Bush Math-Science Plan Gets Airing on Hill

By Sean Cavanagh — March 07, 2006 4 min read
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Congressional lawmakers and Bush administration officials pushed their separate proposals for improving math and science education last week at a series of mostly harmonious hearings that seemed to underscore their shared thinking on the issue.

Assistant Education Secretary Thomas W. Luce III, left, discusses the president's math-science plan last week at a House subcommittee hearing with Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and power company executive Michael G. Morris.

“We’re all on the same train headed in the same direction,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who has introduced bipartisan legislation on the subject, said Feb. 28, at the first of three hearings on the subject in successive days.

Sen. Alexander, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee’s Subcommittee on Education and Early Childhood Development, is the sponsor of the Protecting America’s Competitive Edge Act. The measure would establish scholarships and other incentives aimed at raising the number of math and science teachers, and building students’ interests in those subjects.

“There is nothing in the United States Senate that commands such bipartisan support,” Sen. Alexander, who served as secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, added later.

Read a transcript of our exclusive online chat on Math and Science Education in the U.S.

Mr. Alexander and other subcommittee members quizzed Thomas W. Luce III, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, and, the next day, Henry L. Johnson, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, about the administration’s math and science initiative. He also tried to gauge President Bush’s appetite for various pieces of the PACE Act.

A central piece of the president’s plan is an expansion of the Advanced Placement program, a series of college-prep high school courses that provide students with college credit if they achieve a passing score on tests. The New York City-based College Board sponsors the program. Recent nationwide gains in student math scores seemed to dissipate by the time students were reaching middle-school grades on up, Mr. Johnson said at the March 1 hearing.

“We’re not seeing the return at the secondary level,” he said.

Shared Goals, Divergent Plans

President Bush’s $122 million AP proposal for fiscal 2007 would expand an existing competitive-grant program that allows states, school districts, and nonprofit groups to receive federal money for training teachers to lead AP courses and improving needy students’ access to the program. Grant recipients would be required to provide matching funds worth twice the federal investment.

Mr. Luce pointed to College Board estimates that 500,000 additional students were qualified to take and pass AP calculus tests today, if they took them.

“That’s low-hanging fruit that we need to take advantage of,” he told Sen. Alexander’s subcommittee on Feb. 28. Mr. Luce also addressed the administration’s plan at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing two days later.

The administration also wants to have the federal government take a more active role in promoting effective math instruction. It proposes the creation of a National Mathematics Panel to “empirically evaluate” approaches to teaching math, and a $250 million Math Now program to promote research-based practices in that subject at both the elementary and middle school levels—a step that Mr. Luce indicated would require lawmakers’ approval.

Mr. Luce said that the proposal would prepare students for middle and high school algebra, by grounding them in “pre-algebraic concepts” in grades K-6.

Bush administration officials have compared the math plans to the $1 billion- a-year Reading First program, under which the Education Department awards grants to reading initiatives it says are supported by strong research. Critics, however, say the program selectively enforces that mandate, favoring certain programs and discounting others unfairly. (“White House Suggests Model Used in Reading to Elevate Math Skills,” Feb. 15, 2006.)

Nationwide math scores, as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, have been improving steadily in the 4th and 8th grades since 1990, though those gains slowed on the latest, 2005 test results. By contrast, NAEP reading scores have mostly stagnated during that time.

Weighing Incentives

As is the case in reading, there are long-standing debates about how to teach math most effectively, and whether more emphasis should be placed on building students’ basic skills or problem-solving abilities. Critics have asked whether the administration’s math proposal might favor one approach over the other. Sen. Alexander predicted it would not.

“As long as we’re not requiring [schools] to adopt this or that curriculum, but making available best practices and good thinking, I think it’s a good idea,” he said after the Feb. 28 hearing.

The PACE Act would require a significant federal commitment—$9 billion in spending in its first year, with $5 billion of that devoted to doubling an existing federal research tax credit, Sen. Alexander said. The legislation proposes taking 20 specific steps for improving math and science education recommended in a much-discussed 2005 National Academies report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which was commissioned by Congress.

The PACE Act calls for several steps not included in the Bush plan, including scholarships worth as much as $20,000 annually for four years for students who would major in math, science, or engineering while also pursuing teacher certification. Additional bonuses would be available to bachelor’s-degree recipients who agreed to teach those subjects in high-need schools, or who served as mentors to struggling teachers in those subjects.

Mr. Luce said the administration backs the idea of paying in-demand teachers more.

“We all have to address the issue of differentiated pay,” he said. Referring to his experiences in his home state, he added: “I always said in Texas, a great teacher deserves a great salary.”

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