Partnership, Policy, and Educational Change: The Role of Mathematics and Science in K-16 Reform

Article excerpt

Concerns about American competitiveness and innovation have led to increasing scrutiny of science, technical, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Leaders in the higher education, business, and legislative communities have all issued calls for expanded opportunities and training in STEM fields to improve the skills of the U.S. workforce. Older arguments for change, including stronger alignment of K-12 and higher education curriculum and the overall reform of teacher preparation, are incorporated within these recent calls, and share similar policy and implementation challenges. This analysis identifies the National Science Foundation Math Science Partnerships program as an emblem of the challenges of engaging K-12 and higher education in major reform efforts within a dynamic policy environment.

Keywords: STEM; Faculty; Higher Education; Partnership; Policy

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Concerns about American competitiveness and innovation have led to increasing scrutiny of science, technical, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Leaders in the higher education, business, and legislative communities have all issued calls for expanded opportunities and training in STEM fields to improve the skills of the U.S. workforce. Notions of economic competition and decline have fueled rhetoric and action affecting STEM fields in the United States during the early years of the 21st century. Numerous policy actions, legislation, and reporting have identified the critical role of STEM research and teaching in advancing U.S. competitiveness.

The current focus on the shortages of qualified STEM graduates entering the workforce echoes that of the Sputnik situation half a century earlier. The range of these reports and actions involves educational and economic lobbying organizations, state and federal governments and their lobbying associations, as well as individual critiques (Cordova, 2006). In 2006, such a vast number of these publications had been issued that one commentator felt safe in designating it "the year of the report" (Simpson, 2006).

Whether the United States actually is falling behind in preparing qualified workers in STEM fields (and in preparing students in K-12 classrooms) belongs to a larger policy debate and historical and economical analysis. This analysis will focus on the role of the National Science Foundation Math Science Partnerships program (NSF-MSP) as an example of a major policy solution designed to respond to these conditions, and to aspects of school reform, such as improved alignment between K-12 and higher education, and teacher preparation and professional development. The experiences of the NSF-MSPs provide a rich example of the challenges and limitations inherent in engaging and funding partnerships. Such issues as program sustainability, the gulf between faculty and organizational culture in the K-12 and postsecondary sectors, and the variability of policy and political leadership each present challenges to successful partnership. NSF-MSPs engage STEM faculty and administrators, as well as education faculty and K-12 teachers and school and system administrative staff in their work.

The Climate

For several years, numerous stakeholders have issued reports on American competitiveness, each emphasizing different aspects of the role of higher education. These voices range from the National Academy of Sciences and the Business Higher Education Forum (2005, 2007) to the National Center for Education and the Economy (2006) and the U. S. Department of Education (2006).

These reports differ in emphasis and were directed to different audiences, but shared some common themes: that the production of STEM graduates in the U.S. has declined sharply, that other nations are preparing technical professionals at a pace faster than we have and are increasing their capacity to compete with the United States, and that the United States has fallen far behind in innovation, research, and production. …