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NSF & Congress


Testimony of Dr. Rita Colwell, Director
National Science Foundation

Testimony Delivered by
Dr. Jane Butler Kahle, Director
ivision of Elementary, Secondary, and Informal Education
National Science Foundation

Before the House Committee on Science
Subcommitee on Basic Research
April 28, 1999

MR. CHAIRMAN, Ranking Member Johnson, and members of the Subcommittee, I would like to express my appreciation for having the opportunity to address you today concerning important issues connected with improving the science, mathematics, and technology education performance of American school students. Director Colwell has asked me to extend you her regrets at being unable to attend today due to unavoidable commitments with respect to business of the National Science Board. Dr. Colwell has requested that I deliver her testimony which reflects the Foundation's activities in science and mathematics education. And on behalf of the Director, I wish to extend the Foundation's thanks to Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson for her support of National Science Foundation (NSF) programming, and her standing commitment to education excellence for every single student in this Nation, without exception.

Indeed, Mr. Chairman, the Nation's need for abundant talent in technologically critical employment sectors will require us to improve the educational performance of all students, leaving no child behind whose skills only wait to be discovered. The National Science Foundation has been preparing the ground for expected achievements through its K-12 science, mathematics, and technology (SMT) initiatives-each one seeking to make a contribution to student performance by strengthening key components of educational experience.

NSF's Unique Role in Education

Support for science, math and engineering education at all levels dates back to the creation of NSF in 1950. Education and learning is central to everything we do at NSF. Many people think of NSF as a research agency only; but, in fact, overall education and training programs comprise nearly 20 percent of our budget and involve all seven of our directorates. I would also note that over half of our education investment is in K-12 mathematics and science education.

The Foundation's educational effort is unique for a number of reasons:

  • NSF is focused solely on improving Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology Education;

  • NSF is able to link the science and engineering research enterprise with education. We support new ideas, new concepts and combine the discovery of research with science and math education;

  • NSF programs cover all disciplines of science and engineering;

  • NSF spans all educational levels - we are able to support innovative links between K-12 schools and undergraduate programs;

  • All NSF awards are made as the result of merit-based, peer-review; and

  • NSF has shown leadership in developing new concepts and programs that significantly improve science and math education.

Our science and mathematics education programs are designed to foster the natural connections between learning and discovery. NSF-funded science and mathematics education projects come from proposals submitted from many sources. These can be university faculty, but they also include local teachers, administrators, school district officials, and state officials, and all proposals are subject to merit based, peer review. Based on this review, we fund - with the limited resources available - the best ideas with the greatest potential for a long-lasting, broader impact on our system of education.

We need to base our funding decisions on research that indicates what works and what doesn't, so that local communities can build programs to better educate their children in science and mathematics. Successful new approaches and concepts for science and mathematics education originally supported by NSF can have wider impact as these new ideas become the basis for future educational programs that reach across entire systems and regions.

NSF Support of Education: Promoting Partnerships and Quality

One hallmark of the Foundation's K-12 efforts focuses on partnership building as the sine qua non of effective education reform. NSF believes that partnerships which draw deeply from the community are most likely to succeed in supporting and sustaining science and mathematics education reform. It is no surprise, then, that numerous NSF education programs already require partnership building.

Only 6 cents of every education dollar spent in the U.S. comes from Federal sources. NSF contributes a small fraction of those pennies. If we are to make an impact, we must spend them wisely and we must make them go a long way. Leveraging these precious resources is critical. To be successful, an education project must have the financial support and active participation of all players in the local education system (parents, teachers, administrators, business leaders, civic groups and local governments). This is doubly true for large education reform projects like NSF's Systemic Initiatives that seek to enable changes not just in one classroom or in one school, but across a large institution or jurisdiction such as a entire district, city, or state.

Another important concept is quality. The recipients of our support are grateful for the resources we provide but, unfortunately, the amount of NSF resources available falls well short of the educational needs in local communities. Beyond the dollars and cents there is something else that draws institutions to seek NSF awards. That extra value-added arises from the integrity of the peer review and post-award process, the stamp of NSF's quality control, and a support network of other participating institutions that are drawn to NSF supported projects.

