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Candidates’ Math-Science Ideas Face Limits

By Sean Cavanagh — October 07, 2008 7 min read
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John McCain and Barack Obama have voiced concerns about U.S. students’ middling performance in mathematics and science, echoing the views of many business executives and scientists. But fiscal realities may limit what they could do to address the issue as president.

Both candidates agree that improving the math and science teaching corps will be a key to meeting those challenges, and they’ve proposed new federal financial incentives aimed at luring more people into the profession and encouraging them to stick with it.

Sen. Obama’s math and science proposals are more ambitious, and almost certainly would be more costly, several observers said. The Illinois Democrat has called for an estimated $18 billion in new federal spending on preschool and K-12 programs in all subjects and areas, while Sen. McCain has proposed freezing most discretionary spending until he could conduct a full review of all federal programs. (“U.S. Education Budget Roiled by Financial Crisis,” Sept. 29, 2008.)

Sen. Obama calls for creating 40,000 “teaching service scholarships,” worth up to $25,000 each, for those willing to teach in high-need schools and subjects, such as math and science. He says teachers would also benefit from a tax credit of $4,000 for college, and from his support for teacher-training “residency” programs, one of which is located in his home city of Chicago.

Sen. McCain, meanwhile, has said he would channel a portion of federal teacher-training funding toward bonuses for teachers who agreed to work in math or science and in hard-to-staff schools. The Arizona Republican also pledges to boost support for online education programs that focus on math and science.

“We need to provide more incentives and ability for math, science, and engineering students,” Sen. McCain said in an Aug. 20 campaign speech in Las Cruces, N.M. “We are falling behind in that area. Everybody knows that. ...[W]e should reach a point, at least, where people with those specialties are able to secure a full and complete education.”

Those ideas, along with many other campaign proposals, have been relegated to the sidelines by more immediate economic worries. The Bush administration and leaders in Congress have sought, in particular, to stop a spreading crisis in credit markets with a $700 billion plan to bolster the U.S. financial sector. The rescue measure, which was awaiting final action late last week, could have the effect of restricting new federal spending in other areas, including education, some observers predict. (“Districts’ Borrowing May Face Hit From Continued Financial Crisis,” Oct. 1, 2008, and “Aid for Schools Included in Financial-Rescue Bill,” Oct. 8, 2008.)

On Sept. 26, during the first of three presidential debates, Sen. McCain said he was willing to implement a governmentwide spending freeze to deal with possible revenue shortfalls. His opponent also pledged to look for cuts, but said he would protect certain areas, such as energy research and education.

“We have to make sure our children are competing in math and science,” Sen. Obama said during the debate in Oxford, Miss. He warned against using a “hatchet where you need a scalpel” in cutting valuable federal programs.

Bonuses, Online Courses

Despite possible spending limitations, many U.S. scientists and business leaders argue that new investment in math and science education is vital. That view has been reflected in “Science Debate 2008,” an effort organized by an ad hoc group of scientists and volunteers to have the candidates focus on science issues, including science education. The organizers have published the candidates’ positions on a Web site, at www.sciencedebate2008.com, and 38,000 scientists, business leaders, and others have voiced support for the effort, said Shawn Lawrence Otto, a Hollywood screenwriter who has worked on the project.

Science and math education programs have “some of the best return on investment that you could ask for,” Mr. Otto said. “Both of the candidates realize we can’t continue to burn on the fumes of yesterday.”

Sen. McCain has said he favors rechanneling federal Title II money to support “incentive bonuses” for high-performing teachers to take jobs in subjects such as math and science, as well as for professional development. That money would come from the pool of Title II funds authorized in the No Child Left Behind Act, said Lisa Graham Keegan, a top education adviser to Mr. McCain.

That proposal is in keeping with the candidate’s belief that teachers with superior math and science skills get better results in the classroom, and more needs to be done to recruit them, Ms. Keegan explained in an e-mail.

Ellin J. Nolan, a lobbyist who represents several education organizations on Capitol Hill, said support from her clients for Sen. McCain’s proposal would likely depend on the details, such as whether money was diverted from popular existing professional-development programs under Title II.

The Republican nominee also wants to create a $250 million competitive-grant program for states to support online education programs. That money could be devoted to “virtual” math and science academies and to the expansion of computer-based Advanced Placement courses in math- and science-related subjects.

Sen. Obama, meanwhile, promises to increase federal support for teacher-residency programs—year-long programs in urban areas that allow teacher-candidates, while pursuing master’s degrees, to receive classroom training with supervision and help from seasoned educators. A study released in August by the Washington-based Aspen Institute and the Hillsborough, N.C.-based Center for Teaching Quality, found that a high proportion of teachers participating in residency program in Boston and Chicago were staying in the profession. (“Boston, Chicago Teacher ‘Residencies’ Gaining Notice,” Sept. 17, 2008.)

Focus on Incentives

While both candidates have touted financial incentives as a strategy for recruiting and retaining math and science teachers, that approach has produced mixed results in states and school districts, research has shown.

Some proponents argue that financial incentives carry particular weight with math and science teachers, because those educators’ skills make them especially attractive to private-sector employers. Yet concern about low pay is only one source of job dissatisfaction among teachers, along with worries about lack of administrative support and poor workplace conditions, surveys show. (“Doubts Cast on Math, Science Teaching Lures,” Aug. 1, 2007.)

“There’s a myth that there are beaucoup people out there just waiting to become teachers if only the salaries were better,” said Barnett Berry, the president of the Center for Teaching Quality, which seeks to improve the training of educators. “We need more opportunities to go out and recruit the people who are willing, and make sure they’re prepared.”

Another proposal from Sen. Obama, which the Democratic nominee introduced in a bill in Congress this year, is to create a committee within the National Science and Technology Council, a White House policy group, to better coordinate federal spending on science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, education programs, which receive an estimated $3 billion a year. Critics say little is known about the effectiveness of such programs.

The bill would also create a research repository highlighting effective STEM programs, to be housed in the National Science Digital Library, an online clearinghouse for education resources supported by the National Science Foundation.

Jon Baron, the executive director of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, a Washington organization that promotes higher standards for evaluating federal programs, said the value of Sen. Obama’s proposal would depend on whether it highlighted programs backed by extensive scientific research.

Mr. Baron also said he would prefer that the STEM repository be located in the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Scientists and business leaders played a major role last year in lobbying Congress to approve the America Competes Act, which supported numerous math and science curriculum and teacher-training programs. Congress has yet to fund many of those programs, so business and education advocates will continue to push hard for them in next administration, Ms. Nolan, the education lobbyist, predicted.

While interest groups have to “look at the current economic situation and see if their priorities can easily go forward,” she said, “there’s a huge coalition that still sees these as important issues.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as Candidates’ Math-Science Ideas Face Limits

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