Witnesses See Promise in Math and Science Partnerships

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Publication date: 
5 November 2003

"I think, although it's new, [it] is very promising," said Joan Ferrini-Mundy about the National Science Foundation's Math and Science Partnership (MSP) program to reform K-12 science and math education. Ferrini-Mundy, of Michigan State University, was one of five witnesses at an October 30 hearing on the partnerships by the House Science Subcommittee on Research. All five were enthusiastic about the program and reported that meaningful changes have already been implemented by many of the partnering institutions.

The desire to improve student achievement in science and math led to the recent establishment of two complementary Math and Science Partnership programs in NSF and the Department of Education. According to the hearing charter, the NSF program provides competitive, merit-based grants "to fund innovative programs to develop and test new models of education reform," while the Education Department program, intended as a formula grant to all states, "was tasked with bringing the reform efforts to scale" and broadly disseminating them. Because of the scope of its jurisdiction, the subcommittee reviewed only the NSF MSP program. Not coincidentally, the panel of witnesses represented partnerships in the states of full committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), subcommittee chairman Nick Smith (R-MI), and subcommittee ranking minority member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX).

NSF made its second round of MSP awards in October. Grants were given for five Comprehensive partnerships, intended to produce broad improvements in the participating K-12 school districts and higher education institutions, and seven Targeted partnerships, which address a more specific K-12 grade range or disciplinary area. Another 10 grants went to Research, Evaluation and Technical Assistance projects to make research and evaluation capacity available to the partnerships.

Each partnership discussed at the hearing included several school districts and one or more higher education institutions; some also included businesses, foundations, and other educational entities. "Each partner has different needs" that are addressed by the program, said Osman Yasar of the State University of New York, Brockport. The school districts need colleges to produce better K-12 teachers, he said, while the colleges are facing "dramatic decreases" in math and science enrollments and seek more students with an interest in those fields. He described his partnership's effort to create an integrated computational math, science and technology curriculum with a "layered" approach that allows students to acquire deeper content knowledge as they develop greater interest.

The witnesses agreed with NSF's focus on documenting results. "We're all aware" that money has been put into education reform for many years with little to show for it, said Yasar. "We need to do things differently," he stated, by building on an evidence base. Ferrini-Mundy explained how her institution's partnership would begin by developing an evidence baseline on student achievement, teacher background and subjects taught, district standards and availability of materials and professional development.

While the partnerships incorporated a variety of objectives, all had a major emphasis on recruitment, retention, and development of teachers. "I just can't overemphasize the value of quality professional development," commented math teacher Jeff Mikols of the Rochester City, NY, school district. The witnesses supported Rep. Phil Gingery's (R-GA) recommendation of pay incentives to attract and retain certain types of teachers. While acknowledging that other subjects are also important, Gingery noted that it is especially difficult to keep science and math professionals in a low-paying career such as teaching. He hoped that the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act would include enhanced student loan forgiveness for science and math teachers. Susana Navarro of the University of Texas at El Paso reported that her institution's project was already providing "additional resources at several points in the continuum," including assisting teachers with the cost of graduate-level coursework so they could obtain the Master's degrees necessary for certification. Navarro stressed the importance of prospective teachers getting quality science and math instruction at the college level, and Ferrini-Mundy added that, because the "compartmentalization" of math and science continues in college, teachers are not given the preparation they need to teach integrated math and science courses at the K-12 level.

Smith also asked about parental and industry involvement. "The education of parents is very important," Ferrini-Mundy said; "the notion of hands-on activities...looks unfamiliar to a lot of parents." In addition to including businesses in the partnerships, the witnesses said industry representatives can help impress upon students and parents why science and math are important and how a college education can enhance their future. To questions about how the partnership efforts will be sustained after the award period, several witnesses remarked that the partners were finding ways to institutionalize their commitments and collaborations in their budgets and strategic planning.

"I've never been so excited about a project," Yasar declared. Navarro cautioned the subcommittee, however: "As we run into the inevitable problems, I hope there is an understanding that problems are part of the process...and we can learn from them."

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