Bolstering the nation’s math and science teacher ranks and equipping U.S. students with the skills they need to be competitive in the global economy was the foundation for a new 10-year, $136 billion education and research initiative proposed by President Bush during his annual State of the Union address to Congress Jan. 31. Advocates of educational technology say the sweeping proposals could have broad implications for schools as educators look for ways to leverage technology to improve education.

In a speech that began with a tribute to the late Coretta Scott King, wife of civil-rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., the president called for a new era of cooperation in Washington, calling on Capitol Hill lawmakers to put aside political differences on such divisive issues as the war on terror and Social Security and come together, as a nation, to address a wide array of problems–from the rising cost of energy at home and the continued pursuit of freedom in the Middle East, to strengthening an education system that, despite four years of reform, still is struggling to prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century.

On this latter issue, the centerpiece of Bush’s plan is a new proposal called the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI). A joint effort between the Departments of Education, Commerce, Labor, and Energy, in conjunction with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology, the plan aims to more than double the federal government’s investment in research and development in the physical sciences over the next 10 years, foster the creation of more public-private partnerships between top-flight universities and leading corporations, and bolster the nation’s education system by recruiting and training as many as 100,000 full- and part-time teachers to provide more students with rigorous, high-quality, college-level instruction in important technical disciplines such as math and science.

“[T]o keep America competitive, one commitment is necessary above all: We must continue to lead the world in human talent and creativity,” said Bush in his speech. “Our greatest advantage in the world has always been our educated, hard-working, ambitious people, and we are going to keep that edge.”

Driven by the perception that the United States is losing ground as a world economic power, mainly to rapidly developing nations such as India and China, Bush says his latest initiative is intended to give today’s students “a firm grounding in areas such as math and science,” so they have the technical skills to win high-paying jobs and ensure that America remains a leader on the world economic stage.

To support this effort, the president is expected to ask Congress for $5.6 billion for the program’s first year in his 2007 budget proposal, which is expected sometime early next week.

Of those funds, just $380 million will go to the Department of Education, most of which will be used to fund an ambitious new training program intended to increase the number of highly skilled math and science teachers working in the nation’s schools. The president’s proposal seeks to provide additional training to as many as 70,000 existing high school teachers over the next five years, giving educators the know-how they need to effectively teach higher-level Advanced Placement and college-level courses, particularly in mathematics and the sciences, where good help often is hard to find.

In addition, Bush has proposed bringing as many as 30,000 private-sector employees into the classroom to serve as adjunct teachers, acting under the belief that these people will serve as both guides and mentors to students as they enter the workforce and move on in their pursuit of a successful career.

Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, had this to say of the president’s proposal: “Science and math education–in addition to basic research and policies that encourage innovation at our nation’s labs and universities–are critical to our nation’s future competitiveness. Our nation’s science teachers are educating the next generation of scientists, engineers, and workers who will find new ways to defend our country, create new technologies, and cure diseases. We commend the president for highlighting the importance of science and math before a national audience.”

National Education Association President Reg Weaver had a slightly different take on the president’s prposal. Though the program looks encouraging on paper, he said, a lack of federal funding and recent budget cuts by Congress likely will prevent schools from getting the job done.

“It’s reassuring to hear the president focused on competing in a global economy. As he said, to keep our competitive edge we must maintain our greatest advantage: educated, hard-working, ambitious people. Yet in December, lawmakers cut $13.7 billion from education spending, the first federal cuts to education in a decade,” he said in a statement about the address. “While the president says he wants the United States to remain competitive in the changing global economy, that simply can’t happen without quality education. Quality public schools, and access to higher education, are stepping stones to better lives. The massive education cuts by Congress don’t just hurt students, they hurt our national standing in the global economy.”

In a briefing with reporters on Feb. 1, members of the president’s cabinet–including Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy–discussed ACI and the role it will play in helping America remain competitive in the new world economy.

Calling Bush’s proposal “a bold plan that speaks to the needs of Americans throughout their lifetimes,” Spellings emphasized the need for highly trained teachers, especially in the areas of math and science.

“You can’t teach what you don’t know,” she said plainly. “It’s time to train, recruit, and improve the quality of teaching in America.”

In addition to boosting training for both new and existing teachers and increasing students’ access to rigorous courses, Spellings said the administration also will focus on early intervention for elementary-aged students, stress the need for more higher-order thinking in schools, and increase instructional research “to bring best practice-type solutions” to public education.

