Bioscience

Report urges improvements in teaching of science

January 31, 2007

By Flinn Foundation

[Source: Jeffrey Brainard, The Chronicle of Higher Education] — America needs a new national council to coordinate efforts to improve the teaching of science and mathematics in schools and colleges, and higher education should play a key role in that undertaking, says a draft report requested by Congress. The report also calls for new standards for training math and science teachers and an expansion of federal programs to encourage college students to pursue those careers.

The politically sensitive draft was approved in January by the Commission on 21st Century Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, which reports to the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation. The science board must sign off on the report before it becomes final, which is expected to happen by May.

Before then, however, one of the panel’s two chairmen says he expects the panel will revise the recommendations to make them bolder and stronger, to ensure that they get attention. “We’ve made a start,” said Leon M. Lederman, director emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and a Nobel laureate in physics. However, “there’s very little that addresses in a sharp way some of the big issues” confronting science education.

Even so, some proposals already in the draft are likely to generate controversy in Washington. One is the call for a national coordinating council, which would work with federal agencies and the states to improve the consistency of science teaching across the country as well as the preparation of schoolteachers by universities.

Bush-administration officials are likely to be cool to several of the proposals. They have preferred to give the Education Department the lead role in improving science education in schools.

The draft recommendations may find a more receptive audience in Congress, where the new Democratic majority has made it a high priority to maintain America’s lead in the global economy. Over the past two years, a steady drumbeat of reports has concluded that science education in American schools is inadequate to produce enough talented scientists and engineers who can help accomplish that end.

The National Science Board, most of whose members are academics, formed the commission in 2006. The science board last issued a report on science education in 1983, and the current board members thought it was time to weigh in again, given the renewed attention on the issue.

The science board was encouraged to prepare the report by members of both parties who sit on the House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee that oversees the NSF’s budget. The board also heard from scientists worried about cuts in the budget of the NSF’s education division in recent years.

These scholars hoped the new report could help build support for reversing the cuts and would help the agency remain active in federal policy discussions about how to improve mathematics and science instruction.

The science board asked the commission not to rehash previous critiques but to come up with a “bold action plan” and “specific mechanisms” to carry out “an effective, realistic, affordable, and politically acceptable long-term approach” to improving teaching in those subjects.

Mr. Lederman said the commission’s draft had a way to go before it met that goal. He said the commission had rushed to complete the document so that it might be ready early enough to influence Congress as lawmakers assemble spending bills for the 2008 fiscal year. The commission held only three business meetings before approving the draft released last week. “We didn’t have enough time together,” he said.

The National Science Board is scheduled to discuss the draft in February and issue a final version for comment by the end of March.

Among the changes needed, Mr. Lederman said, is to flesh out the national coordinating council. One idea is that it be Congressionally chartered. Commission members could not even agree on a distinctive name for the council, he said: for now, in moments of levity during their meetings, they have taken to calling it only Yoda, after the tiny, wise Jedi in the Star Wars movies. Other recommendations in the draft would also directly affect colleges.

The panel’s members realized that “unless we addressed the issues in higher education, nothing would happen,” said Shirley M. Malcom, the commission’s other chairman.

Ms. Malcom, director of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said the members felt “that the whole issue of preparation of teachers was something that higher education owned as an issue.”

Among those recommendations is the development of a single, national standard for the certification of schoolteachers in mathematics and science. Local school districts would not be required to hire only teachers who meet the certification requirement, but the federal government would provide extra money to districts that voluntarily adopted the standard, the report says.

In turn, accreditors of college teacher-education programs should consider how well the programs prepare graduates to obtain the certifications, the draft recommends.

The document also calls for the development of a national set of standards for school curricula in mathematics and science, which the federal government would also promote through financial incentives. The No Child Left Behind Act requires each state to develop its own standards, and to begin testing students’ achievement in them, starting in the 2007-8 school year.

Colleges could support those efforts by ensuring that the schoolteachers they graduated were prepared to teach in accordance with the national standards, the report says.

National standards have been controversial because conservatives fear they usurp the authority of local school districts. However, Mr. Lederman said, he hopes the final draft of the report will encourage enough flexibility for schools to experiment with new approaches to improve science education.

What’s more, the new standards would not spell out a single curriculum for universities to use, Ms. Malcom said. The 15 members of the commission (five of whom are academics) recognized the diversity of colleges and so left it to them to work out those particulars themselves, she said. “It’s not the business of this group or some other group to say, You have to this course or that course,” she said. “But somewhere, we have to say, what does a highly qualified teacher look like? And are these people being graduated from our institutions?”

Promoting greater national consistency in school instruction is important, the draft says, because the existing educational system in mathematics and science is “fractured and disjointed both within school districts and from state to state, placing at risk the ability of students to learn to high levels.”

For example, “in our geographically mobile society, students who move from one location to another may miss learning a critical fundamental concept in one school system and never be exposed to that idea again,” the draft says. As a result, many students enter college without adequate preparation for course work in math and science, it says.

The draft also calls for expansion of existing federal efforts to help students attend college to become math or science teachers. One is the NSF’s Robert Noyce Scholarship Program, which awards up to $10,000 a year to college students studying math and science if they agree to become schoolteachers after graduation. The draft also suggests that the federal government forgive the college loans of those students.

Over all, the document estimates no price tag for its suggestions, although one will probably be added to the final draft, said Elizabeth Strickland, the commission’s executive secretary.

Members of the new Democratic majority in Congress have already filed bills to carry out some of the ideas contained in the draft. But tight constraints on new federal spending make prospects for passage uncertain.

Elaine Seymour, a research associate at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies science education, said the draft recommendations are “on the right track” but do not deal “head on” with a stubborn, critical problem: Professors in mathematics and the sciences discourage students from becoming schoolteachers and expect them to become scientists. To help counter this, she called for a sustained national advertising campaign to attract science majors who weren’t otherwise considering teaching.

Drawing public attention to the report will be a major job for the commission members once the final draft is done, Mr. Lederman said. He envisions himself and his colleagues becoming public advocates in Congress and, he hopes, television talk shows, much like the members of another national commission