Congress and Science Education: Wolf Berates NSF on Overdue Report

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

A long-overdue report on U.S. science education has put the National Science Foundation (NSF) in hot water with an influential legislator. The issue boiled over earlier this month at a congressional hearing on NSF's 2012 budget request that featured the first appearance of NSF's new director, Subra Suresh, before an important congressional spending panel.

But there's potentially more at stake than a not-yet-written report on which U.S. schools do the best job of teaching math and science. The 10 March hearing revealed a worrisome chasm between an impatient politician and a cautious academic on how to explore an important research topic. And Suresh's response to pointed questions violated a basic rule of Washington politics: Know the concerns of those who control your budget.

Suresh, who became NSF director last October, was questioned by Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), the once and current chair of the commerce, science, and justice appropriations subcommittee in the House of Representatives. In 2009, Wolf asked NSF to describe the ingredients of successful STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education programs in U.S. elementary and secondary schools. His request for the study, part of a spending bill (p. 154) that Congress approved in December 2009 covering NSF and several other agencies, included a 6-month deadline. Wolf also expected NSF to make it easy for school districts around the country to incorporate the findings into their classrooms.

But nearly 1 year after missing the June 2010 deadline, Suresh acknowledged at the hearing, there's still no report.

Education researchers say that's not surprising. Determining the components of a successful STEM education program is not a simple exercise, they say. One complication is defining a successful program. Successful for whom, they ask: Gifted and motivated learners, a general population, disadvantaged or high-risk students? Another problem is to identify and isolate the key elements—teacher preparation, curriculum, resources, mentoring, et cetera—that make up a successful program. A third obstacle is the dearth of tools to assess student achievement, presumably the ultimate goal of any successful program.

Wolf says that the agency's slow response to the congressional mandate implies a lack of interest in a topic that is part of NSF's mission. And he used the budget hearing to pepper Suresh with questions about why the agency was dragging its feet on a topic near and dear to his heart.

"You say you're excited about improving STEM education, but I don't see it. Why the delay?" Wolf asked Suresh. Wolf continued to hammer at Suresh in a second round of questions, acknowledging that Suresh was new on the job but expressing his deep frustration that the previous director, Arden Bement, "left without getting this done. Why hasn't this happened?"

Another committee member, Representative John Culberson (R-TX), mocked Suresh for not realizing that the answer was right under his nose. "Why are you floundering?" he demanded. "Thomas Jefferson High School [for Science and Technology] is ranked No. 1 in the country. And it's only 8 miles away from your office. It shakes me up that you can't answer the chairman's questions about best practices in STEM education when the answer is only 8 miles away."

In measured words, Suresh didn't offer a solid parry to either line of attack. He explained to Wolf that "I arrived on 18 October, and as soon as I found out about the need for the report, I asked for an update on its status. … Last week I was given an interim report on where things stand." His answer to Culberson was equally tepid: "We will include all the right models, from everywhere."

So what has NSF done since Congress ordered up the study? A lot, it turns out, although Suresh offered few details at the hearing. And its response was predictable: As a research agency driven by peer review, NSF chose experts in the field to examine the issue.

Science Insider has learned that NSF has already spent $700,000 on the project. It awarded two grants, totaling $500,000, to the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC). The funding has allowed NRC to assemble a panel that will hold a public workshop on 11-12 May to explore the causal factors that produce high-quality STEM education. "We don't go by reputation, we go by the evidence," explains panel chair Adam Gamoran, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, about Culberson's assertion that Thomas Jefferson should be the sole model for NSF's study.

Gamoran agrees that the Fairfax County, Virginia, school, which is highly selective and has extensive resources, has done an impressive job of preparing an elite group of students for college and careers in STEM fields. "But what causes what?" he asks. "What exactly are effective STEM practices, and what is the best way to apply them?" The panel hopes to write a report within a month of the workshop, Gamoran said, although that document must then be vetted internally by the Academies.

NSF also awarded $200,000 to the Urban Institute's Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. Its study draws upon data from two states, Florida and North Carolina, that allow researchers to track the progress of students through the system and beyond and possibly correlate it with the contributions from individual teachers and specific educational practices. NSF officials have also asked a Bethesda, Maryland, consultant to assess best practices within an existing NSF-funded program that pairs university researchers with local school districts.

A thoughtful and comprehensive study is likely to mollify the powerful legislator, who traditionally has been very supportive of NSF's efforts in science education. But Wolf warned Suresh he won't really be happy unless the report "gets out to the people who matter--the school superintendents in Fairfax and Philadelphia and Texas." Even before the report is completed, ranking member Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA) offered Constitution Hall in Philadelphia as a venue for its rollout, and the Fourth of July as a date. "We could have a national audience. And I'd love to host it," said Fattah, whose district includes portions of the City of Brotherly Love.

That offer struck a chord with Wolf, who grew up in the city. In fact, he immediately began planning the menu. "Who makes the best [Philly] cheese steaks?"

Posted in Education Budget 2012