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Lines Drawn in Fight on N.S.F. Financing


Ohanian Comment: A decade ago, I spent a year traveling around the country visiting schools where teachers were trying to change the way they taught mathematics. I know how difficult this change is.

A lot of the places with the best inspiration and support for this change were helped by the National Science Foundation.

Later, I sat in high school classrooms using NSF- underwritten math curriculum that convinced me that with those materials I, too, could have loved mathematics.

I've already written several times on this website about what NSF-sponsored science curriculum meant to me as a young teacher. Simply put, it changed my life, my pedagogy, my sense of possibility.

The harm done by the present administration is incalcuable. Why is their no outrage from the education community? Is it because educators are so territorial, that if the bomb doesn't fall in their backyard, they just don't take time to notice?



WHEN Vernon J. Ehlers was a young physics professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., in the mid-1960's, he won a National Science Foundation grant to set up a summer institute for training elementary teachers in science. "I was surprised," he recalled recently. "At the time, I had no political connections. N.S.F. just liked the proposal, I guess."

As time passed, Mr. Ehlers developed lots of political connections, working as the science adviser to Gerald R. Ford, who was then a congressman, becoming the first research physicist elected to Congress, in 1993, and today serving on both the education and science committees in the House. And through it all, Representative Ehlers, a moderate Republican with a doctorate from Berkeley, has remained a big fan of the science agency.

"It's probably the best-run government agency in terms of using government money wisely," he said, adding that it makes decisions based on merit, not politics.

So when Representative Ehlers heard that his fellow Republican, President Bush, had proposed killing the agency's $120 million math-science partnership program between colleges and public schools, which has been supported in various forms by Congress and presidents for decades, he was angry. "A very bad idea," he said.

And when he learned that the president wanted to give that $120 million in N.S.F. grant money to the federal Education Department for remedial math so districts could meet their testing goals under the No Child Left Behind law, he was madder still.

The Education Department, he pointed out, already has a $160 million math-science partnership program. "I couldn't say what I really think of this proposal," he said. "My language would be too bad, you'd have to rule me out of order."

Representative Ehlers felt an important balance had been lost. And his behind-the-scenes fight over a modest grant - pitting the science agency against the Education Department; long-term educational planning against short-term needs; and Republican against Republican - is an example of how Mr. Bush's No Child Left Behind law continues to alienate even the party faithful.

Some background. Representative Ehlers worked with Bush administration officials in 2002 to finance both the Education Department and the national science foundation math-science partnerships, which he felt complemented each other well. The N.S.F. grants are distributed by peer review committees of leading scientists and the projects tend to have long-range goals and impact.

For example, using a N.S.F. grant in the 1990's, the Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics worked with high school science teachers to develop what has become the nation's standard high school astronomy textbook (with royalties from the book going back into teacher training).

The Merck Institute is now using a five-year, $7 million agency grant (along with $4 million more donated by the pharmaceutical company) to train math and science teachers to work as mentors with middle school teachers in poorer New Jersey districts like Elizabeth and Rahway.

George Nelson, the former astronaut and a physicist at Western Washington University, has a five-year, $12 million agency grant to work with 26 poor school districts in that state developing a yearlong, college-level science curriculum for elementary teachers, as well as a recruitment program to bring gifted minority high school students into science education.

Often such projects are replicated. As I described in last week's column, a mobile science program that brings sophisticated lab equipment to rural schools was first supported by the N.S.F. in 1987 in Pennsylvania, and today it has spread to 10 other states, with financing now provided by the states, foundations and universities.

The second math-science N.S.F. program, the $160 million Education Department program, allocates funds through block grants. Every state gets a share of the money, which tends to go for immediate needs. Susan K. Sclafani, an Education Department assistant secretary, said the $120 million scheduled for the foundation would be used instead for summer math remediation programs between eighth and ninth grade.

For those who say this is a prime example of how science gets neglected by No Child Left Behind's focus on math and reading scores, Ms. Sclafani says, "If they don't get the math background before Algebra 1, they won't have the mathematics to do math or science in high school."

Ms. Sclafani says math remediation is the more pressing need.

This is what critics are talking about when they call No Child an underfinanced mandate (the president's $13 billion budget for N.C.L.B. Title 1 programs is $5 billion below what Congress has authorized). To pay for No Child Left Behind, the administration is trying to take from the science agency. To pay for No Child Left Behind, the administration recommended cutting about $1.4 billion in programs from the education budget (including grants for small schools and gifted education), but the Republican Congress restored virtually all those cuts last year and is expected to do so again this year.

No Child's incredibly high mandates (all students must be proficient in reading and math by 2014) and limited financing are turning into a political nightmare for the White House. Fourteen states recently wrote the Education Department asking to be exempted, complaining that soon most of their schools would unfairly be labeled failing. The Republican legislatures in Virginia and Utah have criticized the law. The conservative journal The National Review recently ran a story headlined, "President Bush's signature education initiative is backfiring."

Both Representatives Ehlers and Sherwood L. Boehlert, a moderate Republican from upstate New York who is chairman of the House science committee, say they believe in the goals of No Child Left Behind but will not sacrifice the science program for it. Representative Boehlert says the Education Department block grants tend to be small and often pay for things states are doing already. "They're the same-old, same-old," he says. "No agency makes better use of government money than N.S.F."

Representative Boehlert says he will "fight like hell" for the science agency and says he has lots of colleagues on the House authorization and appropriations committees who support the science agency. "N.S.F. has a lot of friends," he said, "both Democrats and Republicans."


E-mail: edmike@nytimes.com

— Michael Winerip
New York Times

2004-04-14

http://query.nytimes.com/mem/tnt.html?tntget=2004/04/14/education/14educ.html&tntemail1

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