Bush Pushes Science and Math

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 education.

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 report—called “Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy”—that shows the United States is not producing the mathematicians and scientists that the nation needs, and the problem is getting worse.

During the 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 are working.”

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 funds—and its students could use federal funds to obtain tutoring or to attend a superior public or private school. This latter provision—using government money or vouchers to finance part of a private education—has 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,” Paige says.

Administration 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.

One positive 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 in K-12.

Congressional 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.

Paige succeeded 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 science courses.

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.