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Student Achievement as a Shared Responsibility

“Without a standard, tests become mere comparisons among students . . . they measure what children bring to school, not what they learn in school.”

lmost 10 years ago, President Bush and the state governors “set goals aimed at preparing all the Nation’s children to improve their achievement in core subjects and outpace the world in at least math and science by 2000.” 1 The urgency of the ensuing national debate on how to improve academic achievement by U.S. elementary, middle, and high school students--and the consequences of failing to do so-- remains undiminished today. At issue is who ostensibly defines the content to be learned, and who ensures the opportunity to teach and learn it well. While resolutions will be local, the dialogue that precedes them should reflect experiences from across the Nation, as well as research and evaluation of processes and outcomes, including international comparisons.

The National Science Board (NSB), the governing body for the National Science Foundation, is charged with advising the President and the Congress on matters of national science policy.* Last July, the NSB issued Failing Our Children, a statement urging “all stakeholders in our vast grass-roots system of K-12 education to develop a nation-wide consensus for a common core of knowledge and competency in mathematics and science.” “In the new global context,” the statement continues, “a scientifically literate population is vital to the democratic process, a healthy economy, and our quality of life.”

Just as the inability to read puts a child at risk of truancy and becoming a school dropout, deficiencies in mathematics and science have become a barrier to higher education and the 21st century workplace. Preparation of new generations for entry to both of these worlds is a community responsibility; it cannot be delegated solely to teachers and schools. Thus, the articulation of K-12 content standards with college admissions criteria is vital for conveying the national expectation that educational excellence improves not just the health of science, but everyone’s life chances through productive employment, active citizenship, and continuous learning.

Moreover, the future of the science enterprise is renewed through a continuous flow of talent into the Nation’s science and engineering workforce--talent that embodies certain core skills and competencies derived from education and training shaped by the highest standards of quality. The NSB believes that nothing is more essential to the health of the science enterprise than human resources--the people who are prepared for careers that produce the next generation of knowledge, products, and processes in all sectors of the economy.

It is imperative to raise the voice of the science and engineering communities,** as the chief practitioners of research and education, in the national dialogue on improving the teaching and learning of mathematics and science. Together with elected officials, school administrators, classroom teachers, parents, and employers (especially those from knowledge-based industries), scientists and engineers bring a valuable perspective on mathematics and science as a way of knowing, a transferable skill, and a citizenship tool as we enter a new millennium.

In a culture dedicated to opportunity for all, nothing is more important than preparing our children for the future workplace. In the science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) education of all students, K-12 through post-graduate, the NSB believes that rigor and depth of content are keys to preparation.†† Education reform is a long-term proposition. In this report, the Board sets forth what it considers the necessary conditions for academic achievement, including concurrence on what constitutes “basic skills” for the 21st century.

Science education in the U.S. has received several national wake-up calls since the launching of Sputnik in 1957, including the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. More recently, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)2 warned that America’s children ages 13-17 are, on average, not leading, but lagging the world in mathematics and science achievement. Every parent--not just scientists, educators, and employers--should be alarmed by these results.

The school systems of high-performing countries share characteristics that can be gleaned from the TIMSS data. These data range from content analysis of textbooks, curricula, and classroom videotapes, to ethnographic case studies and surveys of teach-ers’ attitudes and students’ coursetaking.3 The characteristics that emerge include:

  • a coherent vision of what all students in each successive grade should learn, with a focus on a few topics in depth both in their textbooks and classroom instruction;
  • instruction delivered by teachers well-prepared in the subject, who benefit from out-of-class opportunities to develop lessons, and consult regularly with teachers and other resource persons; and
  • alignment between what is expected, taught, tested, and rewarded for students, teachers, and schools.

All high-performing countries show student gains between grades 3 and 4, and again between grades 7 and 8. The U.S. does not. Even in 4th grade, where U.S. students do well relative to those in other countries, their performance in physical science areas is weak, foreshadowing their average performance at 8th grade and their unacceptably poor showing at 12th grade. When we compare our K-12 schools and curricula in light of the TIMSS results, we find many teachers lacking good content preparation and, in the aggregate, a muddled and superficial curriculum. Even excellent pedagogy cannot inspire learning what the world’s best-performing children are expected to know in these circumstances. Amidst the diversity of students and systems--large and small, wealthy and disadvantaged, urban and suburban and rural--there is an overarching reality: in too many American schools there is too little quality science and mathematics being taught and learned.

In addition, while U.S. graduate education remains the envy of the world, the declining interest and participation of domestic students in science and engineering must be taken as a disturbing sign that K-12 mathematics and science education is failing to renew, expand, and prepare our talent pool.4 This decline clearly suggests that the performance of U.S. students signals uneven preparation for college-level study, a lack of readiness for the world of work, an accumulating disadvantage in the global economic competition to come. A further implication, more subtle and harder to demonstrate, is that as American schools fail more youngsters, this nation’s capability to innovate, solve problems, and produce--to sustain world leadership--is in jeopardy.

With such a prospect in mind, the National Science Board asks how to address the national interest through local strategies that promote academic achievement in mathematics and science. Drawing on research and analysis, this report asserts that stake-holders working in their home communities can converge on what matters most for mathematics and science achievement--rigorous content standards, high expectations for teaching and learning, teachers well-prepared in the subjects they are teaching, and meaningful measures of accountability. Such convergence can help clarify shared responsibility, identify where contention resides, and suggest how research can illuminate both what is known and what needs to be known. The Federal role in elevating education practice and student performance is catalytic and analytical--one resource among many helping to foster the conditions under which all students, schools, parents, and communities can together boost academic achievement.


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