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Spellings Leads Review of Math, Science Ed. Programs

By Alyson Klein — April 11, 2006 6 min read
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As part of President Bush’s efforts to place more emphasis on mathematics and science education to keep the United States economically competitive, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is leading a panel of high-level administration officials that is evaluating the effectiveness of more than 200 federal programs in those areas.

The panel, called the Academic Competitiveness Council, was established under the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which President Bush signed earlier this year. Congress charged the council with making recommendations for streamlining and eliminating duplications within the broad array of science, technology, engineering, and math education programs the federal government now finances.

The council, which Secretary Spellings touted during a hearing of the House Education and the Workforce Committee on April 6, is made up of officials from the 13 federal agencies that manage the more than 200 programs dealing with math and science education, as well as a representative from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Federal Math and Science

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is leading a review of all mathematics and science education programs throughout the federal government. Below are selected K-12 programs in those subjects in various federal agencies.

*Click image to see the full chart.

SOURCE: U.S. Government Accountability Office

The council must submit a report to Congress by next February, which will likely pinpoint redundant programs and suggest ways to better coordinate and integrate the various federal efforts. Science educators and some policy makers are eyeing the panel with cautious optimism. Although they support the goal of streamlining, they are worried about what might get cut

Math and science education programs cost the federal government about $2.8 billion in fiscal 2004, according to an October 2005 report from the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress. The GAO listed 207 programs, including some as small as a $4,000 national scholars’ program, administered by the Department of Agriculture, to one as large as a National Institutes of Health program established to train biomedical, clinical, and behavioral researchers, budgeted at nearly $547 million in fiscal 2004.

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, requested that the council be added to the deficit-reduction measure last year when he was chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said Steve Forde, a spokesman for Republicans on the committee. Rep. Boehner was elected majority leader in February.

“With the renewed focus on science and math programs at the federal level, he felt it was productive to get a handle on the programs already on the books before we keep adding more on top of them,” Mr. Forde said of Rep. Boehner’s request.

Align With NCLB Law

President Bush dropped by the Academic Competitiveness Council’s first, closed-door meeting at the White House on March 6, which was also attended by Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez, Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman, and Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta, as well as representatives from the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and other federal agencies with math and science education programs.

Secretary Spellings told the House education committee last week that she has charged council members with “inventorying every program” the federal government offers in math and science education. She said the council plans to consider programs’ missions, what types of people they are intended to reach, and whether they are aligned with state math and science education standards.

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Math and Science Education in the U.S.

“Particularly during these tight budget times, we must ask ourselves whether we’re spending each and every dollar well and wisely on our most pressing needs,” Ms. Spellings said. “Are we focusing our efforts on teachers who already possess a strong science-knowledge base?”

Thomas W. Luce III, the assistant secretary for the Department of Education’s office of planning, evaluation, and policy development, explained in an April 4 interview that the council also plans to look for current pilot projects that are effective and could be implemented on a national scale.

Mr. Luce said it was too early to tell which programs would be recommended for expansion or for elimination. For now, he said, the council is working to identify all federal math and science education programs. It has not yet determined how it will measure their success.

But he added that, when possible, the council plans to look for ways to align programs with the No Child Left Behind Act.

“There will be some programs that, by statute, are targeted to a specific task, such as creation of more minority math and science majors,” Mr. Luce said. “We’re not going to undertake to change the goal or priority of a program. But where there is flexibility, we certainly will be urging that some of the principles of [the No Child Left Behind law] be applied to the programs.”

He said the council will consider whether programs assess their impact on student achievement, are targeted to teachers who are not highly qualified, or help schools that are not making adequate yearly progress as defined under the federal law.

Mr. Luce added that the Competitiveness Council plans to ensure that the federal government is not sending “mixed signals” on policy.

“If we’re having teacher training and one approach is X and one approach is Y, and one approach is Z, we’d like to see which one is proven to be the most effective,” he said.

Cuts for NSF?

But some members of Congress and others are wary that the council’s work could lead to cuts in education funding, especially for programs not administered by the Education Department. During a March 30 hearing of the House Science Committee, Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., asked Ms. Spellings how the council planned to recommend which programs would be continued or expanded and which would be eliminated. Ms. Spellings said the council was still determining how many programs are in existence.

While Rep. Ehlers applauded the idea of bringing math and science programs into greater alignment, he said he was “particularly concerned” because, while the NSF’s total budget has grown over the past two fiscal years, funding for education-oriented programs has diminished.

Much of the overall federal spending on math and science education—about 71 percent, or $2 billion, in fiscal 2004—went to the NSF and NIH, according to the GAO report.

“I hope this is not a forerunner of some continued deleterious effects for the foundation,” Rep. Ehlers cautioned.

Jodi L. Peterson, the director of legislative affairs for the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va., expressed similar concerns. While she agrees that many of the 207 federal math and science education programs are “earmarks” that have little effect, she said lawmakers should be cautious in determining which ones to eliminate.

Ms. Peterson said programs at the NSF focusing on professional development, such as the Teacher Professional Continuum, an NSF program that helps train teachers, are among the best the federal government offers. She said she worries that financing for such programs could be cut since “past history has told us NSF might not come out as well as we would hope.”

But Glenn S. Ruskin, the director of the office of legislative and governmental affairs at the American Chemical Society in Washington, said high-quality math and science education programs, including many at the NSF, would not likely be placed on the chopping block because they have “clearly thought-out missions” and have received high effectiveness ratings from the White House management and budget office, which has a mechanism for scoring federal programs.

He acknowledged that the Academic Competitiveness Council’s work was likely to be controversial since many of the programs have at least one supporter in Congress. But, Mr. Ruskin added, “I think this is a good thing” for proven programs.

He cited the Math Science Partnerships at both the NSF and the Education Department, which fosters cooperation between businesses and schools to design curricula and train teachers, as one program that has shown the results the council members say they are looking for.

Said Mr. Ruskin, “I don’t think anyone would shoot the goose that lays the golden egg.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Spellings Leads Review of Math, Science Ed. Programs

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