NSF & Congress
Testimony of Dr. Rita Colwell, Director
National Science Foundation
Testimony Delivered by
Dr. Jane Butler Kahle, Director
Division of Elementary, Secondary, and Informal Education
National Science Foundation
Before the House Committee on Science
Subcommitee on Basic Research
April 28, 1999
MR. CHAIRMAN, Ranking Member Johnson, and members of
the Subcommittee, I would like to express my appreciation
for having the opportunity to address you today concerning
important issues connected with improving the science,
mathematics, and technology education performance
of American school students. Director Colwell has
asked me to extend you her regrets at being unable
to attend today due to unavoidable commitments with
respect to business of the National Science Board.
Dr. Colwell has requested that I deliver her testimony
which reflects the Foundation's activities in science
and mathematics education. And on behalf of the Director,
I wish to extend the Foundation's thanks to Representative
Eddie Bernice Johnson for her support of National
Science Foundation (NSF) programming, and her standing
commitment to education excellence for every single
student in this Nation, without exception.
Indeed, Mr. Chairman, the Nation's need for abundant
talent in technologically critical employment sectors
will require us to improve the educational performance
of all students, leaving no child behind whose skills
only wait to be discovered. The National Science Foundation
has been preparing the ground for expected achievements
through its K-12 science, mathematics, and technology
(SMT) initiatives-each one seeking to make a contribution
to student performance by strengthening key components
of educational experience.
NSF's Unique Role in Education
Support for science, math and engineering education
at all levels dates back to the creation of NSF in
1950. Education and learning is central to everything
we do at NSF. Many people think of NSF as a research
agency only; but, in fact, overall education and training
programs comprise nearly 20 percent of our budget
and involve all seven of our directorates. I would
also note that over half of our education investment
is in K-12 mathematics and science education.
The Foundation's educational effort is unique for a
number of reasons:
- NSF is focused solely on improving Science, Math,
Engineering, and Technology Education;
- NSF is able to link the science and engineering
research enterprise with education. We support
new ideas, new concepts and combine the discovery
of research with science and math education;
- NSF programs cover all disciplines of science
- NSF spans all educational levels - we are able
to support innovative links between K-12 schools
and undergraduate programs;
- All NSF awards are made as the result of merit-based,
- NSF has shown leadership in developing new concepts
and programs that significantly improve science
and math education.
Our science and mathematics education programs are
designed to foster the natural connections between
learning and discovery. NSF-funded science and mathematics
education projects come from proposals submitted from
many sources. These can be university faculty, but
they also include local teachers, administrators,
school district officials, and state officials, and
all proposals are subject to merit based, peer review.
Based on this review, we fund - with the limited resources
available - the best ideas with the greatest potential
for a long-lasting, broader impact on our system of
We need to base our funding decisions on research that
indicates what works and what doesn't, so that local
communities can build programs to better educate their
children in science and mathematics. Successful new
approaches and concepts for science and mathematics
education originally supported by NSF can have wider
impact as these new ideas become the basis for future
educational programs that reach across entire systems
NSF Support of Education: Promoting
Partnerships and Quality
One hallmark of the Foundation's K-12 efforts focuses
on partnership building as the sine qua
non of effective education reform. NSF believes
that partnerships which draw deeply from the community
are most likely to succeed in supporting and sustaining
science and mathematics education reform. It is no
surprise, then, that numerous NSF education programs
already require partnership building.
Only 6 cents of every education dollar spent in the
U.S. comes from Federal sources. NSF contributes a
small fraction of those pennies. If we are to make
an impact, we must spend them wisely and we must make
them go a long way. Leveraging these precious resources
is critical. To be successful, an education project
must have the financial support and active participation
of all players in the local education system (parents,
teachers, administrators, business leaders, civic
groups and local governments). This is doubly true
for large education reform projects like NSF's Systemic
Initiatives that seek to enable changes not just in
one classroom or in one school, but across a large
institution or jurisdiction such as a entire district,
city, or state.
Another important concept is quality. The recipients
of our support are grateful for the resources we provide
but, unfortunately, the amount of NSF resources available
falls well short of the educational needs in local
communities. Beyond the dollars and cents there is
something else that draws institutions to seek NSF
awards. That extra value-added arises from the integrity
of the peer review and post-award process, the stamp
of NSF's quality control, and a support network of
other participating institutions that are drawn to
NSF supported projects.
