Education Funding

NSF Plots New Education Strategy

By David J. Hoff — November 07, 2001 7 min read
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For the past 10 years, the National Science Foundation has directed its K-12 grant money to states and school districts to help them overhaul their science and mathematics programs.

Now, the independent federal agency is taking a new tack by turning to universities and nonprofit groups to address specific problems, such as a dearth of science and math educators, inadequate teacher knowledge of those fields, and disappointing levels of minority student achievement in the subjects.

In shifting its focus away from “systemic” reforms by states and districts, the NSF will issue a series of grants through which university scholars, state education officials, nonprofit leaders, and teachers will work together on projects designed to address such problems.

“We’re setting something in motion,” Judith A. Ramaley, the NSF’s assistant director for education and human resources, said in a recent interview at the agency’s headquarters here. “The whole game plan is to make connections.”

The NSF, with $313 million devoted to precollegiate programs this year, announced the first step in the new strategy last month with the opening of its seven “centers for learning and teaching.”

Once Congress finishes the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the NSF will run the federally financed math-science partnerships between schools and higher education that the bill is to create.

The new projects will ensure that the NSF money gets closer to the classroom than it did in the past, agency officials say.

The grants already given to local school districts and state departments of education—once the centerpiece of the science agency’s education programs—will be phased out as the projects are finished. Over the past decade, the NSF spent $427 million on those systemic initiatives.

A vital ingredient lacking in those programs was the involvement of classroom teachers, a leader of science educators says.

“The stuff I saw that was missing was the new models of leadership, especially in classrooms,” said Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, a 53,000-member group that is also based here.

Teachers “could have animportant role at the local level,” Mr. Wheeler added. “To do that, there has to be some leadership development.”

Same Old Program?

But some critics maintain the NSF’s new approach isn’t much different from the previous one. To begin with, they argue, the new learning and teaching centers start with the same assumptions on how to teach mathematics that the projects of the 1990s did.

Specifically, the new projects still ignore the argument that students need to learn basic mathematical procedures before their teachers emphasize skills such as communicating about math and learning the concepts behind the procedures, according to one of the NSF’s leading critics.

“This is essentially [the same thing as] the systemic-initiative crap of the last decade,” said Wayne W. Bishop, a professor of mathematics at California State University-Los Angeles and a leader of California’s effort to write the state mathematics standards in the 1990s.

Luther S. Williams, Ms. Ramaley’s predecessor at the NSF, had written a letter saying the standards Mr. Bishop helped craft were “detrimental to the long-term mathematical literacy of children in California.”

In a recent e-mail, Mr. Bishop said the NSF’s new funding approach “proves yet again that a change of administration changes almost nothing.”

But supporters counter that the NSF is on the right track. The systemic initiatives of the 1990s succeeded as far as they could, those experts say, and the initiatives identified needs that the NSF is now addressing.

“The realization is that we have to reach deeper, and we have to make more connections among teachers and university faculty,” said Eric E. Robinson, an associate professor of mathematics and computer science at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y.

Many of the systemic projects, for example, invested heavily in professional development of teachers. The problem was that many of those teachers left the profession or moved to a different district soon after, limiting the impact of the initiatives, said Mr. Robinson. He operates an NSF- financed project to help teachers use the new math curricula developed by NSF projects.

‘Learning and Teaching’

The science foundation’s new centers will be based at universities and nonprofit organizations and have broad agendas. (“NSF Launches $100 Million Science Education Campaign,” Oct. 24, 2001.)

“These are going to become our idea factories,” Ms. Ramaley said.

For example, the Mid-Atlantic Center for Mathematics Teaching and Learning is a coalition of three universities, two large school districts, and one state department of education.

The universities are offering $25,000 annual fellowships to university students in mathematics education doctoral programs, while also working with Delaware state education officials and the Prince George’s County, Md., and Pittsburgh districts to increase the subject-area knowledge of their math and science teachers.

Both goals of the Mid-Atlantic Center project are necessary to ensure that the next generation of teachers has strong content knowledge and can communicate effectively with students, the leader of the project said.

“The problems have a wide scope,” said James T. Fey, a professor of curriculum and instruction and mathematics at the University of Maryland College Park and the director of the center. “What NSF asked for each of these centers to address is a fairly long list of things.”

The University of Maryland and its partners—Pennsylvania State University in University Park and the University of Delaware in Newark—have struggled to fill faculty positions for mathematics education in recent years, Mr. Fey said.

But the fellowship program has enticed teachers and graduate school mathematics students into doctoral programs to study math instruction, he added.

Across the country, the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco, will be recruiting new scholars in the field of “informal” science education, in which museums, zoos, aquariums, and other cultural institutions work with schools to supplement science curricula with exhibits and real-life demonstrations.

The University of California, Santa Cruz, a partner in the project, will start offering a master’s degree in informal science education within two years.

In addition, the Exploratorium will hold three-week summer professional- development programs in which teachers and museum educators share research and methods, according to Bronwyn Bevan, the director of the NSF center based at the Exploratorium.

“This is an evolutionary step to start to say: What are we learning collectively about the way informal science institutions can support science education in classrooms?” Ms. Bevan said. “It’s also about creating the next generation of leaders for science education.”

Next Steps

At the moment, the NSF is also preparing to start up a set of state and local math-science partnerships, which will combine the forces of state and local K-12 systems, universities, and businesses to improve the quality of science and math teaching. Those projects are a central part of the teacher-development section of President Bush’s ESEA plan.

A House-Senate conference committee is meeting to seek compromises on differences between their versions of the bill. The NSF has requested $200 million to start the projects in fiscal 2002, which began Oct. 1.

Some partnerships will be statewide; others will be based in school districts.

But all of the grant recipients will be required to be partners with higher education in improving math and science curricula and the quality of teaching in those subjects. They also will attempt to create “replicable or adaptable models of systemic reform,” according to a NSF description of the program.

“We haven’t thought through what the transition will be between those kind of systemic reforms and the math-science partnership,” acknowledged Ms. Ramaley, who became the NSF ‘s assistant director for education programs in August.

While the partnerships aren’t yet in law, members of the math and science education communities are preparing to apply for them.

This past weekend, the Exxon Mobil Foundation held a two-day “summit” on the math education of teachers. At the event, the oil company’s philanthropy announced that it would give $3,000 grants to help projects prepare applications to seek grants from the NSF program.

Ms. Ramaley predicts that—like the systemic initiatives—the current projects will address the needs in the subjects today and lead to future steps for the foundation to take.

“It’s ambitious, but it’s workable,” she said. “It’s hard to know how far this will go.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as NSF Plots New Education Strategy


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