Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families &
Postsecondary Education, Training, and Life-Long Learning

February 2, 2000


Judith S. Sunley
Assistant Director (Interim)
Education and Human Resources

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittees:

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to your deliberations on the appropriate federal role in K-12 mathematics education reform. This hearing provides an opportunity to describe the National Science Foundation’s K-12 math and science education programs to a new audience. We appreciate the Committee’s interest in understanding how our programs fit into the overall context of local, state and federal activities.

NSF in K-12 Mathematics and Science Education

NSF’s definition of its role in K-12 math and science education and the resulting programs grow out of NSF’s role as a federal agency whose mission is to promote the progress of science and engineering. Education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology has been part of our mandate since NSF’s inception. We have programs of formal education in these areas at all levels, and we support informal education activities as well.

In carrying out this mandate, we have two connected objectives in mind:

Developing a strong, diverse, globally-oriented workforce of scientists and engineers to maintain the nation’s progress in science and engineering well into the future; and

Enabling a citizenry that understands and can take full advantage of basic concepts and skills in science, math, and technology.

NSF’s objectives are quite broad, while NSF itself is small – even in the context of federal spending on education. So we have asked what NSF can and should do in working toward those objectives, both generally and in K-12 math and science. Answering the latter question gets at both the role of a federal agency in an area where local and state levels of government dominate decision making and the appropriate niche for NSF among federal agencies.

The key concepts underlying all NSF’s strategic thinking were critical in shaping the current portfolio of K-12 math and science education programs. These include working on the frontiers of knowledge, expanding the boundaries of our understanding, and developing new approaches, models, and tools that will stimulate progress. We serve as a catalyst, enabling others to conduct research and education activities at the cutting edge, supporting the work of the most creative individuals and groups.

At the same time, NSF constantly explores the current state of knowledge and activity in science and engineering research and education, facilitating the emergence of new ideas and approaches. This is particularly important in K-12 education. While we do not play a major role in decision-making, NSF serves as a facilitator, both assisting in the development of new ideas and approaches and providing resources to enable those who wish to implement them to get started.

NSF also provide links into the science and math communities, bringing their expertise to bear on issues of content. Indeed, this is something that NSF must do. Our strengths lie in our connections with the scientific communities with which we work and with the higher education institutions where most of them are located. NSF’s activities in K-12 math and science education must build on these strengths if they are to have impact.

With these basic principles in mind – operating at the frontiers, facilitating new ideas and approaches in both their development and implementation, linking to the science and math communities, and connecting K-12 and higher education – the rationale for NSF’s K-12 math and science education programming is set. The actualization in programs depends on circumstances that change over time, requiring a dynamic approach to developing, implementing, and evaluating programs.

Two aspects of K-12 education activity have been part of NSF’s programming through most of its history – development of curricula and instructional materials, and teacher professional development, both in-service and pre-service. This is natural, as it is in these content-rich activities that connections to both the math and science communities and higher education are most direct. Ideally, these activities should be carried out by a partnership of those who understand deeply the scientific content and those who understand the pedagogical issues involved in conveying the content to learners.

The character of NSF programming in these areas shifts over time as our understanding of the current state of math and science education and the research base informing that assessment dictate. Math and science education reform have similar stages, although the timing of key events is somewhat different. For the remainder of this testimony, I will focus on math education.


Standards for K-12 Mathematics

The most significant shifts in the character of NSF programming for K-12 math education have their roots in the 1980’s. Four key elements stimulated these shifts.

First, K-12 mathematics was failing large portions of our student population, something we had known for a very long time, but did not confront. Next, uses of mathematics in the working world and in the daily decisions of our lives were changing significantly, making it important to have a much broader range of the population with a much stronger background in mathematics. The imagery that arose in the math community was to see math education as a "pump" leading students into the mathematics necessary for high quality jobs, rather than in its traditional role as a "filter" allowing only the best students to have access to opportunities for advancement.

The changing role of mathematics also meant students needed to learn new concepts such as discrete mathematics, data analysis, and elementary statistics and probability, not part of the standard K-12 math program. New elements needed to be added to an already packed curriculum.

Finally, new capabilities arising from advances in information technologies put a high premium on knowing what mathematical operations to perform when and being able to estimate what the answer should be. However, studies showed students’ inability to deal with complex, multi-step problems drawn from realistic or not-so-realistic situations to be one of the key shortcomings in math achievement. The community with interests at the interface of mathematics and education needed to consider how to reconcile these conflicting ideas.