Defining Strategies to Meet the Need

Mr. Chairman, NSF is committed to improving the science and math achievement of all children in the United States, enabling all who have interest and talent to pursue scientific and technical careers at any level, and supporting scientific literacy of all citizens.

To achieve this goal several things are needed. These include:

  • A cadre of skilled teachers who are confident in their discipline and who understand how students learn;

  • High quality instructional materials for teachers to use as they engage students with important ideas;

  • Classrooms with appropriate technology and teachers who understand its use;

  • Involvement of all players in the education system, including governments at every level, teachers, parents, administrators, industry, and the larger scientific community; and

  • Local, state, and federal policies that support the alignment of instruction, assessment, and teacher preparation.

In recent years, NSF has been striving to reach these goals by supporting a number of initiatives that are beginning to have a direct impact on these critical needs.

These include:

  • K-12 systemic activities
  • Improvement of instructional materials and classroom assessment
  • Professional development of teachers
  • Digital libraries
  • Research on learning & education
  • Graduate students in K-12 education

Consistent with our mission, NSF's educational programs all seek to integrate the best research across the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering with the education of the next generation. For instance, NSF efforts to develop high-quality instructional materials are based, in part, on including in-depth science and mathematics content-informed by current research-as well as guiding students toward a deeper, more conceptual understanding of subject matter.

Cutting edge educational research can inform our decisions about effective pedagogy, relevant curricula and materials, assessment and, most importantly, insights into how children learn. Consequently, the Foundation has begun a new effort, the Interagency Educational Research Initiative (IERI), in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health to support researchers in this regard.

Our systemic reform efforts (at the state, urban, and rural levels) also combine research with education as they attempt to reform the teaching and learning of science and mathematics on a scale never before attempted. Through rigorous assessment, these systemic efforts can help demonstrate what strategies work and what do not.

Additionally, the Foundation recently announced a new program-begun at the request of Congress through the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998-the Computer Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Scholarships (CSEMS) program. This program will provide one-year scholarships to low-income students who pursue post-secondary degrees in computer science, engineering, or mathematics. As NSF continues strengthening its programmatic activities in the K-12 sector, it is important that promising students-especially those from low-income households-be given the opportunity to achieve a higher level of education and training in the college and university environment.

Let me say a few words about each of the six initiatives mentioned above:

K-12 Systemic Activities

At the start of the decade, NSF initiated major programs for the systemic reform of science, mathematics, and technology education involving broad partnerships in the execution of comprehensive goals, solutions, and actions. Our systemic reform programs are based on the principle that rigorous, high-quality math and science courses should be available to all students. Systemic projects treat whole systems and build much-needed educational capacity at state, urban, rural, school district, and school levels.

These programs have resulted in education improvements on a large scale. In localities where NSF-supported systemic initiatives have taken place, changes in teaching practice have occurred, science and math assessment scores have improved, enrollments in challenging classes have increased, and disparities in attainment have been reduced.

For example:

  • Student performance increased across all districts participating in the Urban Systemic Initiatives (USIs). Over 75% of the USIs showed a direct correlation between student achievement and the length of time cohorts of schools participated in the USI program. Nearly all sites reported increased student enrollment and completion rate in higher level courses;

  • In Dallas, mathematics gains exceeded expectations in seven of eight grades and the percent of high school seniors taking and completing 4 years of mathematics rose 21%. For grades 3-8, the USI Phase I schools outperformed the rest of the district on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) mathematics test at five of the six grade levels.

Instructional Materials/Curriculum Development

In the area of instructional materials development, the Foundation is continuing its long tradition of supporting high quality programs at all grade levels. These activities are designed to engage students in active learning, emphasizing problem solving, critical thinking, and attention to students' preconceived ideas.

In January,1999 the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released the results of its study of middle school mathematics texts. Only four of the twelve texts examined received high ratings, while the others were rated as unsatisfactory. The four receiving high ratings were developed with NSF support. Part of NSF's strategy is to disseminate information about student achievement gains associated with the use of high quality instructional materials in order to encourage other districts and schools to adopt such materials.