Defining Strategies to Meet
Mr. Chairman, NSF is committed to improving the science
and math achievement of all children in the United
States, enabling all who have interest and talent
to pursue scientific and technical careers at any
level, and supporting scientific literacy of all citizens.
To achieve this goal several things are needed. These
- A cadre of skilled teachers who are confident
in their discipline and who understand how students
- High quality instructional materials for teachers
to use as they engage students with important
- Classrooms with appropriate technology and teachers
who understand its use;
- Involvement of all players in the education system,
including governments at every level, teachers,
parents, administrators, industry, and the larger
scientific community; and
- Local, state, and federal policies that support
the alignment of instruction, assessment, and
In recent years, NSF has been striving to reach these
goals by supporting a number of initiatives that are
beginning to have a direct impact on these critical
- K-12 systemic activities
- Improvement of instructional materials and classroom
- Professional development of teachers
- Digital libraries
- Research on learning & education
- Graduate students in K-12 education
Consistent with our mission, NSF's educational programs
all seek to integrate the best research across the
fields of science, mathematics, and engineering with
the education of the next generation. For instance,
NSF efforts to develop high-quality instructional
materials are based, in part, on including in-depth
science and mathematics content-informed by current
research-as well as guiding students toward a deeper,
more conceptual understanding of subject matter.
Cutting edge educational research can inform our decisions
about effective pedagogy, relevant curricula and materials,
assessment and, most importantly, insights into how
children learn. Consequently, the Foundation has begun
a new effort, the Interagency Educational Research
Initiative (IERI), in cooperation with the U.S.
Department of Education and the National Institutes
of Health to support researchers in this regard.
Our systemic reform efforts (at the state, urban, and
rural levels) also combine research with education
as they attempt to reform the teaching and learning
of science and mathematics on a scale never before
attempted. Through rigorous assessment, these systemic
efforts can help demonstrate what strategies work
and what do not.
Additionally, the Foundation recently announced a new
program-begun at the request of Congress through the
American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement
Act of 1998-the Computer Science, Engineering,
and Mathematics Scholarships (CSEMS) program.
This program will provide one-year scholarships to
low-income students who pursue post-secondary degrees
in computer science, engineering, or mathematics.
As NSF continues strengthening its programmatic activities
in the K-12 sector, it is important that promising
students-especially those from low-income households-be
given the opportunity to achieve a higher level of
education and training in the college and university
Let me say a few words about each of the six initiatives
K-12 Systemic Activities
At the start of the decade, NSF initiated major programs
for the systemic reform of science, mathematics, and
technology education involving broad partnerships
in the execution of comprehensive goals, solutions,
and actions. Our systemic reform programs are based
on the principle that rigorous, high-quality math
and science courses should be available to all students.
Systemic projects treat whole systems and build much-needed
educational capacity at state, urban, rural, school
district, and school levels.
These programs have resulted in education improvements
on a large scale. In localities where NSF-supported
systemic initiatives have taken place, changes in
teaching practice have occurred, science and math
assessment scores have improved, enrollments in challenging
classes have increased, and disparities in attainment
have been reduced.
- Student performance increased across all districts
participating in the Urban Systemic Initiatives
(USIs). Over 75% of the USIs showed a direct correlation
between student achievement and the length of
time cohorts of schools participated in the USI
program. Nearly all sites reported increased student
enrollment and completion rate in higher level
- In Dallas, mathematics gains exceeded expectations
in seven of eight grades and the percent of high
school seniors taking and completing 4 years of
mathematics rose 21%. For grades 3-8, the USI
Phase I schools outperformed the rest of the district
on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS)
mathematics test at five of the six grade levels.
Instructional Materials/Curriculum Development
In the area of instructional materials development,
the Foundation is continuing its long tradition of
supporting high quality programs at all grade levels.
These activities are designed to engage students in
active learning, emphasizing problem solving, critical
thinking, and attention to students' preconceived
In January,1999 the American Association for the Advancement
of Science (AAAS) released the results of its study
of middle school mathematics texts. Only four of the
twelve texts examined received high ratings, while
the others were rated as unsatisfactory. The four
receiving high ratings were developed with NSF support.
