A call for new technology-oriented 'basics' in teaching

A special commission appointed by the National Science Foundation has added yet another warning to the alarms that have been raised about the sad state of science education in the United States.

But unlike previous studies, it recommends a wide-ranging action plan. It is a plan which, by 1995, would make United States elementary and secondary mathematics, science, and technology education the finest in the world ''as measured by achievement scores and participation levels.''

Calling for strong federal leadership, the plan includes the following points:

* Retraining and upgrading an estimated 1.16 million substandard science and math teachers.

* Establishing 1,000 elementary and 1,000 secondary ''magnet'' schools where superior science teaching would set community standards.

* Formulating a new set of education ''basics'' that would ''include communication and higher problem-solving skills, and scientific and technological literacy - the thinking tools that allow us to understand the technological world around us.''

* Substantially increased time devoted to these subjects, even if this means lengthening the school day and the school year.

* Making maximum use of new computerized information technology in teaching.

* Leadership by the federal government, especially the National Science Foundation, in setting standards and developing curricula.

* Financial aid from the federal government, which could approach $5 billion through the end of this decade.

* Higher pay for science and math teachers to attract the best talent for these jobs.

In making these and other recommendations, the commission emphasizes that it is not talking about educating a technological elite: It is outlining an education for all Americans. It also notes that education is more than science and mathematics, which is the special area it has addressed.

''We hope that glaring deficiencies in these other areas (such as languages, the arts, or history) will be met with a sense of urgency,'' the report states.

However, it is science, math, and technology with which the commission is mainly concerned. It notes that ''the nation that dramatically and boldly led the world into the age of technology is failing to provide its own children with the intellectual tools needed for the 21st century.'' To continue on this path would make the US a second-rate technological nation, the commission warns.

This is not the first time the US has been at this education crossroads. In the late 1940s, educators were likewise decrying a lack of good science and math teaching. Again in the mid-1950s there was wide concern on this point. Merit pay was asked for science teachers. Then, when the US reacted with shock to the orbiting of the first Soviet Earth satellite, such teaching underwent a renaissance.

But the reforms of the late 1950s and early 1960s were not long-lasting. As the current study notes, by the late 1960s, science and math education was declining again. This time the NSF commission is urging reform of a more basic nature that could make a lasting difference.

The NSF commission, which included 20 leaders from the fields of industry and education, reported to the National Science Board, the policymaking body of the National Science Foundation. The board now is expected to propose specific programs by which the foundation can begin to develop new science teaching materials and courses.

This may seem an ironic turn of events to those who took part in earlier foundation curricula projects. Two decades ago, these projects helped revitalize US science education. But they fell into disfavor in the 1970s. Critics, including many senators and congressmen, accused the foundation of intruding into the education field. A social science curriculum called MACOS (Man a Course of Study) became a particular target. It included descriptions of cultural practices of other societies - practices such as infanticide - that critics found abhorrent.

Yielding to congressional pressure and eventually to budget cuts, the NSF retreated from curriculum development. Now it is being asked to enter this potentially controversial area once again.

The new action plan also urges strong federal leadership in ensuring that high educational standards are met. The report recognizes that this leadership must be exerted so as not to preempt local and state authority over education. But this is a politically thorny area. Thus the commission recommends establishment of a presidential National Educational Council to help establish the proper federal role in setting and attaining national education goals.

Then there is the question of money. The roughly $5 billion that the report estimates is needed to get its plan started represents only part of the cost. Again the commission recognizes that the bulk of the funding must come from state and local sources. Nevertheless, it urges that the President establish a Council on Educational Funding to study the cost question thoroughly and recommend ways to meet anticipated needs.

In short, the plan is sweeping and ambitious. Whether its particular recommendations are implemented or not, it represents the kind of far-reaching reform that many educators, industrialists, scientists, and governmental leaders have been calling for during the past two years.

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