States take the lead in efforts to sharpen math, science education

The United States school system's recent string of bad report cards has made education a hot political topic in Washington. But while national politicians worry about the warnings of such groups as the National Commission on Excellence in Education, state governments across the country are already tackling one of American education's most serious problems: woefully inadequate pre-college instruction in science and math.

* Last year in Alabama there was a grand total of one university graduate qualified to teach pre-college math. But that number seems sure to increase, as Alabama is now experimenting with free college tuition and board for qualified students who promise to teach math or science in the state after they graduate.

''We already have as many applications as we can handle,'' says Dr. Ted Spears, an assistant director of the Alabama education department.

* In Iowa, school districts receive an extra $25 per year in state aid for each student enrolled in advanced math or science courses.

''We call it a bounty,'' laughs Dr. Barbara Wickless, a math education consultant to Iowa's public schools.

University students who promise to teach math, physics, or chemistry in Iowa are also eligible for state-funded rebates of up to $6,000 on guaranteed student loans.

* In West Virginia, the state education department wants to recruit retired scientists to help ease the math and science teacher shortage. Such experts would receive a crash course in teaching skills.

''We've been contacting scientists who've taken early retirement, etc.,'' says Roy Truby, West Virginia superintendent of schools. ''There's a cadre of people out there who can help us.''

West Virginia is also trying to establish a team of state-employed teachers who would be sent to school districts facing an acute shortage of instructors in any subject.

In all, at least 27 states now have programs - either in place or on the drawing board - to aid math and science teaching, according to the lists of national groups of educators.

Most of the states' efforts, says Anita Epstein of the National Association of State Boards of Education, focus on the two ''R's'': recruiting of new science and math teachers, and retraining of humanities teachers to qualify them for a physics, chemistry, or mathematics certificate. The scope of the programs ranges from a few summer retraining institutes, as proposed in Illinois, to a $ 100 million effort being planned in Florida.

States are marching ahead in this area, while Washington struggles to get its boots on, partly because they're closer to the problem than federal officials, say educators.

And the problem is acute. Recent national surveys have found almost every state hit by a shortage of math and science teachers. Missouri, for instance, needs 200 new math teachers this year. Seventeen of New Jersey's 21 counties are allowed to use unlicensed teachers - some without bachelor's degrees - for mathematics instruction.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, congressional attention to this problem has been assured by the recent dire reports on US education issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the 20th Century Fund, and others.

On May 11, a Senate committee passed a bill that would pump $425 million into upgrading math and science education in 1984. The House has already passed similar legislation.

Among other things, the Senate bill would spend $20 million in 1984 on teacher institutes: $4 million would go toward awards (up to $5,000 each) for outstanding math and science teachers and $20 million would be spent on fellowships for graduate students. But the biggest single chunk - $350 million in 1984 - would be a general assistance grant dispersed by the Department of Education.

Obviously, no state is going to turn down education aid from Capitol Hill. As Bill Aldridge, director of the National Science Teachers Association, points out , in many of the states that haven't started their own programs ''the incremental amounts of money needed to improve science and math teaching aren't there at all.''

But many educators at the state level say they are concerned that Washington's effort, if passed, will ignore the math and science education programs already in place. In effect, they want to see some New Federalism in this area.

''The federal government ought to supplement what the states have already initiated on their own,'' says Ronald Field, a senior staff director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

As the congressional bills are now designed, he complains, three-fourths of any federal aid will be given directly to schools, ''with virtually no control by states - but the best leverage for your money can be had at the state level.''

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