Mathematics

Bush to Push for Math and Science Upgrade

By David J. Hoff — November 20, 2002 5 min read
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The Bush administration is preparing a campaign to highlight math and science education and improve the way schools teach the subjects, entering the fray on an issue that has split advocates of a basic-skills focus and educators of a more progressive bent.

Officials at the White House and the Department of Education are planning a one- day kickoff summit early next year, during which President Bush would call attention to the need to raise student performance in mathematics and science. And the president, according to an administration official, would use the gathering to launch a search for research-based ways of teaching the subjects and improve teachers’ knowledge of them.

The project marks the logical next step, the official said, after the administration established its $5 billion Reading First program. But the math and science project isn’t as well defined at the start because the research on effective math and science practice isn’t as conclusive, according to the official, who asked not to be identified.

“The challenge is: We don’t have that kind of definitive knowledge ... as we do in reading,” said the official.

But as with reading, where there’s a long-running philosophical debate over phonics-based and literature-centered instruction, the effort is likely to encounter a divide between proponents of particular approaches to teaching the subjects, particularly math.

In mathematics, some want to emphasize basic skills, such as memorizing multiplication tables and mastering basic computational skills, while others advocate instruction that builds students’ understanding of mathematical concepts before working on basic skills. The latter approach has been advocated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which set off the current debate in 1989 when it published its standards for K-12 math education.

While the initiative has yet to be publicly announced, the Education Department has already made a $400,000 grant to three leaders of the basic-skills movement for efforts to raise teachers’ content knowledge—one of the major goals of the administration’s program. The recipients of the grant were leaders in the back-to-basics push in California, and those awards have led others in the field to maintain that the new initiative will have a distinct bias.

“It’s clear that by choosing these three people, they’re taking sides,” Bill Jacob, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said of department officials. “It’s clear ... they’re going to accept the view of these three people.”

Lagging Achievement

Educators and policymakers have been debating what they see as poor U.S. mathematics and science achievement at least since 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I—the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth.

The focus of debate in the 1960s was how to prepare the nation’s brightest students for careers in mathematics and science. In the past 20 years, the agenda has switched to raising overall achievement to be on par with countries that are the United States’ economic competitors.

On international tests given since the mid-1990s, U.S. middle school and high school students have scored at or below the international average in both subjects. (“U.S. Students’ Scores Drop By 8th Grade,” Dec. 13, 2000.)

President Bush is likely to cite such statistics when he inaugurates the federal initiative early next year. Organizers had been trying to schedule the event for December, but they have postponed it because Mr. Bush could not find room on his schedule.

Mr. Bush and others at the event are also going to stress that a solid grounding in mathematics and science is vital for students’ career success, the administration official familiar with the initiative said.

The initiative will eventually include a variety of federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes for Health, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, according to that official and an another official at one of the agencies.

The NSF is preparing to play a “supporting role” in the effort, but its duties are still not defined, said William Noxon, a spokesman for the independent agency.

Starting Point

In addition to seeking research on best practices in math and science, the initiative will attempt to increase teachers’ knowledge of the subjects they teach.

The Education Department has made a one-year, $400,000 grant to Doug Carnine, the director of the National Center to Improve the Tools of Education, based at the University of Oregon in Eugene; R. James Milgram, a Stanford University mathematics professor; and Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

The grant will seek to forge a consensus among university presidents, deans, and mathematicians about the amount and types of math courses that prospective teachers need to take. Many elementary teachers take just one year of college- level math, and they need twice that much to give them the foundational skills they need to teach the subject to young children, Mr. Milgram said.

In addition, the project will develop professional-development materials to be used in upgrading the skills of current middle school math teachers.

The one- year timeline for what promises to be a difficult task suggests that the grant’s recipients know the types of recommendations they will ultimately make, said Mr. Jacob of UC-Santa Barbara.

“What they’re going to do is deliver what they’ve already prepared,” he asserted.

The split between Mr. Jacob and the group working on the Education Department project reflects the contentiousness that has marked mathematics education over the past decade or so.

Mr. Jacob supports the standards published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which outline what K-12 students should learn at every step of the way. The standards have helped shape textbooks, curriculum, and state standards since they first came out in 1989. The NCTM revised the standards to clarify that basic skills are an integral part of mathematics instructions, but the changes haven’t appeased the standards’ harshest critics.

But they have also been the subject of criticism from those who say they lack the rigor and emphasis on basic skills that K-12 students need. Mr. Milgram helped rewrite the California math standards that had reflected the NCTM’s influence.

One of the goals of the federal initiative, the administration official said, is to find a way for the opposing sides to agree on basic principles of mathematics education.

“We have to move people from the battle lines,” the official said. “We all want the same thing: for children to get a strong foundation in mathematics.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Bush to Push for Math and Science Upgrade


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