Progress in Math and Science Performance Prompts "Cautious Optimism" at NSF
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The health of math and science education in the United States is improving according to the National Science Foundation's (NSF) newly published Indicators of Science and Mathematics Education.
"The vital signs aren't peaking yet, but the recovery process is underway," Luther S. Williams, National Science Foundation (NSF) assistant director of education and human resources said.
Williams released the report during a National Science and Technology Week event which also featured a demonstration of the GLOBE program, an NSF-supported hands-on, inquiry-based science effort reaching 3,000 schools nationwide. GLOBE allows students to collect data on various science- related projects and share their findings interactively on the worldwide web with government agencies and scientists nationwide.
"The GLOBE program is a prime example of how we are involving entire school systems, government and private sector partners in the support of math and science education," Williams said.
Williams hopes that the report on science and math indicators will encourage school systems to believe that reform is possible.
"It is an indication that school systems have started to take on the challenge to totally revitalize their math and science curricula, from classroom practices right up through policy decisions with positive results," Williams explained.
Indicators of Science and Mathematics Education responds to a Congressional mandate requiring NSF to report periodically on the status of student and system performance in science and math education.
The 1995 edition focuses on two central themes: excellence (the extent to which high learning standards are attained); and equity (the extent to which these standards are applied to all groups of students).
The report concludes that excellence is being achieved where high standards are applied. Equity--defined in terms of access to consistently high performance standards and learning resources--remains a significant challenge for schools in many parts of the country.
The indicators reveal that elementary schools are devoting more time than ever before to science and math instruction. More high school students are taking advanced courses in these crucial fields. And greater numbers of high school students, regardless of race and ethnic background, are satisfactorily completing courses in math and science. Achievement scores are on the rise for all of these students.
Significant issues of equity persist, however. For example, achievement gaps nationwide between whites and other ethnic groups remain wide despite improving test scores for all groups. Lack of access to adequate resources, materials, equipment, teacher enhancements and limited commitment to implementing reforms throughout whole school systems affect the impact of otherwise improving achievement levels in math and science education.
Williams was cautiously optimistic in his overall assessment.
"We need to close regional differences, see more commitment to system-wide reform and acquire more consistent, current, complete data," he stated. "We are still in the middle of the pack internationally in math and science education, but I am very encouraged by some recent results coming from school systems where reforms have been underway."
Williams notes that for every NSF dollar spent on system wide reform of math, science and technology education, another dollar and a half is invested by industry and other groups. This return is made possible because of increasing NSF partnerships with these groups concerned with improving the performance of U.S. schools in core subjects like science and math.
The latest edition (1995) of math and science indicators updates the volume produced three years ago (1992 edition) when many education reform programs were in their infancy. Much of the basis for the new report focuses on changes that have occurred between 1990 and 1993.
Currently, one fifth of NSF's more than $3 billion annual budget goes toward the improvement of math and science education. A significant amount of the total is devoted to state and local reform initiatives for K-12 schools.
"NSF understands that its support of basic research begins at the lowest levels of our education system. This is where students need most to learn the fundamentals of inquiry- based science and mathematics so they learn how to seek answers to basic scientific questions and carry a healthy inquisitiveness throughout their learning experiences as well as into their future careers," Williams explained.
The integration of research and education at all levels is a NSF priority. NSF Director Dr. Neal Lane recently testified in Congress before a House Science Subcommittee that "in the future, employers will increasingly need workers who are not only well versed in science and technology concepts, but who are adept at learning through experimentation, inquiry, critical evaluation and discovery - all characteristics of research."
NOTE: Indicators of Science and Mathematics Education, 1995, will be available on the world wide web beginning on or about 6:00 p.m. EDT at the following URL: http://www.ehr.nsf.gov/EHR/RED/STUDIES/index.html
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.
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