These materials allow students time to learn powerful ideas and help them to make connections among science, mathematics, technology and other disciplines. For mathematics, this means materials that include both the familiar "basic skills" of arithmetic and the more advanced "basic skills" of probability, statistics and data analysis. This develops the student' ability to solve non-routine problems, and their ability to communicate mathematical reasoning to others (the TIMSS report noted the real need to improve non-routine problem solving skills among U.S 12th grade students surveyed, and NSF-supported mathematics materials address this concern).

Similarly, the science materials stress experimentation and the understanding of important concepts and themes. The funding of technology education or "pre-engineering" materials has resulted in the development of specialized units at the elementary school level, new comprehensive courses at the middle school level, and new technology courses at the high school level.

Although these materials are only now becoming widely available from their commercial publishers, data exist to suggest that their use contributes to significantly improved student achievement. For example, Connected Mathematics, the materials receiving the highest ratings on the AAAS study, have been adopted by the schools in Traverse City, Michigan, and scores on the Michigan Education Assessment Program tests have risen dramatically. Additionally, half the students completing eighth grade using these materials are able to move directly into more advanced mathematics courses traditionally taken by 10th and 11th graders.

Professional Development

A content-rich curricula is only one part of the story. First class materials are useless without a well-educated, first class teacher corps, skilled in guiding student learning.

The Traverse City experience demonstrates this very vividly. The adoption of the new materials in Traverse City was accompanied by an intensive school-wide professional development program designed to prepare the teachers to use the new materials. Also, similarly intensive professional development efforts have been present at the other sites where the materials developed with NSF support have been used and where impressive gains have been observed in student achievement.

NSF currently is involved in numerous projects that engage entire jurisdictions - from states and large urban areas to local schools and districts - in professional development efforts that provide teachers and administrators with both content knowledge and teaching expertise.

Just as we strive to put content in new science, mathematics, and technology instructional materials, we must do the same for the training of teachers - either new or in the existing teacher corps. To achieve this goal, we must now create a generation of centers for teacher training - collaborations among universities, industry, and state and local governments - to help bring K-12 teachers closer to world-class experts, research and knowledge.

Digital Libraries

The development of the National Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education Digital Library will be accelerated in FY 2000. This national resource will increase the quality, quantity, and comprehensiveness of internet-based K-16 educational resources.

This virtual facility will link students, teachers, and faculty, and provide broad access to standards-based educational materials and learning tools for schools and academic institutions nationwide.

This initiative cuts across an array of NSF activities - from cutting-edge computer science and engineering research to innovative projects that present high-quality, high-content K-12 education materials on-line. Researchers working on the Digital Libraries Initiative projects expect that their research advances will radically change the way individuals and organizations gather and use information. This initiative is also another great example of how NSF is combing it's efforts with mission agencies like ARPA and NASA to benefit the nation both in education and research.

Research on Learning and Education

The Unlocking Our Future study called for a greater emphasis on research on education within the federal education portfolio. The President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has also recommended boosting funding in this area.

Federal funds for education research dropped fivefold from the mid-1970's to the mid-1980's. PCAST has recommended that educational research funding be restored to at least ½ of 1% of total K through 12 educational expenditures at current levels; this would amount to about $1.5 billion per year.

Attention needs to focus on the discoveries being made by researchers across the different disciplines who are taking innovative approaches to education research. I consider NSF's participation in a new Inter-agency Education Research Initiative with the Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health a high priority.

Education in the future may be highly focused in subject matter, but it will offer diverse opportunities -- drawn from a diverse set of resources -- for learning within a single classroom. It is also an extremely complex process that can only be understood through the combined efforts, and the combined scientific and technological toolkits, of many different disciplines. These toolkits have become extraordinarily powerful, and offer us unprecedented opportunities to gain a deep understanding of the education process at all levels.

The Interagency Education Research Initiative embodies these themes. It draws from disciplines that were previously distinct, and methodological levels that did not always effectively inform one another. It brings them to bear -- together -- on the educational challenges that face our nation. This strengthens our knowledge base, and couples research-based teaching tools with evaluation.

