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NSF & Congress


Dr. Rita Colwell

Dr. Rita Colwell
National Science Foundation

Before the House Committee on Science
April 28, 1999

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Brown, members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to appear today to discuss the role of the federal government in science, mathematics, engineering and technology (SMET) education together with the other federal science and education agencies.

It is no secret that improving K-12 education in this country is an imperative. When I arrived at NSF, Mr. Chairman, I was determined to make education one of the top priorities for the National Science Foundation. It is one of the three priorities in the FY 2000 budget request along with our Information Technology and Biocomplexity initiatives.

Mr. Chairman, under your leadership the Science Committee has also made education a priority. The Committee has endorsed the National Science Policy report -- Unlocking the Future: Toward a New Science Policy - produced under your leadership as well as former Speaker Gingrich, and Congressman Vern Ehlers. This important report explicitly stated that science and math education at all levels should be rooted in the natural desires of young people to explore and discover. This inquiry-based, hands-on approach to learning - one that integrates education with the excitement of research - is one of the hallmarks of NSF's education efforts.

Find Out Why, NSTW '99 posterThis drive toward exploration and discovery that is so basic to the human spirit is being celebrated right now through National Science and Technology Week. This is our poster announcing the kick-off of our new initiative, which we call "find out why." Our challenge is to engage people of all ages in discovering the science and technology found everywhere in their daily lives.

The striking object on this poster is not an insect or a flower. It's a ferrofluid -- part liquid and part magnet. It's used in such things as rotary seals in disk drives for computers.

Today the technologies emerging from basic science and engineering have given us so many ways to "find out why" that we can hardly enumerate them. Our economy is in the midst of a profound transformation, in which people's livelihoods are depending less on what they are producing with their hands, and more on what they are producing with their brains. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has described this as the advent of a "conceptual-based economy." The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the fastest growing job categories will be in professions with significant educational requirements.

The Unlocking the Future report spelled this out clearly when it stated:

[O]ur system of education, from kindergarten to research universities, must be strengthened. Our effectiveness in realizing the vision we have identified will be largely determined by the intellectual capital of the Nation. Education is critical to developing this resource. Not only must we ensure that we continue to produce world-class scientists and engineers, we must also provide every citizen with an adequate grounding in science and math if we are to give them an opportunity to succeed in the technology-based world of tomorrow-a lifelong learning proposition.

Mr. Chairman, I wholeheartedly agree with this proposition. But we know we have got a long way to go to get there. Last year we got a wake up call from the set of studies known as TIMSS -- the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

The results raised important issues about the quality of U.S. science and mathematics education. While U.S. fourth graders were close to the goal of being "first in the world," U.S. eighth graders slipped to levels at or below the international average and 12th graders were near the bottom.

We also learned that we need to address both what we teach and how we teach. Our curricula sacrifice depth for the sake of breadth. As the National Science Board concluded in its recent report: "U.S. students are not taught what they need to know."

U.S. textbooks contain many more topics than those in other countries. For example, the science textbooks we give to our eighth graders cover some 67 topics. In Germany, they cover 9 topics. As the saying goes, we are learning less and less about more and more.

Not only do all of our children deserve a rigorous education in science and mathematics ... our future demands it. We could start to see the best jobs, and technological and economic leadership, begin moving beyond our borders. Fortunately, there is a positive side of this story as well, which is what I want to focus on today.

NSF's Unique Role in Education:
Fostering the Natural Connections Between Learning and Discovery

As you know, Mr. Chairman, the amount spent by the federal government on education is comparatively small next to the amounts spent by state and local governments. Educating our children is -- quite rightly -- the responsibility of parents and local school systems. One way the federal government can help foster a world-class system of education is by linking K-12 education with our already world-class science and engineering enterprise.

NSF has supported science, math and engineering education at all levels since it was founded in 1950. Education and learning is central to everything we do at NSF. Many people think of NSF as being a research agency, 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 math and science education.

NSF'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 sciences and engineering;

  • 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, peer-review; and

  • NSF has shown leadership in developing new concepts and programs that significantly improve science and math education.

NSF science and math education programs are -- like all NSF programs -- "experiments". They are designed to foster the natural connections between learning and discovery. NSF-funded science and math education projects come from proposals submitted by individual investigators. These can be university faculty, but they also include local teachers, administrators, school districts officials, and state officials. What they all have in common is that their proposals are subject to merit based, peer review.

