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Executive Summary

“. . . as American schools fail more youngsters, this nation’s capability to innovate, solve problems, and produce--to sustain world leadership--is in jeopardy.”

n a culture dedicated to opportunity for all, nothing is more important than preparing our children for the future workplace. For a mobile population, local schools are de facto national resources for learning.

The National Science Board (NSB), charged with advising the President and the Congress on national science policy, urges a nation-wide consensus on a core of knowledge and competency in mathematics and science. The Board believes it is both possible and imperative to develop national strategies that serve the national interest while respecting local responsibility for K-12 teaching and learning.*

In this report, the NSB draws on research and analysis that show how stakeholders working in their home communities can converge on what matters most in promoting student achievement. The Board further suggests that the science and engineering communities--both individually and through their institutions--represent a special resource for local schools, teachers, and students.

Math and Science Standards in the National Interest

The future of the Nation depends on a strong, competitive workforce and a citizenry equipped to function in a complex world. That interest encompasses what every student in a grade should know and be able to do in mathematics and science. The connection of K-12 content standards to college admissions criteria is vital for conveying a national expectation: educational excellence improves not just the health of science, but every-one’s life chances through productive employment, active citizenship, and continuous learning.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in three students changes schools more than once between grades 1 and 8. Thus, the needs of our mobile student population beg for some coordination of content and resources. This is a systemic problem that demands systemic solutions. For U.S. student achievement to rise, no one can be left behind.

The Board believes that stakeholders must develop a much-needed consensus on a common core of mathematics and science knowledge and skills to be embedded consistently in classroom teaching and learning.

Imparting core competencies neither defines an entire curriculum nor precludes locally-held prerogatives about the content of curricula. For example, NSF, NASA, and other agencies have funded instructional materials development that reflects professional consensus on what constitutes teachable and rigorous content in mathematics and science. The evaluation and distribution of such materials help districts, teachers, and administrators make informed choices among resources.

Areas for Action

Implementing standards creates opportunities to change both the conditions for learning and the performance of U.S. students. The recommendations that follow suggest strategies for implementing the Board’s core belief. Of special emphasis are areas of action in which the science community can collaborate to advance the consensus on core competencies. The NSB proposes three areas for consensual national action to improve mathematics and science teaching and learning: instructional materials, teacher preparation, and college admissions.

According to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), U.S. students are not taught what they need to know. Most U.S. high school students take no advanced science, with only one-quarter enrolling in physics, one-half in chemistry. From the TIMSS analysis we also learned that mathematics and science curricula in U.S. high schools lack coherence, depth, and continuity, and cover too many topics in a superficial way.

Without some degree of consensus on content for each grade level, textbooks will continue to be all-inclusive and superficial. They will fail to challenge and motivate students to be curious and use mathematics and science as ways of knowing.

Student achievement should reflect the value added by schooling. Asserting that “all children can learn” reflects the power of standards and accountability. Through district-level policy changes in course and graduation requirements, all students can be held to the same high standard of performance. At the same time, teachers and schools must be held accountable so that race, ethnicity, gender, physical disability, and economic disadvantage can diminish as excuses for subpar student performance.

Amidst education experimentation across the U.S., the Washington Post noted last Fall that “class size, physical resources, local administration--can help. But good teaching is the vein of gold. To mine it, we’ll have to pay more to attract and keep the best. And we’ll need to be sure we get our money’s worth by requiring strong preparation, and performance up to measurable standards.”

According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, as many as one in four teachers is teaching “out of field.” The National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification reports that only 28 states require prospective teachers to pass examinations in the subject areas they plan to teach, and only 13 states test them on their teaching skills.

Widely shared goals and standards in teacher preparation, licensure, and professional development provide mechanisms to ensure teacher quality. We cannot expect world-class learning of mathematics and science if U.S. teachers lack the confidence, enthusiasm, and knowledge to deliver world-class instruction. While updating current teacher knowledge is essential, improving future teacher preparation is even more crucial.

Providing the best possible teachers for our schools requires juggling the competing pressures faced by besieged districts, schools, and classroom teachers. The community partners of schools--higher education, business, and industry--share the obligation to heighten student achievement.

Content standards, clusters of courses, and graduation requirements bestow advantages on students. They illuminate the path to college and the workplace by forming a foundation for later learning, and draw students’ career aspirations within reach. How high schools assess student progress, however, has consequences for deciding who gains access to higher education.

Longitudinal data on 1982 high school graduates point to course-taking or “academic intensity,” as opposed to high school grade point average or SAT/ACT scores, as predictors of completion of baccalaureate degrees. Nevertheless, short-term, quantifiable measures such as standardized test scores tend to dominate admissions decisions. Such decisions promote the participation of some students in mathematics and science, and discourage others.

Data suggest, too, that the cumulative disadvantages of family income will be compounded by admissions criteria that apply the wrong filters and restrict opportunities. State efforts to create a “seamless” education system--K-12 schools and colleges working together to set standards and curricula--and hold colleges accountable (much as schools already do) are laudable for tying state resources to performance.

Acting as “all one system” means that the strengths and deficiencies of one educational level are not just inherited by the next. Instead, they become spurs to better preparation and opportunity for higher learning. Partnering by an institution of higher education demands adjusting the reward system to recognize service to local schools, teachers, and students as instrumental to the mission of the institution.

Research Informing Practice

Policymakers, business leaders, and parents are increasingly vexed over the academic achievement of U.S. students. Clearly, the issues raised in this report shape a research agenda: What do we need to know and how best can we engender reliable and usable knowledge about, for example, which tests should be used for gauging progress in teaching and learning, and how children learn in both formal and informal settings? What would attract the participation of the requisite communities? How can an interagency portfolio of research be devised?

The National Science Board sees research, supported at a national level and in a global context, as a necessary condition for improved student achievement in math and science. Research on “what works” should inform those seeking a change in practice and learning outcomes, especially teachers. Like other professionals, teachers need support networks that deliver information, helping to refine and renew their knowledge and skills.

Conclusions: A Shared Responsibility

A generation ago, the NSB Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology advised: “Our children are the most important asset of our country; they deserve at least the heritage that was passed to us ... a level ofmathematics, science and technology education that is the finest in the world, without sacrificing the American birthright of personal choice, equity and opportunity.”

The health of science and engineering tomorrow depends on improved mathematics and science preparation of our students today. But we cannot delegate the responsibility of teaching and learning mathematics and science solely to teachers and schools. And we cannot expect instant results.

Improved student performance in mathematics and science will be short-lived if the conditions for schooling do not change and our strategies are uninformed by research. These needs transform the national interest into a national imperative. Educational excellence K-16 is a shared responsibility and, above all, a tractable challenge to us all.


About the National Science Board Conclusions How Research Can Better Inform Practice Building a Seamless Education System, K-16 Content Standards for All Schools Student Achievement as a Shared Responsibility Executive Summary Contents