America's Pressing Challenge - Building a Stronger Foundation
February 23, 2006
Science and Engineering Indicators has reported for almost a decade on the rapid growth in scientific and engineering (S&E) occupations in the United States. The 2006 edition now reports that by 2012, U.S. occupations in S&E fields are expected to grow by 1.25 million. That's 26 percent more than exist today, while a 15 percent increase is expected in all other jobs.
The National Science Board policy report, America's Pressing Challenge – Building a Stronger Foundation, has taken into account the changing global and national economic pictures and concluded in the strongest of terms that America's K-12 efforts in science and mathematics education have not responded to these changes. Over several decades, there have been ups and downs, but not steady improvement in K-12 math and science education. The board report is asking that the nation "recognize the existing crisis," and has called for a series of wide-ranging steps to improve the situation, which it calls "intractable." In addition, authors say that the nation "cannot wait until our students turn 18 years old to begin to produce the intellectual capital necessary to ensure this future (expanded) workforce."
Challenges for K-12 Science and Mathematics Education
Nationwide performance scores show some improvement in mathematics for fourth- and eighth-grade students and a decline at fourth grade in science. International comparisons leave much to be desired, according to the board, especially when it comes to practical applications of science and math concepts. Even more distressing, say report authors, are the wide national performance disparities that still exist between groups of students--a trend that is not enhancing those who are "from disadvantaged populations, urban and rural." There is unequal access to good courses, and a lack of encouragement or requirements for students to take these courses in preparation for entering colleges or universities.
In teaching, authors cite several studies that math and science teachers often lack certification, many teach out of their fields, and still more leave the profession early for more lucrative and satisfying professional opportunities outside the K-12 system. Though the Department of Education says the nation will need more than two million new teachers over the next decade, it appears that there is no clear move to counter the trend of recent research that suggests that more than a third of all new teachers leave the profession within three years--and half within five years--for better salaries and working conditions.
School districts, already strapped on pay issues, also don't do much to develop teachers. States have been implementing policies on professional development, but for many school systems, this development "mainly consisted of one-time workshops with little follow-up." Instruction practices are also at issue. Under The No Child Left Behind Act, states receiving Title I funding are to develop science and mathematics content standards by 2005, with assessments in mathematics to be conducted immediately from grades 3-8. In science, assessments will begin in 2007, but only one content assessment will be conducted in elementary school, and one more in middle school. Technology has its separate challenges. Teachers must shift from being "familiar with" computers to being able to more effectively use computers in support of their instruction. Most of their students are already entering school computer literate, but "do not have a grasp of the science and engineering that underlie that technology."
America's Pressing Challenge calls for immediate nationwide efforts to alter the way the general public views science and mathematics education, to improve the way teachers are developed, students are taught (especially our youngest students), to formulate new assessments of learning, even how to reach guidance counselors on how they communicate to students the wide opportunities in science and technology.
The board says that to build a better foundation for the nation's future, the public must get a better picture of the value of science and mathematics to the nation. Part of that knowledge must be communicated strongly to the "gatekeepers"--school administrators and others--who don't have a full appreciation of the value these skills bring to those who seek careers in most fields.
The board says more public awareness is needed on the importance of compensating K-12 teachers comparably to other professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This and other resource-intensive measures will be needed to develop and retain a solid core profession of math and science teachers. Induction programs, sustained professional development experiences, stronger K-8 teacher education programs and solid research on teaching and learning are all critical, say authors of the report.
America's Pressing Challenge also recommends that equal time be devoted to science, mathematics and reading in K-8 classrooms where the youngest students learn necessary thinking skills to interpret, formulate and process concepts. It calls for new strategies and instructional materials for teachers to reach a growing population of English language learners. Assessments of learning must also be improved and "demonstrate a student's ability to think and apply knowledge."
The report concludes that science and mathematics classrooms need "drastic" changes for the sake of our citizens' ability to think critically and make informed decisions and to be able to produce discoveries and innovation to maintain the nation's prosperity in the future.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $626 million in professional and service contracts yearly.
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