Part of NSF's strategy is to disseminate information
about student achievement gains associated with the
use of high quality instructional materials in order
to encourage other districts and schools to adopt
These materials allow students time to learn powerful
ideas and help them to make connections among science,
mathematics, technology and other disciplines. For
mathematics, this means materials that include both
the familiar "basic skills" of arithmetic and the
more advanced "basic skills" of probability, statistics
and data analysis. This develops the student' ability
to solve non-routine problems, and their ability to
communicate mathematical reasoning to others (the
TIMSS report noted the real need to improve non-routine
problem solving skills among U.S 12th grade students
surveyed, and NSF-supported mathematics materials
address this concern).
Similarly, the science materials stress experimentation
and the understanding of important concepts and themes.
The funding of technology education or "pre-engineering"
materials has resulted in the development of specialized
units at the elementary school level, new comprehensive
courses at the middle school level, and new technology
courses at the high school level.
Although these materials are only now becoming widely
available from their commercial publishers, data exist
to suggest that their use contributes to significantly
improved student achievement. For example, Connected
Mathematics, the materials receiving the highest
ratings on the AAAS study, have been adopted by the
schools in Traverse City, Michigan, and scores on
the Michigan Education Assessment Program tests have
risen dramatically. Additionally, half the students
completing eighth grade using these materials are
able to move directly into more advanced mathematics
courses traditionally taken by 10th and 11th graders.
A content-rich curricula is only one part of the story.
First class materials are useless without a well-educated,
first class teacher corps, skilled in guiding student
The Traverse City experience demonstrates this very
vividly. The adoption of the new materials in Traverse
City was accompanied by an intensive school-wide professional
development program designed to prepare the teachers
to use the new materials. Also, similarly intensive
professional development efforts have been present
at the other sites where the materials developed with
NSF support have been used and where impressive gains
have been observed in student achievement.
NSF currently is involved in numerous projects that
engage entire jurisdictions - from states and large
urban areas to local schools and districts - in professional
development efforts that provide teachers and administrators
with both content knowledge and teaching expertise.
Just as we strive to put content in new science, mathematics,
and technology instructional materials, we must do
the same for the training of teachers - either new
or in the existing teacher corps. To achieve this
goal, we must now create a generation of centers for
teacher training - collaborations among universities,
industry, and state and local governments - to help
bring K-12 teachers closer to world-class experts,
research and knowledge.
The development of the National Science, Mathematics,
Engineering, and Technology Education Digital Library
will be accelerated in FY 2000. This national resource
will increase the quality, quantity, and comprehensiveness
of internet-based K-16 educational resources.
This virtual facility will link students, teachers,
and faculty, and provide broad access to standards-based
educational materials and learning tools for schools
and academic institutions nationwide.
This initiative cuts across an array of NSF activities
- from cutting-edge computer science and engineering
research to innovative projects that present high-quality,
high-content K-12 education materials on-line. Researchers
working on the Digital Libraries Initiative projects
expect that their research advances will radically
change the way individuals and organizations gather
and use information. This initiative is also another
great example of how NSF is combing it's efforts with
mission agencies like ARPA and NASA to benefit the
nation both in education and research.
Research on Learning and Education
The Unlocking Our Future study called for a
greater emphasis on research on education within the
federal education portfolio. The President's Committee
of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has
also recommended boosting funding in this area.
Federal funds for education research dropped fivefold
from the mid-1970's to the mid-1980's. PCAST has recommended
that educational research funding be restored to at
least ½ of 1% of total K through 12 educational expenditures
at current levels; this would amount to about $1.5
billion per year.
Attention needs to focus on the discoveries being made
by researchers across the different disciplines who
are taking innovative approaches to education research.
I consider NSF's participation in a new Inter-agency
Education Research Initiative with the Department
of Education and the National Institutes of Health
a high priority.
Education in the future may be highly focused in subject
matter, but it will offer diverse opportunities --
drawn from a diverse set of resources -- for learning
within a single classroom. It is also an extremely
complex process that can only be understood through
the combined efforts, and the combined scientific
and technological toolkits, of many different disciplines.
These toolkits have become extraordinarily powerful,
and offer us unprecedented opportunities to gain a
deep understanding of the education process at all
The Interagency Education Research Initiative embodies
these themes. It draws from disciplines that were
previously distinct, and methodological levels that
did not always effectively inform one another. It
brings them to bear -- together -- on the educational
challenges that face our nation. This strengthens
our knowledge base, and couples research-based teaching
tools with evaluation.
