Building a Seamless Education System, K-16
ontent standards that nurture a science-literate population serve the national interest. Implementing standards creates opportunities to change both the conditions for learning and the performance of U.S. students. This is a call to transcend a dangerously balkanized system and assist local communities to support teachers and learners of mathematics and science, K-16. To reiterate the NSB July statement, “No nation can afford to tolerate what prevails in American schooling: generally low expectations and low performance, with only pockets of excellence at a world-class level of achievement.”
The NSB proposes three areas for consensual national action to improve mathematics and science teaching and learning: instructional materials, teacher preparation, and college admission. We address each in turn.
U.S. students, TIMSS showed us, are not taught what they need to know. Most U.S. high school students don’t take advanced science; they opt out, with only one-quarter enrolling in physics, one-half in chemistry. Instructional materials are not the only culprit, but surely contribute to this science-aversion. As the president of the American Physical Society puts it, “Both common sense and modern educational theory tell us that students, when asked to memorize disconnected facts without truly understanding them, quickly lose interest in the subject.”*
From the TIMSS analysis we also learned that mathematics and science curricula in U.S. high schools lack coherence, depth, and continuity; they cover too many topics in a superficial way. In short, TIMSS demonstrated that content matters--and students must have the opportunity to learn it. While most countries introduce algebra and geometry in the middle grades, only one in four U.S. students take algebra before high school. Topics on the general knowledge 12th grade mathematics assessment were covered by the 9th grade in the U.S., but by 7th in most other countries. In the general science assessment, topics in the U.S. were covered by 11th grade, but by 9th grade in other countries.
Students’ exposure to challenging mathematics and science content is limited, it seems, by what is offered them and the coursetaking choices they make. According to TIMSS, 90 percent of U.S. high school students stop taking math before getting to calculus. Among college-bound students, half had not taken physics or trigonometry; three in four had not taken calculus, while one in three had taken less than four years of mathematics.
The TIMSS analysis also disclosed that most general science textbooks in the U.S. touch on many topics rather than probe any one in depth. The five most emphasized topics in 4th grade science texts accounted for 25 percent of total pages compared with an international average in the 70-75 percent range. General mathematics textbooks in the U.S. contain an average of 36 different topics; texts in Japan cover 8 topics, in Germany, 4-5. In middle school (grades 5-8), while the world proceeds to teach algebra and geometry, the U.S. continues to teach arithmetic. All high-performing countries show student gains between grades 3 and 4, and again between grades 7 and 8. The U.S. does not. Like others, the NSB believes this reflects a muddled, unfocused, repetitious, and superficial curriculum.
Without some degree of consensus on content for each grade level, textbooks will continue to be all-inclusive and superficial. If used as the foundation for instruction, these textbooks will fail to challenge and motivate students to exercise their curiosity and experience mathematics and science as ways of knowing.
At their best, curriculum materials energize learning. But we learn in different ways. Curriculum developers therefore offer alternative formats for their textbooks.† Some emphasize rote learning, others coherent knowledge of science content and process, sometimes with the concurrent use of mathematics.14 Few introduce real-world inter-disciplinary problems and serve as the foundation for Advanced Placement courses, school-to-work transition courses, or the challenges of a liberal arts college education.‡ Most innovative science curricula, for instance, seek coherence, integration, and movement from concrete ideas to abstract concepts. Furthermore, they stress inquiry, a connectivity among disciplines, a concern for societal implications, and a scientific “way of knowing.” Taken together, they would foster in the high school graduate what we would term “science literacy.”
Teaching and learning to high standards cannot be the province only of some schools, teachers, and students. To be systemic, 15,000 school districts should not engage in the same curriculum-based experiments and repeat all-too-familiar mistakes. They should reap the benefit of what other districts have tried. Since most decisions on textbooks and related instructional materials are made at state or local district levels, they frequently incorporate some mechanism for citizen review and advice.
Public opinion overwhelming favors “ensuring a well-qualified teacher in every classroom” as the top education priority. Indeed, teachers--once viewed as central to the problem of student underachievement--are now being recognized as the solution.** In teacher preparation there is a “multiplier effect” that can span generations. While a sound undergraduate science education is essential for producing the next generation of scientists, it is equally critical for future teachers of science. The refrain, “you can’t teach what you don’t know,” 15 surely applies.