At the same time, events like the summit on education involving President Bush and the nation’s governors placed pressure on schools and educators to show dramatic improvement in mathematics achievement. Discussions of standards and mechanisms for attaining improved performance dominated the scene.

All these issues and more set up a situation where choices had to be made and human judgment exerted. With this swirl of ideas as backdrop, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics – NCTM is the largest of the mathematics-related professional societies, with a membership of over 100,000 – developed a set of standards for K-12 math education. They reached inward to their membership and outward to the mathematics and education communities broadly for ideas, discussion, and criticism.

Perhaps the key decision underlying the standards was to focus on areas that would impact the broad student population. Combining this with research suggesting that optimal learning patterns are different for different individuals, NCTM recognized that increasing achievement for all students required that teachers use a broad range of teaching modes. Between addressing instructional practice in substantive ways and adding new elements to the curriculum, the developing NCTM standards introduced many new ideas to K-12 math education, ideas that carried promise for improving achievement, but that might be difficult to implement.

After broad consultation with all stakeholders – including the mathematicians – NCTM published their standards in 1989, creating a starting point for discussion and action. When we speak of national math standards, it is the NCTM standards, developed through a national organization of people who work at the interface of mathematics and education in consultation with other interested parties, that we mean.

Development of Instructional Materials

NSF’s programming in K-12 math education shifted to accommodate the existence of the NCTM standards. The initial changes were two-fold.

First, existing curricula and the textbooks and other instructional materials that implemented them were not consistent with the NCTM standards. They reflected the "filter" mentality, rather than priming the "pump" as NCTM felt math education should do. Thus, new instructional materials were needed, particularly comprehensive, multi-year programs of work that would implement the core ideas of the standards. Such curricular development is extremely expensive, not likely to be undertaken by textbook publishers absent some evidence, usually provided by field tests of the materials, that school systems might be willing to adopt them.

NSF’s programs stepped up to that challenge, providing partial support for the development of 13 multi-year curricula, including six of the ten recently identified by the Department of Education’s Expert Panel as exemplary or promising. Initial awards were made in 1990, with most of the materials reaching commercial status in the 1997-98 timeframe. Development of the curricula was informed by the available research base on learning and teaching. Field tests of the materials were positive, and, while there has been controversy surrounding some aspects of their implementation in schools, they are being adopted in a wide variety of settings. We are now beginning to see evidence that their use improves overall student achievement, providing enhanced performance in areas of complex problem solving while enhancing or maintaining performance in basic skill areas. Many of these curricula are now undergoing revision to incorporate what the developers have learned through implementation of these curricula in varied types of schools.

Since many of these curricula place new demands on teachers, NSF has also seen some shifts in the teacher professional development activities. Many projects currently underway link enhancing content knowledge of teachers to the types of mathematics they will be teaching, addressing content knowledge, research base, and pedagogical issues simultaneously.

Systemic Approaches

Following issuance of the NCTM standards for K-12 mathematics, many states were interested in how to adapt them to their own use. They also recognized that it was not sufficient simply to adopt standards. They would need to address the impact of the standards on state curriculum frameworks and assessments, and they would need to provide leadership and guidance to local districts on curricular issues, teacher professional development, and related matters. Many had few people with appropriate content backgrounds to address the full set of activities needed for implementing math standards (or to develop the parallel standards and implementation for science). This brought NSF into a new facilitative role – one that linked our work with curricula and teacher professional development into a focus on how all the pieces of K-12 mathematics and science education fit into the broader educational system.

The result was a new program in FY 1991, the Statewide Systemic Initiative (SSI) program. Over three years, a total of 25 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico received funding for addressing standards, content frameworks, implementation planning, and teacher professional development in science and math. The Montana SSI was also involved in developing curricula for mathematics. A second phase still underway funds seven states and Puerto Rico to intensify their implementation efforts and to provide opportunities for networking and discussion of effective mechanisms for education reform. Total funding from FY 1991 through FY 1999 is approximately $310 million.

Through experience with the SSIs, NSF found many districts embracing the idea of bringing the elements of K-12 math and science education systematically into a more synergistic whole. New elements were added to NSF systemic reform programming beginning in FY 1994 with the Urban Systemic Initiatives (USIs) and in FY 1995 with the Rural Systemic Initiatives (RSIs). The focus in both these initiatives was addressing the concerns of school systems with large fractions of their children living in poverty, where need for education reform was strongest as achievement was very low. Disparities in performance for students living in poverty compared with those in economically strong households were and are large. School systems with large numbers of such students were struggling to maintain even their existing levels of achievement.

