Mathematics

Study: NSF Initiative Reaps Payoff In Cities

By David J. Hoff — July 11, 2001 3 min read
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An eight-year federal effort to improve mathematics and science education in urban schools paid off in higher test scores and increases in the number of minority students taking high-level courses, according to an analysis of the project.

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Read “Academic Excellence for All Urban Students” (requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader); the report is also available for free from Systemic Research Inc., by writing Systemic Research Inc., from 150 Kerry Place, 2nd floor, Norwood, MA 02062.

Almost all of the 21 cities that received National Science Foundation funding starting in 1993 could document an increase in test scores, and eight of the districts reduced the achievement gap between minority and white students, concludes the NSF-commissioned report examining math- and science-test scores.

What’s more, average enrollment in algebra, physics, and other high- level courses increased on average in the districts that had won grants under the project, the NSF’s Urban Systemic Initiative.

“There were significant gains in achievement in mathematics and science,” Floretta D. McKenzie, a consultant to the project, said at a news conference held near the foundation’s headquarters here last month to release the study. “The impact on individual sites, as well as collectively, has been significant.”

The projects have been successful, added Ms. McKenzie, a former District of Columbia superintendent of schools, because they needed to take a comprehensive approach to improving math and science achievement. All of the participants needed to adopt math and science standards and create tests tied to them, offer professional development to help teachers learn new ways of teaching under the standards, and set up an accountability system to identify low-performing schools.

Pieces of a Puzzle

Each of the pieces of the puzzle is necessary if districts are going to make gains in achievement and increase the number of students taking high-level courses, experts said.

“You don’t want to pull one [piece] out and put it above all the others,” Harold A. Pratt, the president of the 53,000- member National Science Teachers Association and an education consultant, said in an interview. “We know if we don’t have all of those things, we’ll have problems.”

The NSF made its first multiyear grants under the Urban Systemic Initiative in 1993 to Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Miami, New York City, Phoenix, and El Paso, Texas. In following years, it awarded funding to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and 12 other cities.

For the report, “Academic Excellence for All Urban Students,” Systemic Research Inc., a Norwood, Mass., firm, reviewed data from all of the districts that received the urban grants.

In the 16 districts that had comparable test scores from the year before they started in the program and 1999, all but Memphis, Tenn., showed gains in science achievement, and all but Los Angeles raised math scores.

Similarly, enrollment in high-level courses increased on average in each of the cohorts that received the grants in 1993, 1994, and 1995. For example, the percentage of students signing up for Advanced Placement science courses jumped above the national average in most of the districts. Enrollment in AP math increased, but remained below the national average in many districts.

Teachers’ Learning

While the report focuses on students’ learning experiences, some educators say that the hallmark of the project is that teachers are expected to improve the way they teach.

“We believe that the most compelling piece ... has been the professional development,” said Gene T. Harris, the superintendent of the 65,000-student Columbus, Ohio, district.

Columbus spent part of its NSF grant to hire mentor- teachers to work directly with teachers in their schools, offering assistance through workshops and one-on-one sessions.

“Our teachers respond very well to the support they’ve gotten from their [mentors],” Ms. Harris said through an Internet link to the NSF press conference.

Professional development is especially important in an era when many math and science teachers are not certified to teach those subjects, said Mr. Pratt, a former director of science education for the Jefferson County, Colo., schools in suburban Denver.

“One of the ways to compensate for unqualified teachers is with professional development on the job,” he said. “Any other industry would do the same thing.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Study: NSF Initiative Reaps Payoff In Cities

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