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Photo of Cora Marrett

Dr. Cora Marrett
Deputy Director
National Science Foundation

Inspiring Quality STEM Education: A View from the
National Science Foundation

A Conference by NSF at Drexel University to Unveil the
NRC Report: Lessons Learned from Successful Schools

September 20, 2011

First, I want to thank our host, Drexel University, its staff, and the leadership from Drexel.

I can go on forever because there are so many distinguished people here. I must, however, acknowledge a long-standing friend and colleague already mentioned, [former NSF Deputy Director] Dr. Joseph Bordogna. I really value the time we spent together at the National Science Foundation. I admire the work that he continues to do here in Philadelphia and in the region.

Let me turn to my remarks. President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST, depicts STEM education as having two goals: To prepare and inspire -- to prepare and inspire students. But, if STEM education in the United States is to fulfill these expectations, then its proponents must also be prepared and inspired. I regard the National Science Foundation to be among the proponents.

Thus, on behalf of NSF, let me convey our gratitude to the project on Highly Successful Schools for making us better prepared to conform to the needs of the nation.

I also want to thank some long-standing colleagues who played key roles in the development of this NRC [National Research Council] report [Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics]. Thank you, Adam [Gamoran], for inspiring us to recognize that success in STEM education is not only demanded, but it is also possible.

This is a very encouraging message, coming as it does only a year after another National Academies report [Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5], which described the U.S. as rapidly approaching "category 5" storm status regarding the nation's needs in STEM education. It was just five years earlier that the same NRC committee had warned of a "gathering storm" about indications that conditions had deteriorated over the years. The deterioration was noted especially in K-12 STEM education.

Now, as you know, "category 5" represents a maximum-intensity hurricane; it portends extensive destruction. However, a "category 5" storm is rare, developing only under select conditions.

The report on successful schools implies that we, collectively, can deliver K-12 education from rack and ruin, if we understand and underpin the circumstances associated with success. This report from the NRC committee observes that education too often lacks the necessary ingredients for success. As a consequence, U.S. students, time and time again, compare unfavorably with their counterparts from other nations when international comparisons are made.

You have already heard about many of those comparisons. You are also familiar with the comparison made by looking at the results from, for example, the Program of International Student Assessment, or PISA.

Among students of 24 nations, U.S. students outperformed the students of only four other nations in mathematics. Moreover, three of these countries, against which we compared at the higher levels, are defined as developing economies. Those, then, are the kinds of findings -- and Dr. Suresh has already indicated several others -- of which we are aware.

The report suggests that the situation is neither entirely bleak nor completely insurmountable. Nevertheless, modifying the situation requires deep inquiry by the various STEM-education sectors into their educational practices and contributions.

The National Science Foundation, with its mandate to advance research and education in the United States, must participate in this process of examining practices and contributions. The report offers encouraging observations for the National Science Foundation. In fact, this report supports various directions NSF has taken over the years. At the same time, the report challenges the foundations.

Allow me to provide you with a couple of examples of both the support and the challenges in the report as they apply to the National Science Foundation. The good news is that the report highlights the imperative for research on STEM education. Again, Dr. [Carl] Wieman just shared with us how critical is systematic knowledge about policies, practices, and outcomes. As he suggested, mere hunches or even exciting arguments do not substitute for systematic inquiries on the forces associated with successful K-12 education, and, in fact, with successful education at any level.

The emphasis on research surrounding STEM education has strong support at the National Science Foundation. Indeed, many of the studies -- on which the report draws -- emerged from the work the Foundation has supported.

Let me again note, we support the research. We do not ourselves carry out that research, which is why we are so indebted to the incredible knowledge and willingness of this excellent community that all of you represent. You are the ones who develop the kind of knowledge on which we can build.

Not only is there accord between NSF and the report on the criticality of research, but also, there is a convergence on the likely ingredients of success. Those ingredients include: Effective instruction and well-prepared teachers. Both the report and the National Science Foundation agree that success and excellence will require effective instruction.

You have heard about some of the contours of effective instruction from Dr. Wieman. Let me say a little bit more about what the report and the Foundation mean by effective instruction.

Often, such instruction is captured through what we could call "authentic experiences" -- experiences that provide students opportunities to understand how scientific investigations actually take place. It is essential that if students are going to develop that understanding, teachers must also have these experiences. This need for authentic understanding, which goes beyond familiarization with facts and processes, justifies the attention that the National Science Foundation pays to both students and teachers. In other words, you cannot advance one category without attending to the other.

We like to think that the National Science Foundation is especially well-suited to promoting authentic experiences. For example, within our sphere, we don't focus only on education but also on the several domains of science and engineering. This authentic experiences approach offers the possibility for incorporating path-breaking research and developments in science and engineering into STEM education. This model ensures that the knowledge that students and teachers are receiving is at the cutting edge.

Therefore, we are very pleased that the report recognizes these kinds of developments. However, this report does not leave the programs and outcomes of NSF unscathed. For the report indicates, time and time again, just how thin is the research literature on the elements of successful schools.

Yes, we have research. But we have far too little research for us to know how we can scale up, expand, and extend experiences. Clearly, the STEM education research agenda, a hallmark of the National Science Foundation, is an incomplete agenda at this point.

The report also challenges NSF, as it challenges the nation at large, to attend to the persistent gaps in achievement -- gaps among students of different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In the words of a different document from the National Academies, the aim must be success for all. But, we as a nation have not yet met that ideal. It is imperative for the National Science Foundation to join with others across the nation to do so.

Similarly, the report encourages an emphasis on collaboration. This document reminds us just how important collaboration is -- across fields, across institutions, across agencies. We are not the only agency represented here at the meeting today, nor are we the only level [federal] of government represented. More representation across agencies would help achieve our goals.

As we, at NSF, continue to peruse the report and discuss it with our various constituencies, we will be particularly attentive to the connections we must forge in order to expand successes in STEM education.

Let me close by thanking the committee for improving NSF's preparation for the challenges associated with success and for inspiring us to continue on the paths to success.

To all assembled here, please regard the National Science Foundation as your partner but not as the sole force. We are a partner for dampening those forces that are pushing STEM education ever closer to a category-5 designation. We can influence these factors.

Thank you so much.