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Senate Panel Explores Ways to Spur Progress on Math and Science

By Debra Viadero — February 21, 2006 3 min read
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Education-related prescriptions for strengthening the nation’s economic competitiveness took center stage in a pair of Senate meetings last week.

The discussions came on the heels of President Bush’s proposed $380 million initiative for improving the United States’ global competitiveness.

The president has called for boosting the numbers of high school students who take and pass exams in advanced mathematics and science classes, adding 70,000 teachers for those classes, and drawing more math and science professionals into teaching. (“Bush Proposes Math and Science Initiatives,” Feb. 8, 2006.)

“Without an educated workforce, we are certain to lose our pre-eminence in the world to developing nations that are quickly growing, educating their citizens, and innovating at much faster rates,” said Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the Wyoming Republican who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Stepping Up Supply

Mr. Enzi led a Feb. 16 roundtable discussion on the issue that included educators, industry leaders, and education reformers from around the country.

Asked for their advice on how to increase the flow of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians into the U.S. workforce, the 14 participants offered a wide range of ideas.

They suggested: improving reading skills in kindergarten through 12th grade; requiring all students to complete more rigorous coursework in high school; making learning more hands-on, flexible, and relevant to students; recruiting math and science professionals to mentor and teach students; and better aligning all levels of schooling so that students make smoother transitions from high school to college or the labor force.

“Many of us are out to create new programs, when there are programs already out there that have measured success,” said Michael J. Bzdack, the director of corporate contributions for Johnson & Johnson Inc. of New Brunswick, N.J.

Part of the problem, panelists said, is that too few groups active in efforts to improve educational outcomes for young people work together.

“It’s not ‘either-or,’ it’s ‘and’ and ‘both,’ said Jim Shelton, the executive director of the Eastern division of the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Democrats on the Senate education committee weighed in on the issue later the same day with a press conference criticizing President Bush’s budget and competitiveness-boosting proposals.

They faulted the budget plan, in particular, for cutting funds for job training, adult education, and youth-training programs, such as the Job Corps.

“It is wrong to cut the education and job-training programs critical to America’s future to pay for handouts to special interests,” Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate minority leader, said in a statement.

Competing Plans

Meanwhile, a bipartisan bill on the subject continues to circulate in the Senate.

Unveiled Jan. 25 by Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and by Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the “Protecting America’s Competitive Edge” proposal embodies 20 recommendations made last fall by a blue-ribbon panel of scientists and business leaders.

Convened by the National Academies, a nonpartisan group created by the Congress to advise federal policymakers on scientific matters, the panel’s report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” warned that the United States was on the verge of losing its economic, technological, and scientific advantage over other nations. (“Panel Urges U.S. Push to Raise Math, Science Achievement,” Oct. 19, 2006.)

Like President Bush’s plan, the bipartisan bill would expand advanced high school math and science programs.

It also proposes doubling the nation’s investment in basic research, offering hefty scholarships for future math and science teachers and fellowships for future scientists, and streamlining the visa process for talented foreign students who want to study in the United States.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Senate Panel Explores Ways to Spur Progress On Math and Science

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