American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Update on National Science Foundation's Systemic Initiatives (8-7-98)

In 1991, the National Science Foundation (NSF), in an attempt to enhance K-12 science and math education, began the Statewide, Urban, and Rural Systemic Initiatives program.  The purpose of such reform was to acquire "a comprehensive impact on curriculum, policy, professional development of teachers, assessment or testing, resource allocation, and student performance."  The National Research Council (NRC) helped establish the statewide standards (National Science Education Standards) in a manner which would "emphasize conceptual understanding of fundamental mathematical and scientific principles, their real-life applications, and integration of subjects."  In this proposal, states received five-year awards in order to implement standards-based math and science education programs.  NSF created five goals for its SSI package: 1) enhance education for all students; 2) produce standards-based curriculum; 3) foster cooperation among schools, universities, and industry; 4) gain community support and align state education policy; and 5) increase teacher command of various subjects.  States receiving aid for the SSI program developed proposals that addressed these objectives.
Committee on Science
Subcommittee on Basic Research
U.S. House of Representatives
July 23, 1998

The House Subcommittee on Basic Research held a hearing to examine the effectiveness of the National Science Foundation's Statewide Systemic Initiative program (SSI).  Vice Chairman Chip Pickering (R-MS) opened the meeting by addressing the condition of science and math education in the United States.  According to Congressman Pickering, the report from the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) showed that math and science education in the United States was weak compared to the education in other industrialized nations.  To overcome America's low scores in science and math, NSF created the Statewide Systemic Initiative program.  The objective of this hearing was to examine this reform and to determine if the results from the SSI program would allow Americans to regain their competitive edge and leadership in the world of science and technology.  The full written testimony from this hearing on SSIs can be found at the Basic Research Subcommittee webpage.

Dr. Daryl E. Chubin, Division Director of Research, Evaluation, and Communications, testified on behalf of the National Science Foundation.  For NSF, systemic reform allowed K-12th graders to center on "standards-driven, inquiry-focused science and mathematics."  This purpose included incorporating changes by raising expectations of students, by uniting all of the components of the education system, by targeting policies at various levels, and by promoting open decision making.  According to Chubin, over the past five years, the SSI program has created new partner networks, enhanced curriculum guidelines, and encouraged different state policies.  Yet to increase the success of the SSIs, Chubin recognized the need for controlling outside forces that may prevent student achievement, for enhancing the availability of local expertise, for enlarging initial SSI goals, for increasing accountability within the program, and for devising "content" standards against which to measure student performance.

As a counter to Chubin's testimony, Dr. Stan Metzenberg, Assistant Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, shared his concerns about the SSI program.  Dr. Metzenberg believes that NSF has established a standard of achievement for students that remains surprisingly low.  Most of the documents in the National Science Education Standards are written by education specialists instead of scientists.  Furthermore, these standards are based on research where almost half of the papers examining the sciences are not in peer-reviewed publications.  Additionally, the half that does experience peer review, does so in foreign countries, not in the United States.  According to Dr. Metzenberg, NSF should promote reforms that center on fostering content-rich standards for K-12 science education.

To further evaluate the SSI program, Dr. Mark St. John, President of Inverness Research Associates and current evaluator of the Appalachian Rural Systemic Initiative, provided his testimony.  Through his work with the Systemic Initiatives of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Nebraska, South Carolina, Texas, and Vermont; St. John has witnessed the many contributions of the SSI program.  St. John noted that because of the SSI program, school districts have fostered local leadership and have broadened their national leadership by exposing math and science education leaders to national reform projects.  In addition, SSIs have given states the chance to introduce new curricula and to promote new assessments.  For St. John, the SSI program has encouraged a focus on state resources for math and science education.  Yet some challenges of the SSIs must be overcome for the program to reach a greater success.  For example, some states lack the experience and expertise to carry out the SSI program.  Overall, however, St. John believes that the SSIs signify an appropriate use of federal money.

The final testimony in the analysis of the effectiveness of the SSI program came from Mr. Thomas Baird, Director of Area Centers for Educational Enhancement for the Florida Department of Education.  In his opinion, the SSIs have been successful in improving cooperation across the levels of the Department of Education that work on science and math education.  In addition, the SSI program helped form the Curriculum Frameworks in science and mathematics.  At the post-secondary level, the greatest accomplishment of the Florida SSI was the Higher Education Consortium (HEC), which allowed for participation of the university community in the reform of science and math education.  Other successes of the Florida program include the introduction of Discover Schools and the integration of regional coordinators and mathematics specialists for development exercises.  Yet, further improvement can be reached.  Given enough time, SSIs can work, but NSF needs more resources so that it can perform its proper role in forming partnerships with the states and in enhancing the nation's education system.

In closing the hearing, Representative Pickering held a question/answer session among the panel participants.  Although most panel members agreed that some successful SSI programs exist, some claimed that more studies should be performed on NSF's program.  Recommendations included the collaboration between schools and undergraduate institutions and the use of programs based in science not in education.

Sources: House Basic Research Subcommittee 

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Shannon Clark, AGI Government Affairs Intern.

Posted August 7, 1998

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