NSF & Congress
Hearing Summary: House Science Committee Subcommittee on Basic
Research Hearing on the National Science Foundation FY 2001 Budget Authorization February 29, 2000
February 29, 2000
On February 29th, the Subcommittee on Basic Research
of the House Science Committee held the second in
a series of hearings on the National Science Foundation
FY2001 budget authorization request. The hearing focused
on the Education and Human Resources Directorate of
NSF. Witnesses were Dr. Judith Sunley, acting assistant
director for Education and Human Resources; Dr. James
E.K. Hildreth, professor of pharmacology and molecular
sciences and assistant dean for graduate student affairs
at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; and Dr. Bennett
Bertenthal, professor of psychology, University of
In his opening remarks, Rep. Smith noted that NSF must
serve the nation in two ways: supporting cutting edge
science and developing human and intellectual capital.
We are too reliant on foreign-born students, he said,
and must pay particular attention to research into
how people learn.
The discussion throughout was amicable and witness
testimony was well received. The witnesses all described
the NSF as uniquely positioned to best influence the
improvement of mathematics and science education in
the US. Dr. Sunley stressed the NSF-wide emphasis
on education and linked changes in the FY2001 budget
request with the 21st Century Workforce initiative.
She briefly described budget aspects of each EHR program,
including expansion of the GK-12 program, ATE and
information security scholarship programs, distinguished
scholars teaching, and the tribal college initiative.
These budget requests, she concluded, are all about
Dr. Bertenthal focused his remarks on increased funding
for NSF, increased research into how people learn,
and the fact that NSF is uniquely postured to improve
math and science education. He asked the committee
to consider how much society has changed in a century,
using the modern emergency room as an example, and
asked if education has kept up. He suggested that
a reason for the lack of change is that we haven't
brought science to the classroom. There are too many
arguments about the best way to study learning and
not enough cooperation between scientific discipline,
he said, linking the academic infighting to competition
for scarce research funding. One answer is increased
funding for fundamental research in education, he
said. It's an enormous challenge, he admitted, but
NSF is structured to bring the disciplines together
in pursuit of basic knowledge.
Dr. Hildreth began by stating that he credits his NSF
Presidential Young Scholars Award for his career.
He talked about the importance of including all segments
of society in the improvement of math and science
education, of preparing minority students. He spoke
specifically about Johns Hopkins' special partnerships
with inner city schools, especially the GK-12 teaching
fellows program at Dunbar High School. He described
the graduate students as a wonderful content resource,
bringing their palpable excitement about math and
science into the classrooms.
Rep. Smith asked Dr. Sunley why the NSF request called
for a reduction in the graduate research fellows program.
Dr. Sunley responded that with limited resources,
the decision was to fund increases in the GK-12 program.
Rep. Smith pointed out that this was a 170% increase
and questioned how its effects were being measured
and whether there are standards by which the teachers
and graduate students were chosen. Dr. Sunley replied
that these are three-year awards, and haven't been
running long enough to have a thorough evaluation
yet, and that NSF does review the procedures by which
the institutions choose fellows. Dr. Hildreth said
that Johns Hopkins was seeing good results in terms
of better scores on standardized tests and on college
entrance, and was going to do a formal, long-term
survey of these numbers, including how many of the
students actually go into math and science. He acknowledged
that putting these very bright students into a classroom
with all their knowledge and enthusiasm could be threatening
to teachers who felt behind the curve on their knowledge.
But the teachers are there as teachers, to teach the
graduate students about teaching he said, and he had
seen no problem in his classrooms around this issue
because the relationships were well defined. And the
teachers are excited, he said, to have these grad
students as resources.
Rep. Woolsey asked what NSF is doing to encourage women
and girls into science, pointing out that they represent
at least half the population. Dr. Sunley responded
that NSF is very concerned with developing classroom
materials and procedures that work well to encourage
all students in math and science and mentioned the
program in gender equity. Dr. Bertenthal said that
there is tremendous concern, not only in the agencies
involved in education, but also among parents of girls.
The way we've been teaching sciences up till now is
not the best for all children, who we turning off
by making it too hard for them to relate to science.
We need research directed at how children learn science,
he said. Dr. Hildreth said it is the same for minorities,
and the answer revolves around role models. He pointed
again to those graduate students. Rep. Woolsey agreed
that mentors and role models are a big part of the
Rep. Ehlers asked about the methods of best improving
math and science in this country and what Congress
can do. We have a lot of evidence, he said, that the
research that's going on isn't very good. Dr. Bertenthal
responded that criticisms of quality today are too
often sniping by one discipline at another brought
about by competition for scarce research resources.
Research in education is fragmented and piecemeal,
he said, riding a funding roller coaster, and if research
had been done this way in biotechnology, we would
have had no progress. A strong commitment to basic
research and to interdisciplinary research would help
change things. It's a problem to believe that we can
go out and get some science and then simply apply
it to the classroom, he said. Rep. Ehlers said he
thought that was right. Too often we tackle complex
problems with simple solutions. It may be very difficult
to measure research quality, but Congress has a mandate
to do it, he added.
Rep. Smith asked Dr. Hildreth about areas of needed
improvement in math and science education. Dr. Hildreth
replied that there is a startling difference between
foreign and domestic students in their ability to
manipulate data and solve complex problems and other
skills learned early in childhood. The challenge is
that the teachers we're expecting to solve these differences
are struggling because they are victims of the same
background. He mentioned again the GK-12 program and
the improved skills in those classrooms.
Rep. Woolsey asked how we could overcome the problem
of rewarding people who do science so much better
than those who teach it. Dr. Sunley acknowledged the
problem and said perhaps the GK-12 program can help
stimulate young people into teaching, but right now
we are turning too many young people off to science.
Dr. Hildreth said the public has to be more excited
about science and scientists have to develop more
respect for teaching.
Rep. Ehlers asked what evaluation is being done in
the systemic reform program and whether NSF standards
were applied in these evaluations. Dr. Sunley responded
that there have been outside evaluations at the state
level of the programs and that NCTM, AAAS, and NRC
standards are used in the evaluations. Basically,
the statewide systems have seen evaluations based
on consistent standards, and there has been measured
improvement, but the urban and rural program results
are less clear, she said.
Rep. Larsen asked how the NSF could ensure that the
universities it funds are turning out teachers able
to deal with the demands of the new century. Dr. Sunley
talked about efforts to improve future teachers, including
linking colleges of science and education in the new
centers for learning and teaching.
Rep. Morella asked about the role that community colleges
could play in the ATE program. Dr. Sunley talked about
the program's connection to the most local demands
for trained workers. Community colleges are most closely
tied to what's going on in their communities. Forty
to fifty percent of new teachers begin in community
colleges - so NSF is working to create programs that
suit the needs of individual communities.