At NSF we fund -- with the limited resources available -- the best ideas with the greatest potential for a long-lasting, broader impact on our system of education.

We need to find out what works and what doesn't, so that local communities can build programs to better educate their children in science and math. Successful new approaches and concepts for science and math 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 and regions.

How Does NSF Support Education?
Promoting Partnerships -- Promoting Quality

One of the central concepts for all NSF-supported education activities is the concept of partnerships. 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 activities 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.

As a partner in local school reform, NSF cannot impose its will, or magically produce increased learning from a distance. Rather, positive change can only occur from a complicated array of school-based conditions and community forces operating in states and districts. One size or model will not fit all. NSF can help to narrow the choices, focus on the most pressing needs, and require our grantees to articulate their vision and report to us on their strategies for pursuing that vision and measures for determining it is achieved.

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 often 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.

What is Needed?

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 include:

  • A cadre of skilled teachers who are confident in their discipline and who understand how students learn;

  • High quality instructional materials for teachers to use as they engage students with important ideas;

  • 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 teacher preparation.

NSF Education Strategies

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 needs.
These include:

  • K-12 systemic activities
  • Professional development of teachers
  • Improvement of instructional materials
  • Research on learning & education
  • Digital libraries
  • Graduate students in K-12 education

As I mentioned earlier, all NSF programs -- whether education or research -- are really experiments. Consistent with our mission, NSF's educational programs all seek to integrate the best research across the fields of science and engineering with the education of the next generation. The attached slide gives you a good snapshot of the mixture of NSF K-12 programs.

Some -- like our new interagency research initiative in learning and education -- are more research-focused.

Others are focused clearly on the classroom -- such as our efforts to develop instructional materials -- that seek to improve the quality of classroom materials by injecting them with in-depth science and engineering content.

Still others -- such as our systemic reform efforts -- combine research and education by seeking to reform the science and math education in a locality in ways or on scales that have never been attempted. Through rigorous assessment, these systemic efforts can help demonstrate what strategies work and what do not.

Let me say a few words about each of these programs.

K-12 Systemic Activities

At the start of the decade, NSF initiated major programs for the systemic reform of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education. 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 projects are unique in their involvement of broad partnerships and development of comprehensive goals, solutions, and actions.

These programs have resulted in education improvements on a large scale. In localities where NSF-supported systemic initiatives have taken place, science and math assessment scores have improved, enrollments in challenging classes have increased, and disparities in attainment have been reduced.

For example:

  • 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 courses;

  • In Chicago, 61 of 62 high schools increased student performance in mathematics, and system-wide mathematics scores reached a seven-year high; and

  • 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 ideas.

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.

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.

In January, the American Association for the Advancement of Science released the results of a study of middle school mathematics texts. Only four of the 12 texts examined received high ratings, while the others were rated as unsatisfactory. All four receiving high ratings were developed with NSF support.

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, MI 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.

Professional Development

A content-rich curricula is only one part of the story. First class materials are useless without a well-trained first class teacher corps, skilled in the use of the latest materials.

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 SMET 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.

Digital Libraries

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.

As a researcher and an educator myself, I am in full agreement both with the attention being paid to, and 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 levels.

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 and math.

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 math 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 math education.

The opportunities for collaboration and cooperation between agencies are many. TIMSS itself 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 math 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.

Of course, NASA also supports astronomy - with the dramatic photos from the Hubble Telescope being just one example of how NASA research can spark the imaginations of young people. There is no question that the NASA website by itself represents an impressive education resource.

It is also no coincidence that many of the most successful multi-agency collaborations -- like Digital Libraries -- involve innovative uses of information technology. IT is a powerful force for collaboration both in research and education. Investing in IT is a priority for NSF, NASA and DoE 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 I see is the future for NSF in Education.

If I were asked to give one word that best describes NSF's education efforts for the future, I would have to say "Experimentation." 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. Integration of research and education means investing in inquiry-based, hands on learning - that's a given. But integration also means investing in activities that are high risk, but that can bring high payoffs if ultimately successful. We must experiment, we must try new approaches.

In the future, I see NSF focusing on three critical areas:

  • 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 account.

  • 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 on learning.

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.

I am sure that with closer collaborations between the science and education agencies in the future, such efforts will lead to outstanding opportunities to improve K-12 SMET education. I look forward to these exciting collaborations. I look forward as well to working with you and this entire Committee, Mr. Chairman, to help make the K-12 science and math education system in United States truly world-class.

Thank you.