State Efforts Push to Leave No Child Behind in Mathematics and Science

by Geoff Camphire
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XV, Number 1, December 2003, Improving Achievement In Mathematics and Science

 Claudia Ahlstrom marvels at her state's efforts to fine-tune math and science education. As a mathematics consultant for the New Mexico Department of Education, she conducts regional workshops in techniques—portfolios, hands-on exploration, student peer review—that teachers will need to help students ace tough new tests. The state put new standards-based exams for grades 4 and 8 in place in April and will add an exam for grade 11 in November. Science standards are being updated and improved. And state legislators are weighing a three-tiered licensure system that would allow teachers to earn more by building instructional skills rather than by seeking administrative jobs.

These are just a few recent changes inspired by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the most sweeping school reform law passed by the federal government in decades. The thrust of the legislation is, as its name suggests, to ensure that no group of students misses out on planned improvements for public education. NCLB mandates new systems of standards, tests, and policies on accountability and other areas to meet that goal.

Challenges loom large for such states as New Mexico, where nearly a quarter of students are English language learners and there are large shares of poor and minority students. But maybe that is why so many teachers, administrators, and education officials are hustling to meet the demands of the new law.

"We have a lot of organizations putting their heads together to work on math and science," says Ahlstrom, pointing out the importance of these subjects in the grand scheme of the law. "People are using it as an opportunity to shake things up."

For Good Measure

Math and science—subjects that conjure intertwined images of theorems and formulas, calculators, and test tubes—go hand in hand in many educators' view. But they have not received equal attention under NCLB. Because most states had begun some form of standards-based reform long before President Bush signed NCLB into law in January 2002, many already have met the law's initial requirements for setting standards and administering some tests in math and reading—but not in science.

Now commanding attention are NCLB deadlines in the next few years for further annual assessment in a wider range of subjects, perhaps most notably math and science. By the 2005-2006 school year, states must administer math tests to all students in grades 3-8. By 2007-2008, states must test students in science at least once in each of three grade spans: 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12.

Some officials worry that the rush to put tests in place could draw attention away from other concerns, such as NCLB demands that all students score at a "proficient" level on those tests by 2013-2014. Before then, states must demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" toward achievement goals, not only among students as a whole, but also for particular subgroups such as economically disadvantaged and minority students. Educators are still puzzled about how to meet the law's requirements, and the stakes are high. Schools that fail to hit targets year after year must offer students options—including a choice of attending other public schools or receiving supplemental services such as private tutoring, often at the district's expense. The consequences, already taking hold for schools identified as failing, will grow more severe for those that don't improve.

Meanwhile, observers say important priorities are being ignored. "There's so much focus right now on reading and math . . . science is getting squeezed out," laments Jodi Peterson, director of legislative affairs for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). For instance, Peterson believes that science teachers need help improving their content knowledge and ability to guide hands-on inquiry, especially at the middle school level. If schools do not start working on science curriculum, instruction, and professional development soon, it may be too late to build student skills to the levels necessary to show adequate progress down the line.

Also, the initial NCLB emphasis on math has led school systems to focus on science narrowly, as if it existed in a vacuum, complains Faimon Roberts, assistant director for science of the Louisiana Systemic Initiatives Program. But effective professional development in science can explore mathematical content and skills in rich, real-world contexts. The opportunity for teachers to combine the two subjects often is missed in the rush to stress mathematics, he says.

Five Strands of Mathematical Proficiency for Teaching

NCLB defines a highly qualified teacher as "one with a full certification, a bachelor's degree, and demonstrated competence in subject knowledge and teaching." The National Research Council's Mathematics Study Committee has taken a different approach to define quality teaching. The Committee identified five strands of mathematical proficiency necessary for successful teaching and learning of mathematics. The Committee defines teaching proficiency this way: "Proficiency in teaching is related to effectiveness: consistently helping students learn worthwhile mathematical content. Proficiency also entails versatility: being able to work effectively with a wide variety of students in different environments and across a range of mathematical content." Mathematical proficiency requires that teachers possess the following:

  1. Conceptual understanding of the core knowledge required in the practice of teaching. One of the defining features of conceptual understanding is that knowledge must be connected so that it can be used intelligently. Teachers must make connections within and among their knowledge of mathematics, students, and pedagogy.
  2. Fluency in carrying out basic instructional routines. Teachers who have acquired a repertoire of instructional routines can readily draw upon them as they interact with students in teaching mathematics. For example, teachers need to know how to respond to a student who gives an answer the teacher does not understand or demonstrates a serious misconception. They should know how to deal with students who lack critical prerequisite skills for the day's lessons. Research has shown that expert teachers have a large repertoire of routines—they can choose among a number of approaches for teaching a given topic or responding to a situation that arises in their classes.
  3. Strategic competence in planning effective instruction and solving problems that arise during instruction. Strategic competence involves the analysis of instructional problems and ways of dealing with them. Teachers constantly face making decisions in planning instruction, implementing those plans, and interacting with students. Useful guidelines are seldom available for figuring out what to teach when, how to teach it, how to adapt material so that it is appropriate for a given group of students, or how much time to allow for an activity.
  4. Adaptive reasoning in justifying and explaining one's instructional practices and in reflecting on those practices so as to improve them. Adaptive reasoning allows teachers to learn from their instruction by analyzing it and reflecting on it (e.g., the difficulties students have encountered in learning a particular topic, what the students have learned, how the students responded to particular representations, questions, and activities).
  5. Productive disposition toward mathematics, teaching, learning, and the improvements of practice. Just as students must develop a productive disposition toward mathematics such that they believe that mathematics makes sense and they can figure it out, so too must teachers develop a similar productive disposition. Teachers should think that mathematics, their understanding of children's thinking, and their teaching practices fit together to make sense and that they themselves are capable of learning about mathematics, student mathematical thinking, and their own practice by analyzing what goes on in their classrooms. These teachers become more comfortable with mathematical ideas and ripe for a more systematic view of the subject.

