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Math-Science Bills Advance in Congress

By David J. Hoff & Sean Cavanagh — April 27, 2007 6 min read
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Separate Measures Are Aimed At Boosting Competitiveness

The omnibus bills include efforts to increase the content knowledge of prospective math and science teachers, provide professional development for teachers in those subjects, and define what students should know to do well in college and the workplace in all subjects.

“We can only succeed in the international global economy if we are competitive and if we innovate,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said during the House’s debate on the three bills that made up its competitiveness package. “We cannot innovate without the investment in education, the investment in science and technology.”

As part of that package, the House on April 24 approved the 10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds Science and Math Scholarship Act by a vote of 389-22. The House also approved a science and technology bill that day, and a bill to provide loans to small technology businesses the next day. Both those bills passed by large margins.

The Senate passed its bill, 88-8, on April 25.

“The American Competes Act is the best way to keep more of the jobs of the 21st century right here in America and the best way to ensure that our children have the skills to keep America at the forefront of innovations and discovery,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader.

A White House statement expressed concern about the number of new programs proposed in the Senate bill, but it did not threaten a veto. The two chambers’ bills would have to be reconciled before Congress could send a measure to President Bush.

Supporters of the bill said that the Senate took a comprehensive approach to solving the problem because the stakes are high.

“We are at risk of losing our brainpower advantage,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a co-author of the bill, said. “If we lose our brainpower advantage, we lose … our standard of living.”

“Federal investment in the basic sciences and research has long been a critical component of America’s competitive dominance globally,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Last week’s action followed more than two years of bipartisan work in both houses that responded to a 2005 report from a panel of business leaders convened by the National Academies. In “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” the panel warned that the United States’ economy would suffer if it failed to improve the scientific and technological skills of its workforce. (“Panel Urges U.S. Push to Raise Math, Science Achievement,” Oct. 19, 2005.)

In the K-12 section of that report, the business leaders set goals of recruiting 10,000 of the nation’s best college students to teach mathematics and science; improving the math and science skills of the 250,000 teachers already teaching those subjects; and doubling the number of students taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

Congress’ attempt to address the K-12 goals, as well as the broader scientific and technological issues addressed in the report, faltered last year. While the bills passed last week by the House and the Senate share many goals, they take different approaches to meeting them.

The Senate bill would establish several new programs in various federal agencies, while the House legislation focuses more on expanding existing programs, mostly within the National Science Foundation.

Both the House and the Senate bills would do more to attract new teachers to the profession and provide more in-service training to veteran educators who need to improve their expertise in various science subjects, said Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the 56,000-member National Science Teachers Association.

10,000 New Teachers

The House bill sets a goal of luring 10,000 new math and science teachers annually. One mechanism for doing so is an expansion of the existing Robert Noyce Scholarship Program, administered by the NSF, which provides $10,000 annual scholarships to college students who agree to become math and science teachers.

The bill would increase the number of years of scholarship funding students could receive from two to three years. Students would be expected to teach for up to six years to receive that maximum funding, but could reduce the commitment by agreeing to work in “high need” schools. Scholarships would be converted to loans for awardees who did not fulfill teaching commitments. The Noyce program awards funding to colleges and universities, which then select students for scholarships, according to an description from the NSF.

The increased monetary incentives would at least offer a carrot for students considering other, better-paying math- and science-related jobs, Mr. Wheeler said.

“We have a hard time competing with corporate America, but this will help get the attention of [prospective] teachers,” he said.

Mr. Wheeler also supports a provision in the House bill that would provide competitive financial awards to establish stronger links between universities’ academic departments in math and science and their teacher-training programs. Many math and science experts say too few students majoring in those subjects consider becoming teachers; too few aspiring teachers, meanwhile, take advantage of strong academic courses offered by math and science departments.

“Nowhere do those two conversations come together,” Mr. Wheeler said.

Some postsecondary institutions, however, such as the UTeach program at the University of Texas at Austin, have drawn praise from federal officials for bridging the faculty divide and producing math and science teachers with strong content knowledge. Mr. Wheeler believes the House legislation would allow more universities to make similar efforts.

Both chambers’ bills would establish new programs to encourage math and science teachers to pursue master’s degrees in those subjects, with the idea that advanced training would provide them with greater subject-matter expertise.

The Senate bill would create competitive grants for states to ensure their standards are linked to higher education and workforce skills.

In an April 23 statement, White House officials voiced numerous concerns about the Senate competitiveness proposal—particularly its creation of new programs at the U.S. departments of Commerce and Energy and at the NSF.

Administration officials estimate that the Senate bill would cost $61 billion over four years, which they say is $9 billion more than the four-year price tag for President Bush’s proposed American Competitiveness Initiative, also aimed at improving math and science education.

Scot Montrey, a spokesman for Sen. Alexander, put the legislation’s cost at $60 billion, but said the measure included only $16 billion in spending on new programs.

The Senate bill “expands many existing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs that have not been proven effective and creates new STEM education programs that overlap with existing federal programs,” the White House said in the statement.

A soon-to-be-released, congressionally mandated report, part of a review being led by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, will show that many federal math and science programs in teacher training and other areas have failed to produce results, the White House said.

‘Hard Part’ Ahead

The bills passed last week would create the new programs. The next big step, assuming a final version of the legislation is signed into law, would be for Congress to pass appropriations bills to pay for them.

With the budget for domestic spending austere, Congress will struggle to find the money to support the programs that eventually emerge in the competitiveness bill, Sen. McConnell said.

“The hard part, obviously, is going to be providing the funds to carry out the programs in this bill to meet these authorization targets we have set,” he said.

Still, advocates for the advancement of science and technology lauded Congress’ action as a good first step in addressing the needs in their fields.

“These bills are the best possible start to addressing the competitiveness challenge,” said James Brown, a co-chairman of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group. “It’s an excellent deal, when you consider all the constraints out there.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2007 edition of Education Week as Math-Science Bills Advance In Congress

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