When Debra Milton walked into her seventh-grade math class for gifted students recently, she felt confident that she was more than just one step ahead of her bright charges.
The reason? She had just completed, along with several fellow Chicago Public School teachers, a new math-teacher training course at the University of Chicago taught by one of the top mathematicians in the country.
"I kept saying I would never go back to school," Ms. Milton says. "But the [university] teachers were excellent, superior."
As the nation's economy has come to depend on high technology, perhaps no problem has loomed larger than the lackluster performance of students in math and science. International tests show American students in the middle of the pack, well behind peers among the world's developed nations.
With an eye toward kick-starting K-12 math and science performance, President Bush's plan has one central feature: Get universities into the fight. A major focus is teacher training. Federal funds would flow to states that start their own university-K-12 partnerships through a related federal program.
There are already a scattering of small and large university-K-12 partnerships focused on math and science across the nation, some of them showing good results, observers say.
For instance, using a private grant, Chicago's public school department recently teamed up with faculty at the University of Chicago to develop customized courses to bolster the math-instruction abilities of k-12 teachers. "Most of our math teachers are a little gun shy in some [math] areas," says Clifton Burgess, Chicago Public Schools director of instruction for math and science, "but they won't be when they finish the courses developed for us by the guys at the university."
That painstaking two-year effort involved only two university faculty members, a few graduate students, and about 120 teachers. Now, the pilot course is being deployed to 10 other local colleges and universities. Using the course, Chicago hopes to get more than half of its 19,000 teachers recertified in math - compared with only about 540 today who have "math endorsements."
"They were brilliant," Mr. Burgess exults about the professors. "They sat down and said, 'OK, now what do you teachers need?' We talked about aligning their knowledge with state standards."
In Texas, one small program called "Tex Prep" draws about 2,900 of the brightest low-income youth (as early as sixth grade) to 25 college campuses for eight weeks in the summer. The $3.2 million program has been replicated in eight states. "We want to catch them before they lose their own high aspirations for themselves," says Manuel Berriozabal, creator of the program and a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
Despite such efforts, close observers say it will take remarkable effort and new incentives for higher-education faculty to become truly engaged with K-12 in improving math and science.
Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former schoolteacher, says this kind of linkup has been around for decades, but usually involves "more rhetoric than substance."
"It's very hard to recruit mathematicians to get involved with K-12 because they don't get any rewards," he says. "All their incentives are with research and publication. The cultures of the two places are different."
Terrence Millar, a mathematician and associate dean at the University of Wisconsin, is involved with a program there that has trained dozens of teachers. "I'm cautiously optimistic about the Bush plan," he says. "If you get good people, and implement it in clever and original ways, then measure the outcomes, you have more hope of coming up with something that's robust and works. The devil is in the details."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society