Source: National Research Council. (2001). Adding It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Teachers under the Microscope

 Besides standards and tests, NCLB calls for action in other areas of education, such as rewards and sanctions for schools, school choice and transfer policies, and provision of supplemental services. But experts suggest perhaps none of these is as important for mathematics and science education as teacher quality.

Because studies consistently show that teacher quality is among the top factors that determine student success, states are being required to define criteria for quality, guarantee that teachers are trained accordingly, and evaluate their competence. NCLB states that every public school teacher must be "highly qualified"—that is, certified and proficient in his or her subject matter—by the close of the 2005-2006 school year. Already, new teachers hired with federal Title I funds must meet elevated criteria, and similar criteria are in the works for school paraprofessionals hired with Title I funds.

"All teachers have to be highly qualified—and the bar is being set higher," warns Peterson. She points out that states now are in the process of setting teacher quality criteria. "What teachers need to be aware of is how they can be involved in that process."

States are exploring many means of improving teacher quality. Arkansas has implemented a statewide mentoring initiative that pairs new teachers with experienced educators. Teacher education programs throughout Louisiana have been retooled to dovetail with the state's academic standards in math, science, and other subjects. New Mexico has come up with a shortcut to full certification for teachers holding one-year licenses and others not certified in the subjects they teach. Oklahoma has sought incentives, such as increased health insurance benefits, to help fill teaching vacancies in shortage areas, including science and math. And math instructors in Texas who earn the title "master teacher" can receive $5,000 to mentor colleagues at struggling schools.

But only time will tell whether these efforts can strengthen science and math education. To do so, teacher quality initiatives must counter the common pattern illuminated by the results of a recent Louisiana Department of Education study, which showed that teachers who earn high scores on professional exams tend to find jobs in high-achieving schools, not those deemed in need of assistance.

Grade-by-Grade Testing Policies in Math and Science

Education Week’s Quality Counts 2003 survey of current assessment policies shows uneven coverage of these core subjects, particularly science, among southwestern states.

 

Arkansas

Louisiana

New Mexico

Oklahoma

Texas

Grade 1
-
-
-
-
-
Grade 2
-
-
-
-
-
Grade 3
-
MS
MS
M
M
Grade 4
M
MS
M
-
M
Grade 5
MS
MS
MS
MS
MS
Grade 6
M
MS
MS
-
M
Grade 7
MS
MS
MS
-
M
Grade 8
M
MS
M
MS
M
Grade 9
[M]
MS
MS
-
M
Grade 10
MS [M]
M
MS
[MS]
MS
Grade 11
-
S
M
-
MS
Grade 12
-
-
-
-
-

M = Math.
S = Science.
[ ] = end-of-course or other tests that can be taken at multiple points in high school
(the test is listed at the first grade level in which it can be taken).

Note: Except for places where the table reflects end-of-course exams separately,
if more than one test is administered in a subject at a particular grade level, the
subject is noted only once. Also, the chart includes New Mexico’s pilot High School
Standards Assessment in grade 11.

Source: Education Week, Quality Counts 2003.

Resources for Reform

With all that NCLB requires, it is no wonder many math and science educators are asking what resources are available to help them achieve these ambitious new goals. NCLB arrived, in fiscal 2002, with the biggest dollar increase ever in federal education spending. Moreover, in February, Congress again boosted the U.S. Department of Education's budget—by $3.2 billion, or 6.3 percent more than last year. Signaling the new priority, the department has established a five-year Mathematics and Science Initiative, kicked off with a math summit in February, to promote public awareness, strengthen teaching, and build the research base for math and science education. On the other hand, critics charge that the administration already is turning its back on reform, noting that the president budgeted $6 billion less this year in aid to disadvantaged students than NCLB called for in 2004.

NCLB's advocates are quick to defend the agenda. "It's not just a matter of resources," argues Susan Sclafani, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education. "If people continue to do what they've always done, they'll get what they've always gotten."

