Experts Laud Call For Revamping U.S. Science Education Programs

Programs Date:January 10, 1994, pp.1 Report warns of inadequate oversight and ineffective planning and management of the growing number of federal initiatives Science education specialists are endorsing a recently released report by a top-level advisory panel warning that, despite unprecedented government spending on science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) education, the United States "remains at risk of losing i

Jan 10, 1994
Barton Reppert

Programs Date:January 10, 1994, pp.1

Report warns of inadequate oversight and ineffective planning and management of the growing number of federal initiatives
Science education specialists are endorsing a recently released report by a top-level advisory panel warning that, despite unprecedented government spending on science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) education, the United States "remains at risk of losing its competitive edge." The experts join the report's call for significantly revamped planning, coordination, and evaluation of the federal government's programs in these areas.

In compiling The Federal Investment in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education: Where Now? What Next? the 15-member panel, convened by the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology (FCCSET), surveyed some 300 education programs sponsored by 13 federal departments and agencies. The initiatives the panel examined were identified as "core programs," or those relating directly to SMET education, and funded at a total cost of about $2.2 billion. Support for programs not targeted specifically to SMET education may be as much as $24 billion, the panel estimates.

In the report to FCCSET--an interagency group now being superseded by a newly formed Cabinet- level National Science and Technology Council--the group concludes that this "potpourri of programs" has evolved "with too little overall planning and with inadequate evaluation.... The federal portfolio of core programs is unbalanced and lacks coherence."

Following are excerpts from the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology expert panel's report on federal programs to support science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) education:

  • "The impact of current federal dollars in SMET education remains unclear. A potpourri of programs has evolved. Federal expenditures are being made with too little overall planning and inadequate evaluation."

  • "Too many Americans know virtually nothing of the mathematical and scientific concepts and discourse (to say nothing of the technologies) that enrich contemporary culture, social experience, and economic progress."

  • "It is the strong view of this panel ... that a basic change in the way in which federal agencies view their roles is needed. It is time for a new culture of interaction, communication, and coordination to be developed and sustained within and among all the agencies in the area of education."

  • "The panel found that today's federal programs in SMET education continue to be burdened by a lack of coordination, a lack of evaluation, and a lack of accountability. The federal portfolio of investments in SMET education needs a comprehensive, coordinated management plan to provide balance and coherence across and within federal agencies, other levels of government, and all levels of SMET education."

  • "Despite continued federal expenditure, the percentage of minority students studying SMET subjects (particularly at the graduate level) remains abysmally low. In engineering, the physical sciences, and mathematics, women are also significantly underrepresented .... Federally funded programs must actively and continually seek ways to improve participation and retention of underrepresented populations and to make SMET accessible to all citizens."

  • "For a majority of federally funded SMET education programs, no evaluation information is available at all ... or no serious inquiry beyond anecdotal or self-reported data has been made. This disturbing lapse must be addressed immediately. The federal government cannot continue to spend large sums of money without knowing if its programs are accomplishing their established goals."

    Source: The Federal Investment in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education: Where Now? What Next?

    Copies of the report are available from the
    National Science Foundation,
    Attn: Joyce Taylor, Suite 855 (EHR/RED),
    4201 Wilson Blvd.,
    Arlington, Va. 22230.

  • The panel contends that "it is time for a new culture of interaction, communication, and coordination to be developed and sustained within and among all federal agencies in the area of education."

    Shirley Malcom, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science directorate for education and human resources, says she supports both the focus and the direction of the report's findings and recommendations: "I think the points that they make are absolutely on target. Their concerns about coordination and communication and collaboration . . . are absolutely the right ones. We have to be a lot more willing to look at ourselves and look at our programs in a very honest and forthright way."

    Malcom, who did not serve on the FCCSET panel, adds that "we're not going to see a lot more money in the near term . the resources that are available."

    Among the major conclusions and suggestions of the panel are:

  • The core programs are "unbalanced and lack coherence" and require a "stronger management plan" that ensures that more SMET programs are aligned with national strategic plan goals; are coordinated across agencies; and promote equity.

  • Current evaluations of these programs are "often inadequate" for improving programs, providing accountability, or deciding which ones to cut or retain. Programs should be "evaluated rigorously," with an eye toward meeting identified national needs.

  • "Research should be directed toward what works best in particular educational settings, for particular diverse audiences, and in non-traditional settings such as adult education."

  • More money should be allocated to promote awareness among teachers, students, and researchers of available federal programs in SMET education.