The Initiative also capitalizes on the complementary
strengths of NSF, the Department of Education and
the National Institutes of Health. Working together,
we have a unique capacity to lead a substantive effort
on education research.
At NSF, we are wholly committed to this initiative.
We anticipate that our partnership will continue to
flourish. We are looking forward to an important next
stage of this program, where science learning will
be studied at the same level of emphasis as reading
NSF Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education
Our FY2000 budget also highlights a new K through 12
Graduate Teaching Fellows Program. We think this will
boost the content of K-12 education and improve graduate
and undergraduate education at the same time. Graduate
students are pairing up with teachers at the K through
12 level to supplement their disciplinary studies
with direct classroom experience.
This pilot program will target teaching and learning
at several levels at once. The college and university
students would serve as content experts and provide
role models for the younger students. The K-12 teachers
would guide them through the ins and outs of pedagogy
and classroom teaching.
We see it as a classic win-win. We improve the depth
of K-12 science and math courses, and we add some
breadth to the experiences of our top graduate students
and undergraduates. This is part of a comprehensive
approach to workforce development that reaches from
grade school through graduate school.
Coordination and Cooperation with Other Agencies
In today's technology-dependent society, all federal
agencies must collaborate to ensure that all Americans
will have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed
in the future. As a member of the National Science
and Technology Council (NSTC) Committee on Science
- which coordinates many science and mathematics programs
- NSF participates in efforts to coordinate federal
science education programs. NSF works closely with
other agencies to ensure that its programs do not
duplicate other agencies' programs, but rather complement,
and link where appropriate, efforts to maximize the
overall impact of federal support for science and
The opportunities for collaboration and cooperation
between agencies are many. TIMSS was a key collaboration
between the Department of Education and NSF. I have
touched on some others like the IERI and the Digital
Libraries Initiative, but let me mention a few more
collaborations that emphasize integration of research
and education. In science and mathematics education,
the links among inquiry, discovery and learning is
omnipresent. All researchers - whether at a university,
a national lab or circling the earth in a space station
- should link their inquiries with the education of
the next generation.
Take astronomy, for example - where both NASA and NSF
already collaborate closely on research priorities.
With innovative uses of the Web, we can now bring
real research discoveries into the classroom. Students
on-line can create their own atmosphere around a virtual
planet and watch it evolve. Last fall, three high-school
students at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Western
Massachusetts discovered a new icy object in the Kuiper
Belt. They made the find while poring over actual
star-field images on the Web from the Cerro-Tololo
Inter-American Observatory in Chile.
It is also no coincidence that many of the most successful
multi-agency collaborations - like Digital Libraries
- involve innovative uses of information technology
(IT), a powerful force for collaboration both in research
and education. Investing in IT is a priority for NSF,
NASA and the Department of Energy first through the
Next Generation Internet Initiative, and now with
the Information Technology for the 21st Century Initiative.
These collaborations have been proven to be highly
profitable for all agencies involved.
The great hope - yet to be realized - is that computerized
tools will bring individualized learning to all -
stimulating natural curiosity, providing access to
all the knowledge in the world, and enabling everyone
to learn in his or her singular style. Surrounded
by hype and hope, the idea of unleashing computers
for education reform is still but a vision and needful
of much research.
Conclusion -- The Future of
NSF Educational Programs
Finally, let me touch upon what we see as the future
for NSF in education. If we are to succeed in making
our education system truly world class across our
great and diverse nation, we must better integrate
our research portfolio with the education we support.
Integrating discovery with education is the new frontier.
In the future, I see NSF focusing on three critical
- Building better links with NSF research programs
and K-12 education - we have seen some successes
- especially with linking students with researchers
through information technology. I believe NSF
should support much more K-12 education throughout
the entire NSF budget, including the research
- Promoting new strategies and collaborations for
teacher preparation - This includes new teacher
education centers and an expanded K-12 graduate
teaching fellows effort.
- Increasing research on learning - with exciting
new discoveries occurring across the disciplines,
we have new opportunity to develop a radically
new understanding of how we learn. The science
of learning can lead us to entirely new ways of
educating our children. It must be supported by
expanding the interagency research collaboration
In conclusion, the challenges that we face in education
are difficult, no doubt, but they are not insurmountable.
By approaching education from several different angles,
we are coming upon new discoveries that give us a
clearer picture of how we can proceed. What originally
looked like a sheer cliff is gradually revealing toeholds
on which we can climb to ever greater heights.