There are many signs that teachers in the classroom cannot rely on their undergraduate education when teaching mathematics or science. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, as many as one in four teachers is teaching “out of field.” The National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification reports that only 28 states require prospective teachers to pass examinations in the subject areas they plan to teach, and only 13 states test them on their teaching skills.16 Many students who turned away from mathematics and science in college become elementary school teachers.
The NSB thus believes that improving future teacher preparation is crucial for improving their performance in the classroom and the achievement of their students. One commentator has noted that all the experimentation in full bloom across the U.S.--“class size, physical resources, local administration--can help. But good teaching is the vein of gold. To mine it, we’ll have to pay more to attract and keep the best. And we’ll need to be sure we get our money’s worth by requiring strong preparation, and performance up to measurable standards.” 17 There is a threshold of preparation and competence that all future teachers of mathematics and science must initially reach, and then augment, as their careers unfold.
The distributed character of our education system and the diversity of higher education institutions illuminate the problem. Over 1250 colleges and universities prepare future teachers, and 700 are regularly audited by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which has contractual relations with 36 States. But NCATE accredits programs, while the 50 States credential teachers,18 and the teachers are employed by 15,000 independent school districts. This recipe for distributed responsibility has resulted in much variance in course requirements for budding teachers and uneven quality in teacher education. Maintaining, enhancing, and “scaling up” or spreading quality in a distributed system are difficult at best. Codified, widely shared goals and standards in teacher preparation, licensure, and professional development provide mechanisms to overcome these difficulties.
What we have learned about mathematics and science teachers already in the classroom is dismaying. While most teachers embrace a vision of high standards for all students, cooperative learning (in small groups), and the use of technology (computers and calculators), their instructional strategies fall short of the vision.†† Many teachers lack support to plan and deliver quality instruction: 1 in 2 teachers feel inadequately prepared to integrate computers into instruction, and 2 in 5 feel inadequately prepared to use math or science textbooks as a resource rather than as the primary instructional tool, or to use performance-based assessments. Fewer than 1 in 3 teachers feel prepared to teach life science, and only 1 in 10 feel prepared for the physical science course they are teaching. In addition, more than a third of elementary teachers, and more than half of high school mathematics and science teachers in 1993, felt unprepared to involve parents in the education of their children!
Thus, in addition to teacher preparation, we have the continuing challenge of professional development, where school districts update the knowledge, skills, and strategies that teachers bring into the classroom. No professional is equipped to practice for all time, i.e., be an inexhaustible “vein of gold.” We cannot expect world-class student learning of mathematics and science if U.S. teachers lack the confidence, enthusiasm, and knowledge to deliver world-class instruction.
As a body of scientists and engineers, the NSB believes that content background matters for classroom performance. For example, the proportion of Presidential awardee teach-ers in mathematics and science with degrees in the fields they teach is much higher than in the total teacher population.‡‡
Likewise, professional development--intensive and rigorous, with follow-up--can overcome flaws in content and pedagogical training. Recently, a decade-long study clearly established the links among professional development, changes in teaching practice, and improved student achievement in California.19 But school districts should not be left to shoulder the burden of training that undergraduate education failed to deliver. This becomes an expensive form of compensatory teacher education--and a diversion of scarce resources that could be put toward much-needed merit-based salary increases for teachers, the purchase of new materials and classroom equipment, and ongoing professional development.***
As another commentator notes, it is important to connect professional development to the evaluation of teachers and to student performance:
Without instructional quality control, motivating students to learn to world-class standards is futile. But teacher-strapped districts are apt to sacrifice quality for quantity-- more experience for less salary--in hiring. State agencies routinely issue temporary, emergency, and provisional licenses.††† The challenge of recruiting and retaining well-prepared teachers bumps up against other considerations, including reduced class size, which requires more teachers, straining the already limited supply of those with significant content background in mathematics and science.‡‡‡ A simultaneous increase in student enrollment levels and teacher retirements will increase the pressure to hire unqualified teachers.21
Only the resolve of all partners who contribute to the training, certification, hiring, evaluating, and professional development of math and science teachers will reduce “out of field” teaching.**** Then those with solid grounding in these subjects will have to confront the quandary of career choice--alternative sources of attractive employment opportunities. For districts to compete with these opportunities, as the NSB stated in July, communities must build “a system of rewards and incentives, including appropriate salaries, for well-trained teachers who are knowledgeable about content and pedagogically skillful.”
