School management must be local, but national action is also essential.
The high rate of mobility in today's society means that local schools have become a de facto national resource for learning. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in three students changes schools more than once between grades 1 and 8. A mobile student population dramatizes the need for some coordination of content and resources. Student mobility constitutes a systemic problem: For U.S. student achievement to rise, no one can be left behind.
The future of the nation depends on a strong, competitive workforce and a citizenry equipped to function in a complex world. The national interest encompasses what every student in a grade should know and be able to do in mathematics and science. Further, the connection of K-12 content standards to college admissions criteria is vital for conveying the national expectation that educational excellence improves not just the health of science, but everyone's life chances through productive employment, active citizenship, and continuous learning.
We all know that improving student achievement in 15,000 school districts with diverse populations, strengths, and problems will not be easy. To help meet that that challenge, the National Science Board (NSB) produced the report Preparing Our Children: Math and Science Education in the National Interest. The goal of the report is to identify what needs to be done and how federal resources can support local action. A core need, according to the NSB report, is for rigorous content standards in mathematics and science. All students require the knowledge and skills that flow from teaching and learning based on world-class content standards. That was the value of Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS): It helped us calibrate what our students were getting in the classroom relative to their age peers around the world.
What we have learned from TIMSS and other research and evaluation is that U.S. textbooks, teachers, and the structure of the school day do not promote in-depth learning. Thus, well-prepared and well-supported teachers alone will not improve student performance without other important changes such as more discerning selection of textbooks, instructional methods that promote thinking and problem-solving, the judicious use of technology, and a reliance on tests that measure what is taught. When whole communities take responsibility for "content," teaching and learning improve. Accountability should be a means of monitoring and, we hope, continuous improvement, through the use of appropriate incentives.
The power of standards and accountability is that, from district-level policy changes in course and graduation requirements to well-aligned classroom teaching and testing, all students can be held to the same high standard of performance. At the same time, teachers and schools must be held accountable so that race, ethnicity, gender, physical disability, and economic disadvantage can diminish as excuses for subpar student performance.
Areas for action
The NSB focuses on three areas for consensual national action to improve mathematics and science teaching and learning: instructional materials, teacher preparation, and college admissions.
Instructional materials. According to the TIMSS results, U.S. students are not taught what they need to learn in math and science. Most U.S. high school students take no advanced science, with only one-half enrolling in chemistry, one-quarter in physics. From the TIMSS analysis we also learned that curricula in U.S. high schools lack coherence, depth, and continuity, and cover too many topics in a superficial way. Most of our general science textbooks in the United States touch on many topics rather than probe any one in depth. Without some degree of consensus on content for each grade level, textbooks will continue …