachers. Last year, her college couldn't even give away all of the 35 scholarships, worth $3,200 each, it offered to students if they pledged to teach math in public schools when they graduated.

One reason for the shortage of qualified teachers is educators' prejudice against selling their own profession, she argued. "When math and science teachers see a student with a gift for math and science, they don't say to them, 'Wow you could be a great math teacher.' They say: 'You could be an engineer and make big money, '" she said.

Vol. 18, Issue 26, Page 7

Published in Print: March 10, 1999, as Science Board Calls on Educators To Reach Consensus on Content
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