NSB Report Highlights Challenges in K-12 Science, Math Education

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Publication date: 
29 March 2006

"If the U.S. is to maintain its economic leadership and compete in the new global economy, the Nation must prepare today's K-12 students better to be tomorrow's productive workers and citizens." – new National Science Board report

"Nearly a quarter of a century ago," a new National Science Board (NSB) report begins, an NSB Commission on Precollege Education assessed the state of K-12 science and math education "and found it wanting. In the intervening years, we have failed to raise the achievement of U.S. students commensurate with the goal articulated by that Commission – that U.S. precollege achievement should be ‘best in the world by 1999.'" By the time U.S. students reach their senior year, the report continues, "even the most advanced U.S. students perform at or near the bottom on international assessments."

The report, entitled "America's Pressing Challenge – Building a Stronger Foundation," was released in February as a companion to the NSB's "Science and Engineering Indicators 2006." It notes that U.S. precollege student performance on international comparisons has continued "to slip further behind." It also points out that "U.S. student completion of natural science and engineering (NS&E) degrees" is declining "relative to other countries" while scientific and engineering occupations "are expected to continue to grow more rapidly than occupations in general, with a projected 70 percent greater increase [or 1.25 million additional science and engineering jobs] by 2012."

Not only has student achievement on international comparisons slipped, the report says, but "over the last decade, teacher salaries have remained nearly flat…. Teacher salaries averaged $44,367, just about $2,598 above what they were in 1972 (after adjusting for inflation)," and 15 states "saw real declines in average teachers' salaries between the 1993-94 and 2003-04 school years, adjusted for inflation."

The NSB report outlines a number of challenges to improving K-12 science and math education, including inequality in students' access to high-quality science and math education; a paucity of teachers who have the necessary knowledge and skills to effectively teach these subjects; inadequate teacher compensation and professional development to attract, prepare and retain high-quality teachers; a need to improve educational technologies; and the importance of ensuring that assessments measure problem-solving skills and not just memorization. "Experience has shown us," the report says, that "what gets measured gets taught…. Therefore, assessments must measure more than simple recall.... Measurements should support student learning that enhances the application of knowledge."

The report makes the following recommendations:

GAIN PUBLIC SUPPORT: Ensure that school administrators and other education "gate-keepers" value science and math skills and knowledge for all; Educate the general public to recognize the importance of adequate compensation for precollege science and math teachers; and Inform the public to increase knowledge of, and appreciation for, the importance of science and technology to economic prosperity, and national security, and the quality of life.

DEVELOP AND RETAIN A HIGH QUALITY MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE TEACHING PROFESSION: Provide new teachers with induction programs for retention and development; Provide resources to compensate them "comparably to similarly trained S&E professionals"; Provide quality, sustained teacher professional development experiences; Encourage higher education leaders to review and strengthen K-8 teacher education programs by increasing content knowledge; and Invest in continued research on teaching and learning.

PROVIDE STUDENTS APPROPRIATE OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN: Devote equal time to reading, math and science, especially in elementary grades, and use hands-on inquiry experiences in science; Provide educators with effective strategies and instructional materials; Alert students to STEM career opportunities at an early age and expand incentives for them to enter those fields; and Involve parents, community and business organizations, and informal science educators in enhancing science and math experiences for K-12 students.

PREPARE GUIDANCE COUNSELORS TO PROVIDE QUALITY CAREER GUIDANCE: Ensure that guidance counselors have the necessary training and knowledge to provide students with information about science, math, engineering and technology careers.

USE ASSESSMENTS TO REINFORCE LEARNING: Improve science and math assessments to demonstrate students' thinking ability and problem-solving skills; Use technology simulations to enable students to "demonstrate understanding of experimental design so that assessments are not just recall of information"; and Develop among teachers and administrators expertise in utilizing assessments "to inform and improve teaching and learning."

"We know," the report concludes, "that there is a need to make drastic changes within the Nation's science and mathematics classrooms. If not, our Nation risks raising generations of students and citizens who do not know how to think critically and make informed decisions based on technical and scientific information."

The February 2006 National Science Board report and the Science and Engineering Indicators can be found at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind06/; for the report, see "America's Pressing Challenge – Building a Stronger Foundation," at the upper right of the page.

In related news, Warren Washington, chairman of the National Science Board, sent a letter on behalf of the Board to Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), commenting on Gordon's recently introduced legislation, "10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds Science and Math Scholarship Act." Gordon is Ranking Minority Member of the House Science Committee. Washington's letter notes that the bill is consistent with many of the Board's reports and policy statements over the past decade. "The Board strongly supports the general objectives of the proposed legislation with regard to the precollege STEM teaching workforce," says the letter.

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