As Prism made
clear in its February cover package, Making
the Grade, few issues are more important to the country,
or more vexing, than America's weakness in math and science
A growing number
of U.S. legislators appear to agree. For example, Republican Jim
Jeffords of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor
and Pensions Committee, told a recent hearing that science and math
education is one of the most difficult national problems we
have. Jeffords referred to a 1998 House reportcalled
Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policythat
shows the United States is not producing the mathematicians and
scientists that the nation needs, and the problem is getting worse.
2000 campaign, President George W. Bush addressed the problem mainly
by proposing to require an annual state assessment in reading and
math for all students in grades three through eight. I can
tell you from my own experience, says Bush's new education
secretary, Roderick R. Paige, that there is simply no substitute
for good, annual data on how well students are progressing and strategies
This will be
the administration's big push in Congress through the spring
and early summer. Under the Bush plan, schools where students aren't
doing well would get more state and local assistance. If the schools
failed to improve, students might be given the option of attending
another public school. Ultimately, if a school failed to make adequate
progress for three straight years, it would be subject to losing
some of its federal fundsand its students could use federal
funds to obtain tutoring or to attend a superior public or private
school. This latter provisionusing government money or vouchers
to finance part of a private educationhas generated fierce
opposition among congressional Democrats.
But the vouchers
plan shouldn't divert attention from other parts of the administration's
approach. Bush and Paige promise to take specific steps to bolster
science and math education, and they have at least recognized the
central problems. Math and science instruction in our public
schools needs special help, Paige says. We don't
have the number of . . . qualified teachers that we need.
Just as damaging, Paige explains, once they arrive at local schools,
math and science teachers are eagerly recruited by industry. And
as our economy prospers, it becomes tougher and tougher for us to
keep math and science teachers in our community [as we compete]
with Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, Texas Instruments, and others,
officials acknowledge that they have no panacea for the teacher
shortage. But they are addressing the overall problem in other ways.
Paige says, for example, that the administration will offer an enhanced
Pell Grant to students who take college-level math and science courses
in high school. Under this expansion, low-income Pell Grant recipients
who pass advanced placement math and science or other college-level
courses while in high school would be eligible for an additional
$1,000 to pay college tuition. Paige says other details of Bush's
program won't be known until April, when his final budget is
presented to Congress.
early sign: Bush announced in late February that he would propose
increasing the federal education budget by 11.5 percent next year,
to $44.5. Bush also proposed spending $200 million on the President's
Math and Science Partnership, a program designed to assist states
and universities in bolstering math and science education for students
Democrats aren't satisfied. Not that money is the answer
to everything, but it's a pretty clear indication of a priority,
complained Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Kennedy and other liberals such
as Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., are worried that Bush won't spend
enough to pay for his proposals.
Yet Paige has
a very solid track record as the former school superintendent in
Houston, the largest school district in Texas and the seventh largest
in the United States. One of his guiding principles was what he
called an early start, in which government encouraged
kids to take an interest in science and math almost as soon as they
began school. During his tenure from 1994 until he took his current
job, scores on standardized math tests soared under his jurisdiction.
In 1992, fewer than 45 percent of Houston students passed a math
test; by 1998, nearly 70 percent passed.
by using a variety of techniques. He offered signing bonuses of
$2,000 to new teachers in math and science. He increased teacher
pay across the board, and became a devotee of the state's accountability
and assessment standards, based on standardized testing, that President
Bush is seeking to implement nationally. Paige also brought in college
professors to give math instruction to the teachers in Houston public
schools, and under his leadership the school district strengthened
graduation requirements in high school to include more math and
Not a bad record,
but we won't know until later this year whether Paige can put
this experience to good use in Washington.
Kenneth T. Walsh is chief White House correspondent for U.S.
News & World Report.