There is growing alarm that U.S.-born students are lacking math and science proficiency, a trend which could have dire consequences for technological innovation and America’s role in a globalized economy. Fortunately, there is also a major philanthropic response to this trend.
The problem is defined by statistics which show that only 29 percent of fourth graders and 29 percent of eighth graders who took the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress performed at or above the “proficient” level. Part of the problem can be traced to teachers’ deficient math and science training. About 30 percent of high school mathematics students and 60 percent of physical science students have teachers who either did not major in the subject in college or are not certified to teach it. The reality is even worse for schools with predominantly low-income students, where 70 percent of middle school math teachers majored in another subject.
Statistics like these led the National Academy of Sciences to issue a comprehensive report in 2005, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” One of the panel’s key recommendations called for increasing “America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education.”
Several grantmakers, including the ExxonMobil Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, are taking decisive action on the Academy’s recommendations. These foundations have donated to a new nonprofit, the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), that will distribute grants nationwide to improve math and science education at the K-12 level. ExxonMobil has already donated $125 million to the new initiative.
“The National Academy’s paper really documented the situation. More needed to be done. There is a tremendous demand for programs that help to inspire and motivate kids in science and math,” says Gerald McElvy, president of the ExxonMobil Foundation. “ExxonMobil has a longstanding interest in math and science education in the United States. We wanted the opportunity to respond to the report and the issues that it raised.”
Launched last fall, NMSI will award grants to organizations that model two highly successful math and science programs, UTeach and Advanced Placement Strategies. NMSI is led by Tom Luce, an attorney and former Assistant Secretary of Education in the Bush administration, and is governed by an impressive board of directors that includes many leaders from the business, legal, academic, science and math communities.
Peter O’Donnell, chairman of the O’Donnell Foundation and chairman of the NMSI board, says the organization’s long-term goal is straightforward. “There is an urgent need to strengthen math and science education in the United States, and NMSI’s goal is to do just that,” says O’Donnell, who also served on the National Academy of Science’s panel that criticized current math and science deficiencies.
Both UTeach and Advanced Placement Strategies were selected as models because they have shown they produce results.
UTeach, a program originally developed at the University of Texas at Austin, attracts undergraduate students majoring in mathematics, science and computer science into the teaching profession, aiming to eliminate the dearth of middle and high school teachers with little formal science and math training. The program allows future teachers to graduate with a B.S. in four years in either math or science, along with the necessary certification in teaching. The program also focuses on early and intensive teaching experience, a departure from more traditional education schools that usually reserve student teaching for the final semester.
Advanced Placement Strategies, a nonprofit established in 2000, offers training and incentive programs for AP and pre-AP math, science, and English courses. These programs include formal and informal training for teachers and financial incentives based on students’ academic results. AP training programs are especially important because several studies have documented a correlation between success in AP courses and future success in college.
According to NMSI, 92 percent of teachers enrolled in UTeach go on to teach secondary math and science immediately, 82 percent are still teaching four years later, and almost half teach in schools where more than 50 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Advanced Placement Strategies can point to similar successes. In Texas schools served by Advanced Placement Strategies over a five-year period, the number of students passing AP math and science tests multiplied four and five times respectively. At the original ten schools in the Dallas Independent School District, the number of students passing AP exams per thousand students went from just two-thirds of the national average to two-thirds above the national average.
O’Donnell points out that UTeach and Advanced Placement Strategies were programs specifically cited in the National Academy’s report as recommended solutions to the country’s math and science woes. “We want to replicate these programs because the data show they work.”
The ExxonMobil Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation say the programs’ real-world accomplishments also make the initiatives stand out from other supplemental education programs.
“There are so many programs out there, some that are successful and some that are not. It was important from our perspective to find out what works and then take them to a systemic level,” says Zeynep Young, Texas program director for the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, which has committed $5 million to NMSI. “We knew from our experience in Texas that these programs achieved great results, and we are excited to be part of an effort to scale them up nationally.”
NMSI’s chief of staff, Sarah Dillard, says that NMSI plans this fall to announce up to ten grants of $13 million over six years to build programs based on Advanced Placement Strategies and another ten grants of $2.4 million over five years to replicate UTeach. Any tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, in concert with a supporting partner like a foundation or business-education coalition that can bring management expertise, financial stability and important connections, may apply for the former set of grants. All four-year, fully accredited, nonprofit institutions of higher education are eligible for the latter set.
According to Dillard, interest in the program is tremendous so far. A recent call-in for organizations seeking more information on the grants overwhelmed NMSI’s phone lines. “We had more people calling in than we had lines set up,” says Dillard.
McElvy says the national appeal of NMSI is important for their donation. “Their mission was to take these successful local programs to the national level. We thought that was a great idea and that they were capable of accomplishing it.”
While the $125 million donation is generous by any standard, McElvy stressed that ExxonMobil views it as an important investment in tomorrow’s thinkers and innovators, some of whom they even hope to attract to their own company someday.
“Engineering and science is the lifeblood of our company. Ultimately as a company we want to see more engineers and scientists who are U.S.-born graduates from U.S. universities. Unfortunately, other countries are graduating significantly more math and science students than the United States. If this trend continues, it will have adverse consequences for our society and economy,” McElvy says. “The effort to change this must start now.”
Dillard says ExxonMobil’s gift demonstrates a long-term outlook on improving math and science readiness. “It’s important to understand that their gift is not something that benefits ExxonMobil next year. They have a very long-term, forward-thinking perspective.”
McElvy also says that as a private sector company, ExxonMobil understands the importance of incentives for achieving goals. “Financial incentives can become a powerful inducement for kids who might not otherwise take AP classes. Obviously this isn’t the only reason why you take an AP class, but it’s getting students used to the principle of incentives that’s important too.” He adds that some students use the financial rewards as income substitution, allowing them to spend more time studying for their AP classes.
Young also says that NMSI is a perfect fit for donors like the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (MSDF), which are interested in education reform more generally and not tied specifically to business objectives. “At MSDF, we are focused on driving systemic, sustainable change in urban public school districts. We want to improve student performance in a measurable way,” Young says. “We feel that NMSI will allow us to help accomplish that goal.”
With the support of other foundations and individuals, “I hope that we can harness all of our energy into the same direction and support a program that truly will work,” Young says.
“There is a crisis in science and mathematics education in the United States,” says McElvy. “To change that, we need the full endorsement and support from all sectors of society.”
“With support from ExxonMobil and other major foundations,” says O’Donnell, “it gives us strength and confidence we will reach our goal.”
For more information on the National Math and Science Initiative, visit their website at: www.nationalmathandscience.org.
Bryan O’Keefe is the associate director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.