Ideas worth pursuing include: forgivable student loans and state income tax credits for new teachers with content certification, creation of a national job bank to assist school districts in locating teachers with the desired mathematics or science and grade level credentials, and awarding merit raises for the acquisition by teachers of specific skills and content concentrations.††††
These factors create contradictory pressures for states and local districts. Convergence on what a science or mathematics teacher at the elementary, middle, and secondary level must know and be able to do in the classroom will be a key factor in resolving some of these contradictions.‡‡‡‡
Ensuring the best possible teachers for our schools poses a formidable policy dilemma: how to juggle competing pressures on besieged districts, schools, and classroom teachers?22 The community partners of schools--higher education, business, and industry--share the obligation to heighten student achievement. A combination of support for strong content and pedagogical preparation of teachers, continuing professional development linked to classroom performance and improved student achievement, and incentives that keep good teachers in the classroom provides an avenue for acting--in the name of accountability-- upon that obligation.
Another avenue, using categorical Federal education programs such as Title I for poor children, would increase incentives for educators or students to do well.23 One option, for example, would make improved performance part of the standard for payment under Title I, a provision that could be built into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that is subject to reauthorization in 1999.
Quality teaching and learning of mathematics and science bestows advantages on students. Content standards, clusters of appropriate courses, and graduation requirements illuminate the path to future advantages. They smooth the transition to college and the workplace by forming a foundation for later learning and drawing students’ career aspirations within reach. But how high schools assess student progress has consequences for deciding who gains access to higher education and, moreover, who is prepared to succeed at the baccalaureate level and beyond. Congruence between what is needed to exit secondary education and enter higher education would be ideal. Because the metrics for each leave much to chance, how to define and predict student “success” remains a matter of contention.
Longitudinal data on 1982 high school graduates point to the role of course-taking or “academic intensity,” as opposed to high school grade point average or SAT/ACT scores, in predicting completion of baccalaureate degrees. (Academic intensity refers to trigonometry, precalculus, and calculus, as well as laboratory science, especially chemistry and physics). By 1993, only 42 percent of black students who had gone directly into four-year colleges and universities had received the baccalaureate as compared to 72 percent of white students in the cohort.*****
An education researcher recently observed,
Nevertheless, short-term and readily quantifiable measures such as standardized test scores tend to dominate admissions decisions. Such decisions promote the participation of some students in mathematics and science, and discourage others.†††††
Data suggest that the cumulative disadvantages of family income will be compounded by admissions criteria that apply the wrong filters and restrict opportunities.‡‡‡‡‡ For example, nearly 60 percent of low-income nonattending students cite an inability to afford college as the reason.****** If preparation is the key to college access and enrollment, then we must find ways of reducing the achievement gap in high school performance between majority and minority students. There is new evidence that, even in suburban schools where family income and per pupil spending is high, peer pressure may suppress minority student performance.25 This would suggest that out-of-class influences, which are less amenable to policy intervention, have pernicious effects on achievement.
Students simply face different classroom experiences due to factors unrelated to interest or ability. Recent studies suggest that “successful theories will probably have to look more carefully at the way black and white children respond to the same classroom experiences, such as being in a smaller classroom, having a more competent teacher, having a teacher of their own race, or [one] ... with high expectations for those who perform below the norm for their age group.” 26 The President of the National Education Associate writes: “Until large numbers of students in the same school and the same neighbor-hood value academic achievement, success will continue to be the exception . . . If universities and urban public schools could become ‘sister cities,’our most troubled schools might be saved from within.” 27
For university faculty to embrace collaboration with schools and K-12 educators, there must be some incentive for spending professional time in support ofa community partner.28 A Southern Education Foundation report lauds some state efforts to create a “seamless” education system: K-12 schools and colleges work together to set standards and curricula, and to hold colleges accountable--much as schools already are--by tying state resources to performance on a set ofindicators, including the status ofminority students.29 In this spirit, it has been hypothesized that:
In the July statement, the NSB exhorted stake-holders to establish “college admissions criteria that reinforce high standards in K-12 education and bolster participation of all students in mathematics and science.” Acting as “all one system” means that the strengths and deficiencies of one educational level are not just inherited by the next. Instead, they become spurs to better preparation and the opportunity for higher learning.
By committing university resources to offering programs for middle and high school students, supplying mentors for teachers, etc., higher education provides glimpses at what preparation for college and advanced learning means.†††††† Partnering demands adjusting the institutional reward system to recognize such service as instrumental to the mission of the university.