Law & Courts

Congress Passes ‘Competitiveness’ Bill

By Sean Cavanagh — August 03, 2007 5 min read
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Congress approved legislation Thursday that seeks to bolster mathematics and science education through improved teacher recruitment and training and promote successful classroom practices through federal grants.

The bipartisan legislation, which the House approved by a 367-57 vote and the Senate passed unanimously, had the backing of numerous business and education organizations. Members of Congress have dubbed the proposals, now consolidated into one bill, “competitiveness” legislation, because they believe it will strengthen the quality of the U.S. workforce and gird the American economy against foreign competition.

The bill now goes to President Bush, who lawmakers believe will sign the bill.

“In my mind, there will be no more important legislation that passes the Congress this year,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of its sponsors, told reporters this week. “This is the prime model of bipartisan cooperation.”

The bill would establish several new federal math and science programs and expand existing ones. If Congress appropriates money for all the programs, it would cost $43.3 billion over three years, though much of that spending would be devoted to research programs in technology, energy, and other areas.

The measure would broaden the Robert Noyce Scholarship Program, which provides grants of $10,000 a year to college majors in math- and science-related subjects who agree to teach in high-need schools. Among other changes, the bill would provide awardees of the program, which is administered by the National Science Foundation, up to three years of scholarship funding, instead of the current limit of two years. In addition, scholarship recipients would be given additional time to complete their teacher training, under the legislation.

Furthermore, the proposal addresses some of the math and science priorities identified by President Bush. It would create “Math Now,” a program in which the U.S. Department of Education would award grants to states to attempt to implement proven strategies in math instruction. The legislation says the goal is to help students reach grade level in math and prepare them for algebra, a subject most students take in 8th or 9th grade.

In the past, Bush administration officials have likened Math Now to the federal Reading First program, a $1 billion-a-year effort that seeks to improve instruction through the promotion of researched-based practices in reading. Department of Education representatives have faced charges of favoring certain commercial reading products in awarding grants to states, but Reading First has also won praise for improving instruction and achievement from state officials and researchers. (“White House Suggests Model Used in Reading To Elevate Math Skills,” Feb. 15, 2006.)

‘In Harmony’

The “competitiveness” legislation also appears to address another of President Bush’s goals by authorizing new grant programs to increase the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes in schools nationwide.

Additionally, the bill calls for the secretary of education to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to convene a national panel to “identify promising practices in the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in elementary and secondary schools.”

Last year, the White House set up the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, a 17-member group charged with studying effective classroom strategies in math and presenting recommendations to the president. Lee Pitts, a spokesman for Sen. Alexander, said the panel established in the new legislation would “extend the work of the math panel into science, technology, and engineering.” It is not meant to duplicate the math panel, he added.

The House and Senate originally approved separate versions of the math and science legislation. Lawmakers from both chambers met in a conference committee in an effort to resolve those differences and produce a final bill for consideration by the House and Senate.

Speaking with reporters Aug. 1, two sponsors of the House and Senate bills, Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and Sen. Alexander, said negotiations over the final bill were not difficult.

“We were very much in harmony,” Rep. Gordon said. “The conference was short and sweet.”

The bill would establish two new competitive grant programs within the Education Department, according to a conference report released by lawmakers this week. The first is aimed at expanding master’s degrees in science- and math-related fields. The other would support programs that encourage undergraduates to obtain bachelor’s degrees in science- and math-related fields and foreign languages at the same time they are gaining teacher certification. The legislation authorizes $151 million for the bachelor’s degree program and $125 million for the master’s degree program in fiscal 2008, according to a summary of the conference report.

The bill only authorizes new spending on federal math and science programs; it does not guarantee they will get that money. Appropriations for those programs are currently included in three separate spending bills under consideration by Congress, said Mr. Pitts.

Francis M. “Skip” Fennell, the president of the 100,000-member National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in Reston, Va., said his organization was pleased with the legislation, especially provision within it that seek to provide support and assistance to inexperienced and struggling educators.

“We know that the lack of proper mentoring and support for teachers is one reason so many leave the profession in the first years of teaching,” Mr. Fennell said in a statement. Math coaches, he said, “will help early and midcareer teachers and afford better learning opportunities for students.”

John J. Castellani, the president of the Business Roundtable, also praised the congressional action. “If we are to maintain our competitive edge, we must improve the education our students receive in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” he said in a statement. “America’s ability to compete in a 21st-century economy rests on our continued investments in math and science education. The U.S. Congress has confirmed its commitment to ensuring that we are prepared to continue to lead the world in research and technology-well into the future.”

Associate Editor David J. Hoff contributed to this story.

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