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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Science Committee's Basic Research Subcommittee On NSF's Statewide Systemic Initiatives (SSI)

July 23, 1998

The focus of any systemic reform initiative should be on building the capacity needed to sustain reform, and NSF's legacy with systemic initiatives will largely depend on this, lawmakers told.

The Basic Research Subcommittee of the Committee on Science held a hearing to discuss NSF's Statewide Systemic Initiatives (SSI). The hearing provided a lively debate and discussion with the general conclusion that systemic reform is complicated, and that the steps needed to implement it are uncertain. All witnesses, as well as members, called the SSI program a bold experiment and agreed that these initiatives need to remain experimental.

Dr. Daryl Chubin, representing NSF, noted that the SSI's at NSF are an inaugural attempt to stimulate systemic reform by permeating whole schools and systems to achieve comprehensive impact on curriculum, policy, professional development of teachers, assessment, resource allocation and student performance. The idea is to intervene in the status quo to deliver science and math education differently. Evidence to date compiled by NSF, States and third-party evaluators, like SRI International, suggest that systemic reform has provided a substantial contribution to standards-based systemic reform. NSF recognizes that positive results come from a complicated array of school-based conditions and community forces, and continues to monitor, evaluate, learn from and share lessons about the various reform efforts against SSI program objectives. Dr Chubin noted that NSF alone cannot create the capacity needed for continued success, but can help States be vigilant in improving outcomes. He said NSF's SSI Phaseout and Phase II processes are the clearest statement of what the agency has learned in the seven years of the SSI program.

Dr. Stan Metzenberg, Assistant Professor of Biology, California State University Northridge, said that NSF has chosen the wrong path by embracing the National Science Education Standards and the AAAS Benchmarks for Science Literacy, stating that they are shockingly low in content knowledge expectations and are based on flimsy research and misstated findings. He said benchmarks focus on what children cannot learn at an early age and do not prepare them for the future.

Dr. Mark St. John, from Inverness Research, said there should be more of a focus on what's being done in the field rather than on how to implement standards, which, he said, currently occupies about 95% of efforts. He said teachers need a series of critical supports - training, understanding of the subject matter, supportive schools, etc. He stated that the focus of any systemic initiative should be on building capacity, and noted that SSI's have begun this process. He advocates strengthening local leadership, connecting people across districts and better access to good resources. The key to success for NSF, he stated, is to infuse the system with knowledgeable people, which, he said, has been marginal to date. Accountability, he noted, should take a macro, not micro, approach and not place unrealistic expectations on initiatives. NSF, he said, should get credit for being bold.

Dr. Thomas Baird, from the Florida Department of Education, said that since the end of its SSI, Florida has implemented many of the reforms NSF was seeking and feels the SSI legacy can be seen in initiatives like area centers for education enhancement, Florida sunshine standards, etc. He further noted that the SSI had a positive effect on science and math teaching. One criticism he had was that two years into the Florida SSI, NSF requested major changes in the focus and direction of the project. In this regard he noted that the expectation of States is not commensurate with funds provided because of the time frame involved and NSF directives, which frequently change. He said NSF tends to micro-manage, and recommended that the agency work on its partnerships with States and be consistent with expectations.

Questions covered a wide range of topics from why the need for more studies to why some Initiatives work better than others. Most of the discussion, however, centered on content vs. inquiry teaching, teacher preparedness, and building capacity. Dr. St. John responded to Rep. Vern Ehlers' (R-MI) questions on building capacity by stating that when trying to implement systemic changes, resources are currently limited and knowledge and expertise is lacking, and that these elements need to be strengthened. In response to questioning from Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN) on content vs. inquiry, Dr. Chubin noted that they are not mutually exclusive terms and that if teachers lack content learning, they cannot pass it on to students. This was a concern of all witnesses. Dr. Metzenberg added that schools deliver content too late in the educational process. Rep. Etheridge (D-NC) addressed the notion of vertical and horizontal systemic change both in institutions of higher education who prepare teachers, and those teachers already in the field. Dr. St. John said the most promising avenue in high schools is in teacher networking to bring in the most qualified teachers. He said changing how universities teach physics and math, for example, will be harder. Dr. Baird agreed that teacher preparation is the key - that many teachers are only minimally qualified, and since several start at community colleges, there is a need to focus attention here also. He further noted that high school teachers do not know what middle school teachers are teaching, which leads to a lack of accountability and repetition. Dr. Chubin noted that if teachers are ill prepared to teach, the burden falls on the districts that hire them to develop their knowledge and skills. This need reflects on the complicated connections among graduation requirements, certification, and hiring practices. He said teachers must be treated as professionals and continue to be learners.

Rep. Chip Pickering, Chairman of the Basic Research Subcomittee, closed the hearing by emphasizing the need for continued peer review of SSI's and the need for better science and education interaction in the context of building capacity for sustained reform.