The Initiative also capitalizes on the complementary strengths of NSF, the Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health. Working together, we have a unique capacity to lead a substantive effort on education research.

At NSF, we are wholly committed to this initiative. We anticipate that our partnership will continue to flourish. We are looking forward to an important next stage of this program, where science learning will be studied at the same level of emphasis as reading and mathematics.

NSF Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education

Our FY2000 budget also highlights a new K through 12 Graduate Teaching Fellows Program. We think this will boost the content of K-12 education and improve graduate and undergraduate education at the same time. Graduate students are pairing up with teachers at the K through 12 level to supplement their disciplinary studies with direct classroom experience.

This pilot program will target teaching and learning at several levels at once. The college and university students would serve as content experts and provide role models for the younger students. The K-12 teachers would guide them through the ins and outs of pedagogy and classroom teaching.

We see it as a classic win-win. We improve the depth of K-12 science and math courses, and we add some breadth to the experiences of our top graduate students and undergraduates. This is part of a comprehensive approach to workforce development that reaches from grade school through graduate school.

Coordination and Cooperation with Other Agencies

In today's technology-dependent society, all federal agencies must collaborate to ensure that all Americans will have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the future. As a member of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Committee on Science - which coordinates many science and mathematics programs - NSF participates in efforts to coordinate federal science education programs. NSF works closely with other agencies to ensure that its programs do not duplicate other agencies' programs, but rather complement, and link where appropriate, efforts to maximize the overall impact of federal support for science and mathematics education.

The opportunities for collaboration and cooperation between agencies are many. TIMSS was a key collaboration between the Department of Education and NSF. I have touched on some others like the IERI and the Digital Libraries Initiative, but let me mention a few more collaborations that emphasize integration of research and education. In science and mathematics education, the links among inquiry, discovery and learning is omnipresent. All researchers - whether at a university, a national lab or circling the earth in a space station - should link their inquiries with the education of the next generation.

Take astronomy, for example - where both NASA and NSF already collaborate closely on research priorities. With innovative uses of the Web, we can now bring real research discoveries into the classroom. Students on-line can create their own atmosphere around a virtual planet and watch it evolve. Last fall, three high-school students at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Western Massachusetts discovered a new icy object in the Kuiper Belt. They made the find while poring over actual star-field images on the Web from the Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

It is also no coincidence that many of the most successful multi-agency collaborations - like Digital Libraries - involve innovative uses of information technology (IT), a powerful force for collaboration both in research and education. Investing in IT is a priority for NSF, NASA and the Department of Energy first through the Next Generation Internet Initiative, and now with the Information Technology for the 21st Century Initiative. These collaborations have been proven to be highly profitable for all agencies involved.

The great hope - yet to be realized - is that computerized tools will bring individualized learning to all - stimulating natural curiosity, providing access to all the knowledge in the world, and enabling everyone to learn in his or her singular style. Surrounded by hype and hope, the idea of unleashing computers for education reform is still but a vision and needful of much research.

Conclusion -- The Future of NSF Educational Programs

Finally, let me touch upon what we see as the future for NSF in education. If we are to succeed in making our education system truly world class across our great and diverse nation, we must better integrate our research portfolio with the education we support. Integrating discovery with education is the new frontier. In the future, I see NSF focusing on three critical areas:

  • Building better links with NSF research programs and K-12 education - we have seen some successes - especially with linking students with researchers through information technology. I believe NSF should support much more K-12 education throughout the entire NSF budget, including the research account.

  • Promoting new strategies and collaborations for teacher preparation - This includes new teacher education centers and an expanded K-12 graduate teaching fellows effort.

  • Increasing research on learning - with exciting new discoveries occurring across the disciplines, we have new opportunity to develop a radically new understanding of how we learn. The science of learning can lead us to entirely new ways of educating our children. It must be supported by expanding the interagency research collaboration on learning.

In conclusion, the challenges that we face in education are difficult, no doubt, but they are not insurmountable.

By approaching education from several different angles, we are coming upon new discoveries that give us a clearer picture of how we can proceed. What originally looked like a sheer cliff is gradually revealing toeholds on which we can climb to ever greater heights.

Thank you.