  • A greater emphasis should be placed on teacher-preparation programs at all levels, including "the latest findings on how best to promote student learning."

    At the news conference to release the study early last month, panel cochairman Karl S. Pister, chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, noted that 10 years ago a U.S. Department of Education commission report, A Nation at Risk, was widely acclaimed and "jarred the national conscience."

    "Unfortunately, much of what was called for in that 1983 report remains unfinished," he said. "At the same time, the federal government's efforts in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education are not sufficiently coordinated to reverse the tide of mediocrity and apathy."

    Pister said the FCCSET panel's study marked the first time that the federal programs have been "examined as a whole in the light of independent scrutiny."

    Of the current climate for action on such issues, Pister said: "I think it's too early to judge the current administration. But I see very positive signs." He added that formation of the new NSTC, to be chaired personally by President Bill Clinton, "is a telling symbol to me that the administration is taking science and technology education seriously."

    Panel cochairwoman Mary Budd Rowe, a professor of science education at Stanford University, told reporters that the study found only about 20 percent of the 300 federally supported education programs have been evaluated for their effectiveness. "We're in a competitive, almost life-death kind of struggle with other countries. And I don't think we can afford to invest big amounts in programs that don't work," she said.

    Panel member Ernest R. House, a professor of education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says that even after working in the field of government educational policy for 20 years, when he got a more detailed look at the various programs he found the overall situation "so bad that I was just appalled."

    House says a key problem has been that interagency groups, such as FCCSET, up to now have lacked sufficient authority to effectively oversee the range of programs. Within the different departments and agencies, "bureaucrats are used to hunkering down. They've seen these things come and go many times, so they're used to just saying, `Well, we can sit this out.' ... So I think it will take some kind of pretty strong authority to induce them to cooperate with each other."

    Such authority may be wielded by the newly created NSTC. The council, established under an executive order signed last November to coordinate science, space, and technology policies throughout the executive branch, will incorporate FCCSET's duties. According to an official at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, FCCSET is expected to officially go out of business this month when its activities are taken over by NSTC and eight R&D coordinating committees being formed under the council.

    Earl Dowell, dean of the engineering school at Duke University in Durham, N.C., says he strongly supports the FCCSET panel's recommendation that more attention be paid to widely disseminating information about federal programs-- particularly the results of pilot or experimental efforts.

    "I think there's a lot of independent experimentation, and that's probably good to a certain degree--but not if, indeed, we keep repeating the same experiment without being aware of what other people have tried," he says.

    Dowell observes that "at the moment, I'm afraid that in too many cases the educational experiments--even when well done--tend to impact a single campus, or perhaps just a few campuses, and not the broader range of institutions."

    As an example of an NSF-supported pilot program whose results deserve to be more widely disseminated, Dowell points to a program involving faculty-led "engineering education coalitions" designed to improve educational quality at various engineering schools. Each coalition generally involves seven or eight campuses.

    Echoing Dowell's sentiments, another member of the FCCSET panel, Wendell G. Mohling, former president of the 50,000- member National Science Teachers Association, says the study shows that improved efforts are needed to provide useful information to schools, teachers, and students about various federally supported programs.

    "Just as with anything if you've got a good product you still need to sell it," he says. "For any classroom teacher there are dozens of things that come through the mailbox or to the school. But to get it to the teacher, at the classroom level, is what is really the name of the game here--to publicize these programs."

    Leonard Minsky, executive director of the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.- based group, comments about the report: "Basically, I couldn't agree more with the conclusions.... They're absolutely right about the lack of coordination, evaluation, and accountability."

    He adds that "from our perspective, there's tremendous overlap, enormous sloppiness in the system.... And there's absolutely no way of getting any kind of accountability out of the system as it's now constructed."

    At the news conference, Luther Williams, National Science Foundation assistant director for education and human resources and acting chairman of FCCSET's education committee, said he takes the report's findings "very seriously."

    "We will take this valuable input to heart, and very carefully consider how best to respond," Williams said. "We know we need to make some changes, and here is some sound advice on how to start."

    For the 1994 fiscal year, which began last October, NSF is slated to spend $569 million on science and engineering education programs--an increase of 17 percent from the year before.

    Within NSF, further steps to more thoroughly evaluate educational programs and initiatives are expected to be mapped out by the foundation's office of research, evaluation, and dissemination, headed by Daryl E. Chubin, who recently moved to NSF from the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (P. Beck, The Scientist, Nov. 1, 1993, page 22).

    Barton Reppert is a freelance science writer based in Gaithersburg, Md.