Science Board Mulls Creation of Science Education Commission

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Publication date: 
21 November 2005

Should the National Science Board establish another commission to make recommendations on improving U.S. science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education? What have been the impacts of previous studies, and why are U.S. students still in the middle of the pack in international math and science comparisons?

On December 7, the National Science Board (NSB) held the first of three public hearings to assess whether a new commission should be created, and if so, what its charge should be. The Board members received a wide range of advice and opinions from 18 witnesses over four hours, including five Members of Congress who discussed the recent National Academies report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," the importance to America's competitiveness of a robust STEM education system and workforce, and the need for stronger federal support for NSF. Other witnesses testified on the findings, recommendations and impacts of an earlier NSB commission report on the same subject ("Educating Americans for the 21st Century," 1983), the state of education research and the role of NSF, and various private sector initiatives in K-12 education.

Opinions varied on whether a new commission was needed, and what its role should be. Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), Bart Gordon (D-TN), and Vern Ehlers (R-MI) suggested that, instead of undertaking a comprehensive investigation into the shortcomings of U.S. STEM education, a commission could be most effective by helping build consensus on the appropriate role for NSF in science education, and an implementation strategy for achieving it. "I do not believe we need to create another commission to take a broad look" at the issue, said House Science Committee Ranking Minority Member Gordon. He commented that other such reports over the past 20 years have been "fairly consistent" in identifying the problems. Instead, he said, a new education commission "should narrowly focus its work" on what NSF is doing and could be doing in K-16 STEM education. He called the consideration of a commission "timely" in light of "the erosion in Administration support of NSF education activities." Science Committee Chairman Boehlert pointed out that NSF's education budget has been targeted for cuts in recent years. (After a peak of $944.6 million in FY 2004, NSF's Education and Human Resources Directorate received $848.2 million in FY 2005 and $807.0 million in FY 2006. The Administration's FY 2006 request was $737.0 million). The funding debate, he said, reflects a larger problem: the "lack of consensus" on NSF's role and its unique contributions in supporting peer-reviewed research, its connections to the higher education community, and its focus on excellence and innovation. Boehlert warned that the commission "would be a waste of time" if it did not clarify NSF's role.

House Science, State, Justice and Commerce Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Frank Wolf (R-VA) urged the Board to "be bold...because we may be falling faster and farther than many people realize." Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) called for better understanding of the education systems in countries whose children outperform the U.S. on international comparisons; less emphasis on memorization and more on the scientific method and problem-solving skills; better teacher pay and better teachers.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) declared that a new commission was not needed, and would be "frankly, a waste of time and energy." Instead, he made a rousing plea to the scientific, engineering and medical communities to organize themselves and develop a comprehensive strategy to convince Congress and the Administration of the looming risk to the nation's competitiveness and the importance of improving STEM education and stemming the decreases in research funding for the physical sciences and engineering. Every scientist, every physicist and engineer "ought to have their hair on fire," he said, "because we're going to drive over a cliff if we don't reverse this trend." Rep. Ehlers agreed that the science community has to "get activated," and reiterated that any commission effort should be focused on what NSF's role should be and how to achieve that outcome. "It is legitimate," he said, for a commission to ask why little changed after the previous NSB commission released its report.

Cecily Cannan Selby of the New York University's Steinhardt School of Education, the Co-chair of the previous NSB Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology, agreed that there are "many parallels between today and 1982." Regarding response to that commission's study, she stated that significant progress had been made on three of its recommendations: focusing on all students, focusing on technology, and focusing on informal education. On the issues of what should be taught and learned, she added, "good outcomes" had also been achieved. But the "bad news," she said, was that the commission's recommendations on finances and on solving the teaching dilemma, which required the most resources, were "ignored." The first three recommendations, she noted, were inexpensive, apolitical and "touched a public nerve." She advised that for major changes to take place, any future commission would need to address public attitudes in two areas: first, that good teachers and students "are born and not made;" and second, that all scientists are alike and that science is "a universal abstract" devoid of personality and diversity.

While many of the morning's speakers testified that the problems are understood and all that is needed is to implement solutions, David Shaw of D.E. Shaw and Co. argued that this is "not true," and that more evidence is needed on what methods, tools and curricula work in the classroom. He called for greater investment in educational research, especially for "empirical, randomized, controlled trials" that he acknowledged are "very expensive." Robert Tinker of the Concord Consortium agreed that applied education research is underfunded, and said that the biggest gains will come from expensive, large-scale research trials. Gerald Wheeler of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) called for NSF-funded education programs to focus more on scalability to larger numbers of teachers and students; sustainability after grant funding runs out; better success indicators and progress models; and ensuring teacher science content knowledge. While teachers need help in knowing how to teach and how students learn, he said, the "biggest hole in the dyke of science education reform" is teacher content knowledge. Wheeler also commented that when the National Science Education Standards were issued, NSTA polled its members about the biggest barriers they faced in teaching, and the top three responses were lack of time, isolation, and lack of meaningful professional development. He added that another factor is parental attitudes toward the importance of science education, which he felt had declined since the Sputnik era.

Subsequent National Science Board hearings on this topic will be held in Boulder, CO and Los Angeles, CA in the new year.