Education Reform for a Mobile Population

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 to be all-inclusive and superficial. They will fail to challenge students to use mathematics and science as ways of knowing about the world.

Institutions of higher education should form partnerships with local districts/schools to create a more seamless K-16 system.

The NSB urges active participation by educators and practicing mathematicians and scientists, as well as parents and employers from knowledge-based industries, in the review of instructional materials considered for local adoption. Professional associations in the science and engineering communities can take the lead in stimulating the dialogue over textbooks and other materials and in formulating checklists or content inventories that could be valuable to their members, and all stakeholders, in the evaluation process.

Teacher preparation. According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, as many as one in four teachers is teaching “out of field.” The National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification reports that only 28 states require prospective teachers to pass examinations in the subject areas they plan to teach, and only 13 states test them on their teaching skills. Widely shared goals and standards in teacher preparation, licensure, and professional development provide mechanisms to overcome these difficulties. This is especially critical for middle school teachers, if we take the TIMSS 8th grade findings seriously.

We cannot expect world-class learning of mathematics and science if U.S. teachers lack the knowledge, confidence, and enthusiasm to deliver world-class instruction. Although updating current teacher knowledge is essential, improving future teacher preparation is even more crucial. The community partners of schools–higher education, business, and industry–share the obligation to heighten student achievement. The NSB urges formation of three-pronged partnerships: institutions that graduate new teachers working in concert with national and state certification bodies and local school districts. These partnerships should form around the highest possible standards of subject content knowledge for new teachers and aim at aligning teacher education, certification requirements and processes, and hiring practices. Furthermore, teachers need other types of support, such as sustained mentoring by individual university mathematics, science, and education faculty and financial rewards for achieving board certification.

College admissions. Quality teaching and learning of mathematics and science bestows advantages on students. Content standards, clusters of courses, and graduation requirements illuminate the path to college and the workplace, lay a foundation for later learning, and draw students’ career aspirations within reach. How high schools assess student progress, however, has consequences for deciding who gains access to higher education.

Longitudinal data on 1982 high school graduates point to course-taking or “academic intensity,” as opposed to high school grade point average or SAT/ACT scores, as predictors of completion of baccalaureate degrees. Nevertheless, short-term and readily quantifiable measures such as standardized test scores tend to dominate admissions decisions. Such decisions promote the participation of some students in mathematics and science, and discourage others. The higher education community can play a critical role by helping to enhance academic intensity in elementary and secondary schools.

We must act on the recognition that education is “all one system,” which means that the strengths and deficiencies of elementary or secondary education are not just inherited by higher education. Instead, they become spurs to better preparation and opportunity for advanced learning. The formation of partnerships by an institution of higher education demands adjusting the reward system to recognize service to local schools, teachers, and students as instrumental to the mission of the institution. The NSB urges institutions of higher education to form partnerships with local districts/ schools that create a more seamless K-16 system. These partnerships can help to increase the congruence between high school graduation requirements in math and science and undergraduate performance demands. They can also demonstrate the links between classroom-based skills and the demands on thinking and learning in the workplace.

Research. Questions such as which tests should be used for gauging progress in teaching and learning and how children learn in formal and informal settings require research-based answers. The National Science Board sees research as a necessary condition for improved student achievement in mathematics and science. Further, research on local district, school, and classroom practice is best supported at a national level and in a global context, such as TIMSS. Knowing what works in diverse settings should inform those seeking a change in practice and student learning outcomes. Teachers could especially use such information. Like other professionals, teachers need support networks that deliver content and help to refine and renew their knowledge and skills. The Board urges the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Education to spearhead the federal contribution to science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education research and evaluation.

Efforts such as the new Interagency Education Research Initiative are rooted in empirical reports by the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Science and Technology Council. Led jointly by NSF and the Department of Education, this initiative should support research that yields timely findings and thoughtful plans for transferring lessons and influencing those responsible for math and science teaching and learning.


In 1983, the same year that A Nation at Risk was published, the NSB Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology advised: “Our children are the most important asset of our country; they deserve at least the heritage that was passed to us . . . a level of mathematics, science, and technology education that is the finest in the world, without sacrificing the American birthright of personal choice, equity, and opportunity.” The health of science and engineering tomorrow depends on improved mathematics and science preparation of our students today. But we cannot delegate the responsibility of teaching and learning math and science solely to teachers and schools. They cannot work miracles by themselves. A balance must therefore be struck between individual and collective incentives and accountability.

The National Science Board asserts that scientists and engineers, and especially our colleges and universities, must act on their responsibility to prepare and support teachers and students for the rigors of advanced learning and the 21st century workplace. Equipping the next generation with these tools of work and citizenship will require a greater consensus than now exists among stakeholders on the content of K-16 teaching and learning. As the NSB report shows, national strategies can help change the conditions of schooling. In 1999, implementing those strategies for excellence in education is nothing less than a national imperative.

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Cite this Article

Kelly, Eamon M., Bob H. Suzuki, and Mary K. Gaillard. “Education Reform for a Mobile Population.” Issues in Science and Technology 15, no. 4 (Summer 1999).

Vol. XV, No. 4, Summer 1999