Through the systemic initiative programs, states and districts meeting appropriate criteria that wished to move toward reform efforts could apply to NSF for funds either to plan such efforts or to support in part their implementation. The proposers provided NSF with a plan for the activities they would carry out, usually involving implementation of new curricula and teacher professional development in line with national, state, and/or local standards. Where appropriate, the plan would discuss how the district(s) would bring the local community into planning for implementation of the initiative. It might also discuss the interaction with relevant higher education institutions or how the system will incorporate the evolving body of research on math and science education. External experts in the interface of math and science with education reviewed the proposed plans as the basis for a decision on funding.

SSIs cover activities throughout the state. Most of the USIs involve a single district, while the RSIs involve consortia of districts, some crossing state boundaries. Proposals from a single district were and are expected to come from either the superintendent of schools or a chief academic officer in the district. Some awards were made to higher education institutions that manage them for the consortia.

The participating states and districts know from the inception that NSF funds will not support the full effort at implementation of math and science education reform. They describe in the proposal how they will use relevant funds from local, state, or national sources in carrying out their plan. The largest costs are usually for coordinating the implementation of instructional materials – sometimes identified in the proposal, other times not – with teacher professional development. (Note that in the earliest stages of the systemic initiatives, materials developed through NSF’s instructional materials development activities were not yet commercially available. Districts generally used existing materials and adapted them to standards-based instruction. In recent years, many, using their existing selection processes to identify materials consistent with their plan for implementing standards-based education reform, have adopted materials developed in part with NSF funds.)

The awardees are also aware that there are no guarantees that, even if funded, they will be entirely successful in carrying out their reform plan. Implementation of educational reform has an inherently experimental component, as it is impossible to duplicate precisely the conditions under which an implementation may have been successful at other times or in other locations. Nonetheless, NSF and our grantees have learned a good deal about what goes into successful systemic reform efforts in math and science, and we provide this information to those choosing to embark on such ventures.

Systemic initiative awards are made as cooperative agreements, a funding mechanism that provides for accountability in carrying out the project. The awardees commit to providing an agreed-upon set of data that they will use to demonstrate progress in meeting their plan relative to starting baselines. Four states and four urban areas had their NSF funds withdrawn before completion of the project due to lack of progress.

The systemic initiative programs have not remained static. As noted above, the SSI program has moved to a second phase. The initial USI program focused on the largest districts with significant fractions of students living in poverty. NSF just formed the Urban Systemic Program (USP) out of the USI and the Comprehensive Partnerships for Mathematics and Science Achievement, a program aimed at smaller urban areas. We have discovered that RSIs containing too large a number of districts are unwieldy, so we are adapting the eligibility criteria for that program. In their initial forms, the USI program supported 23 cities for a total of $288 million from FY 1994 through FY 1999. The RSI program supported 7 consortia at a total of about $42 million from FY 1995 through FY 1999.

In each of the systemic activities, NSF encourages awardees to involve all those who influence what happens in the schools. We invite connections with the math, science, and engineering communities, acting as a conduit, where appropriate. Different districts have had varying levels of success in maintaining these connections, and their ability to maintain them has influenced their overall success.

As more of the systemic initiatives incorporate attention to teacher recruitment in their plans, connections to higher education institutions are more substantive. Another factor affecting connections to higher education is the increasing amount of research being done in the context of the systemic initiatives. At the same time the systemic initiatives try to incorporate the most current research in math and science education into their implementation plans, they provide a rich context for educational research. The scale of their implementation activities is difficult to match in something that is simply a research project.

The systemic initiatives have also had an impact on NSF’s more traditional programs of teacher professional development. While many districts were not prepared to undertake broad reform in K-12 math and science education, they did wish to address more targeted areas where change was needed. They focused on the importance of intensive professional development for teachers in meeting the requirements for change. Thus was born the Local Systemic Change (LSC) option in NSF’s Teacher Enhancement program.

This option allows districts (or consortia) to propose activities that focus on math or science reform in a grade-band, with an emphasis on professional development. The external evaluator (Horizon Research, Inc.) of the LSC projects recently reported "that the combination of LSC professional development and use of exemplary instructional materials appears to have the greatest positive impact on the quality of classroom instruction." In its fourth year of implementation, LSC involves 59 projects, reaching 53,000 teachers in nearly 3,000 schools in 327 districts across the nation.