"Sometimes we get the idea that money will solve all our problems. I'm not convinced," agrees Charles Watson, the Arkansas Department of Education's federal liaison. "We don't ever want to do away with anything; we just want to add." NCLB may do some good, Watson says, by forcing schools to face tough choices, determine the best solutions to their problems and "go back to ground zero and start over."

Sacra Nicholas points to an example in Oklahoma. "Our professional development needs to become more focused," says the executive director of the Coalition for the Advancement of Science and Mathematics Education in Oklahoma, a statewide advocacy group. "That may not mean having more funds. . . . It may mean using data differently to determine how we can use those funds." And if educators are ready to do business differently, then NCLB will allow them, proponents say. Modifications in federal education spending and the Title I funding formula not only target support to poor students, but also provide states and districts with enhanced flexibility in using the money. They can, for example, transfer half of their funding from the four main federal programs—Teacher Quality, Education Technology, Safe and Drug Free Schools, and Innovative Education Programs—to explore ways of boosting student learning without seeking approval in advance.

But some see the increased flexibility as a double-edged sword. Education systems wanting to enhance teacher quality must make tough choices— for example, between professional development and hiring new teachers. "It's putting them between a rock and a hard place in some instances," says the NSTA's Peterson. Others, like Louisiana's Faimon Roberts, speculate that increased flexibility could do more harm than good if local decision makers lack the expertise to make informed choices.

Teaching Quality by State

The Education Commission of the States (ECS) keeps a running record of states’ efforts to meet NCLB mandates in various areas—from standards and assessment to accountability and assistance for schools—that shows southwestern states scrambling to meet the law’s demands regarding teacher quality.

 

AK

LA

NM

OK

TX

Highly Qualified Teachers Definition
P
N
N
P
N
Subject Matter Competence
U
N
P
P
Y
Test for New Elementary Teachers
Y
P
Y
Y
Y
Highly Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom
N
N
N
N
N
High Quality Professional Development
N
N
N
P
P

Y = Appears to be on track.
P = Appears to be partially on track.
N = Does not appear to be on track.
U = Unclear or data not available.

Source: Education Commission of the States, NCLB Survey, February 2003.

Using What We Know

To encourage states and districts to spend wisely, the law stipulates that they use methods based on scientific research. Some science and math educators see such requirements as evidence that NCLB will sap local control and dictate too much of what happens in the classroom. But the law's backers say its focus on research-based practices and regular assessment will help educators use proven strategies to reach the students who need it most.

"With the data from the individual child, classroom, and school, we can better see what is working and what's not," Sclafani says. "I think people are going to be really zeroing in on the individual child's needs rather than what was taught to the whole class." This approach, she contends, is what produced the success of Texas, where Sclafani previously served as chief of staff for the Houston Independent School District's educational services.

What will such changes look like in other states in the region, such as Arkansas? "We're going to have to become less dependent on textbooks and more dependent on our own frameworks," predicts Watson. "We're making some headway, but we have a long way to go."

Oklahoma's Nicholas voices tentative hope that changes mandated by NCLB will provide the strong medicine needed to cure math and science education of longstanding ills. "That may be healthy," she says, "but it's going to be painful."

Will English Language Learners Be Left Behind?

School systems nationwide face many of the same challenges under NCLB, but those in the Southwest often confront the added obstacle of limited English proficiency (LEP) among a large and growing share of students.

Trying to master academic subjects while learning English can hinder the achievement and the long-term educational attainment of these students. A study of census data released in February underscores the point: Only 16 percent of Hispanic high school graduates earn a four-year college degree by age 29, as compared with 37 percent of whites and 21 percent of African Americans, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

NCLB aims to help change such statistics, but success is far from assured. The Education Commission of the States (ECS), which monitors state progress toward NCLB compliance, warns that, as of February 2003, some southwestern states are not on track to meet the law's requirements for LEP and migrant students in the following areas:

  • Inclusion of LEP Students in Assessments
    Arkansas allows three years in its program before including these students.
  • Assessment of English Language Proficiency
    Louisiana officials say they will implement relevant policies next year, but ECS finds no documentation to verify this.
  • Inclusion of Migrant Students in Assessments
    ECS finds no New Mexico law or program explicitly establishing systems to track migrant students and ensuring their participation in state and district assessments even though statutes and regulations require participation of "all students."

Oklahoma, on the other hand, appears to be on track to meet NCLB's requirements for such students. Likewise, Texas is mostly on track, except for a component of its accountability system that allows exemptions for some LEP students, according to ECS.

To address the needs of English language learners, southwestern school systems should take advantage of the new funding flexibility that NCLB provides, says Faimon Roberts, assistant director for science of the Louisiana Systemic Initiatives Program. Title III now consolidates earlier bilingual and immigrant education programs into a formula-based state grant under certain conditions—for example, giving states and districts additional latitude in spending the money to meet their students' unique needs. The change aims mainly to raise literacy, but it's not hard to see the potentially positive impact on achievement in such subjects as science and math.

 

Geoff Camphire is a freelance writer based in Virginia who has written about education issues for more than 10 years. He can be reached at geoffcamphire@yahoo.com.


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