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On Politics

Leaving Science and Math Training Behind?

- By Kenneth T. Walsh

Understandably, the war on terrorism has absorbed most of the nation's attention since September 11. But some other important developments have taken place in Washington during the past few months—most notably President Bush's January 8 signing of the 1,184-page “No Child Left Behind Act,” which makes sweeping changes in the federal approach to education.

Most Washington policy makers praise the act's emphasis on testing, standards, and accountability—all goals promoted by Bush as a cornerstone of his domestic agenda. But they are less sanguine about other aspects of the new approach, especially lower levels of spending earmarked to promote science and math education in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Congress dedicated only $12.5 million to the Education Department's math and science partnerships program in the department's 2002 budget. This is a fraction of what Congress authorized and a pittance compared with the minimum of $250 million reserved for math and science training in 2001. Says Ioannis Miaoulis, dean of engineering and associate provost at Tufts University: $12.5 million for the nation hardly begins to make a dent. It cannot do anything at a national level and very little at a state level.” Adds Jodi L. Peterson, director of legislative affairs for the National Science Teachers Association: “Dedication to math and science took a huge blow.” On another front, the National Science Foundation has been allotted $160 million to fund math and science partnerships on a peer reviewed basis. And for the first time, engineering departments can compete for some of the money. The problem, say critics, is that advocates for math and science training must compete with other advocates for what was guaranteed a year earlier.

Those who want to reverse this trend will have to work a lot harder on Capitol Hill during the next budget cycle. There is, however, some positive news in assessing the new education law overall. The legislation sets out to achieve three main goals: set clear academic standards, expand testing to assess performance, and establish greater accountability in schools. This won't be a cure-all, but it might do some good. As is well known in education circles, many American students have very weak skills in math and science at a time when such skills are not only needed in everyday life but, more broadly, are a key element in expanding the crucial tech sector and keeping America competitive around the world.

The law authorizes the federal government to spend $26.5 billion, up from a current budget of $18.5 billion, on education programs. Broadening the federal role in education, the law requires annual state tests in reading and mathematics for every child in grades three through eight, beginning in the fall of 2005. Science tests will be added in three grades in 2005. States are currently required to test students in reading and math much less frequently—once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.

Schools where scores failed to improve over two consecutive years could receive more federal aid to improve skills. If scores still did not improve, low-income students would be eligible for tutoring or transportation to other public schools. Schools that failed to improve for six years could be required to change leadership and staff. The “No Child Left Behind Act,” which reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, addresses an issue of critical importance to the high-tech community—the need to better prepare American students for 21st Century jobs,” says William T. Archey, president and CEO of AeA, the nation's largest high-tech industry association. “It is also good public policy. National and international tests demonstrate that too many American students are not proficient in math and science, the core disciplines that drive the technology revolution. This legislation recognizes that we as a nation need to do more to make sure all students get the quality education they need to enable them to take advantage of the new economy's opportunities. The days of unskilled entry-level jobs have passed.”

A recent report, entitled “CyberEducation 2002” by AeA and the Nasdaq Stock Market finds that while K-12 math achievement test scores have improved since 1990, only 17 percent of 12th graders tested adequately for proficiency in math in 2000. This was an increase from 12 percent in 1990, but still a dismal showing. Science proficiency scores fell from 21 percent in 1996 to 18 percent this year.

“This creates real issues for the nation as too few students pursue studies in technically challenging subjects like engineering in college,” says Archey. “America's most innovative industries are then left scrambling for the talent they need to compete.”

There are other problems with the new law. For one thing, as The Washington Post has pointed out, the measure provides $900 million annually over six years to help children improve their reading by using methods proven effective through “scientifically based” research. But there is still considerable debate about what constitutes such research, raising troublesome questions for parents, teachers, and local officials. Yet whatever the drawbacks, the new approach seems worth a try.

Kenneth T. Walsh is Chief White House Correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. He can be reached by e-mail at kwalsh@asee.org.