Other NSF Programs Affecting K-12 Math and Science Education

The focus of this testimony has been on activities that seem to contribute most directly to the subject of the hearing. However, NSF has a number of other programs that have an impact on K-12 education. They merit mention as well.

Research in math and science education has long been part of NSF’s portfolio of activities. In recent years, our efforts in this area have expanded, and there is new emphasis on understanding what influences student learning and how that understanding can be addressed in educational settings. A new program in partnership with the Department of Education and the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, the Interagency Education Research Initiative, shows particular promise for bringing rigorous methodology and interdisciplinary approaches to the challenges of large-scale educational research.

One research-oriented area where NSF has had strong activity is the adaptation of information technologies for use in education. This area has the potential to change our educational processes significantly, but there are many challenges in balancing the opportunities with possible drawbacks.

One use of information technology in education is making sure that information gets to those who can use it most effectively, be they teachers, principals, district administrators, or students and their parents. NSF is currently developing a National Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology Education Digital Library that will provide access to carefully vetted, high-quality information for all these groups. We envision the possibility of interactive programs that will provide a whole new level of opportunity for isolated schools.

Programs preparing future teachers also have a significant impact on K-12 math and science education. NSF’s teacher preparation activities are based on the premise that math and science content specialists must play a strong role in educating future teachers. They involve cooperative activities between math, science, and engineering departments, schools of education, and, where feasible, local school systems.

Centers for Learning and Teaching provide a means of linking K-12 and higher education by addressing the continuum from pre-service teacher preparation through continuing in-service professional development. They will bring the latest research on learning processes and use of technologies together with enhanced content knowledge to develop teaching professionals that can continually adapt their practices to the situations they face in the classroom. NSF plans to fund two or three prototype centers in FY 2000, with expanded activity in the future.

Another recent effort to link higher education with K-12 schools is NSF’s program for Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education, generally known as GK-12. This effort provides opportunities for graduate students in math, science, and engineering to serve as content resources for teachers and students in the classroom. It also provides the graduate students with an opportunity to gain new understanding of what it means to teach their subjects effectively.

Informal education activities are tied in many ways to what goes on in classrooms. Teachers may bring their classes to view museum exhibits, many of which have special materials developed for use in classroom units. Similarly, exposure to concepts of math and science through the media enhance student interest and knowledge, carrying over into their performance in the classroom. After school activities can expand on what the teacher does in class during the school day.

The current form of all these NSF activities is still influenced by the defining events of the late 1980’s, particularly the development by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics of their K-12 standards for math education. These standards, arising from a community of practitioners and experts, provided new ideas and approaches that have been embraced by many.

More than 10 years after the issuance of the standards, we see their impact in their adaptation at state and local levels and in the development of standards-based curricula that are now being implemented in classrooms. And, of course, that is where the rubber meets the road. People of good will have many different opinions as to the effectiveness of those implementations. Neither standards, curricula, or implementations have been flawless.

NCTM is currently updating and revising the standards, with the new version due out later this year. In the process of revision, they have shared drafts with all who are interested in contributing to the effort, and created a true community of stakeholders who, although they may not agree on all aspects of recommendations for K-12 math education, are talking with and listening to one another.

NSF is an interested bystander in this process. Once it is complete, we will look to the communities with which we work for guidance on how to shape NSF programs to address the issues it has raised. I personally look forward to this. Mathematics education is and should be a dynamic process that takes many influences into account. We cannot afford to let it be static. Nor can we afford to let our areas of disagreement mask the fact that there is much agreement among all affected parties as to the importance of math education for our youth and as to the core knowledge base they will need.

NSF’s efforts in math education reform have led us to partner with the Department of Education so that our activities were complementary and so that we could help in developing needed dialogue among the mathematics and education communities. Constructive dialogue is critical to pulling divergent ideas and opinions into a range of productive activities that can influence student achievement for the better.

NSF contributes to this dialogue by providing information on the results of its portfolio of projects, by sharing the models developed through those projects, and by bringing diverse communities together. These contributions, in conjunction with focused support for education reform activities that permit trying out new approaches, keeps the agency true to its mission – promoting the progress of science and engineering – as we keep our eyes and ears open for the ideas and opportunities that new knowledge provides.