The plans set forth in ACI are ambitious, she said, and the implications will extend well beyond the four walls of the classroom.

“As I travel around the country…I continue to hear the same message: ‘We must improve our K-12 pipeline if we are to stay successful as a country,'” Spellings explained, adding that “in this fast-changing landscape, our education system must keep pace.”

Bush’s new education proposals are part of a larger plan to spur technology innovation. Another way ACI seeks to promote economic competitiveness is through the approval of some $4.6 billion in tax credits to U.S.-based companies to encourage the continued development of new technologies.

By enacting a widespread, permanent tax credit, the White House aims to embolden corporations, giving companies certainty in their tax planning and encouraging more aggressive research and development.

In addition to the tax credits, another $910 million will go to bolster research and development in the public sector and through government agencies. A large chunk of that money–$137 million–is expected to promote federal research through organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. The investment is intended to buttress the development of a wide range of new and emerging technologies with implications for schools, including nanotechnology, supercomputing, and alternative sources of energy.

If the plan holds, Bush expects the federal government’s financial stake in these agencies to increase by $50 billion over the next 10 years.

Pointing out that the global economy has provided 3 billion new competitors for U.S. corporations, Gutierrez called on “every company and every community in the country” to meet the challenge by supporting the president’s plan.

But despite enthusiasm from the White House and throughout the broader administration, Democrats in what has become an increasingly partisan Congress questioned whether the president has expended too much political capital battling issues such as the debate over federal wiretapping and the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq to see these and other domestic improvements through.

Speaking for the Democratic National Party in response to the president’s speech, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said the administration has failed to provide enough funding to adequately support the goals of the president’s signature education law.

“The No Child Left Behind Act is wreaking havoc on the nation’s school districts,” said Kaine. “Despite the insistence of Democrats in Congress that the program should be funded as promised, the administration has opposed full funding and is refusing to let states try innovative alternatives. Now the Republican leadership in Washington is actually cutting billions of dollars from the student loan programs that serve working families, helping to get their children through college.”

While urging the need for more cooperation in Washington on both sides of the political aisle, Kaine called for alternative solutions to education reform and increased results in the nation’s schools, saying, “There has got to be a better way.”

Urging the need for “common-sense solutions to common problems,” the first-term Democratic governor said there is a natural desire among Americans to expect results. And when those results don’t come, he said, it’s within the right of every American to call for change.

Rather than support ACI and other initiatives laid out in the president’s speech, Kaine instead suggested that the country look to other alternatives, particularly in education, where the nation’s governors–both Democrats and Republicans alike–have proposed a litany of reforms intended to bolster student achievement, redesign the nation’s high schools, and help America maintain its competitive edge.

Kaine’s political allies in Congress have expressed similar doubts about the current direction of education in the nation’s schools.

Last November, Congressional Democrats proposed a competitiveness agenda of their own design (see story: Democrats: Education is the key to reclaiming innovation).

Introduced by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the Democrats’ proposal featured a “five-pronged” strategy for improving education and promoting economic progress, including offering financial incentives to attract more high-quality teachers to science and math classrooms, promoting the use and expansion of school and community-wide broadband internet access, and making college tuition tax-deductible for prospective teachers specializing in science and math instruction.

When asked whether the president’s plan would provide similar tax breaks and monetary incentives, Spellings did not deny the possibility but was unable to provide specifics.

After seeing funding for major educational technology programs cut by millions of dollars in 2006 (see story: Education takes $59M hit in new federal budget), several ed-tech advocates who spoke with eSchool News were largely encouraged by the president’s latest proposals. Though the ACI program doesn’t directly provide money for the purchase or integration of school technology, leaders of several national ed-tech organizations agreed the goals outlined during the president’s speech would be hard, if not impossible, to achieve without the use and integration of technology in schools.

“I think that this proposed initiative [ACI] is critical in today’s changing global landscape,” said Melinda George, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “I now look to [members of Congress and the Bush administration] to make technology a priority in learning and teaching so that we are providing students with the opportunities and experiences that are needed for them to succeed in the 21st-century workforce and economy.”

“We look forward to working with the administration and Congress on the details and implementation of this agenda,” wrote Mark Schneiderman, director of federal education policy for the Washington-based Software & Information Industry Association, in an eMail message to eSchool News. “We believe this agenda can best be achieved by including support for instructional and other school technologies, as well by ensuring our students have necessary technology literacy and 21st-century skills.”

But given recent budget cuts to school technology programs in both chambers of Congress, they say, the federal government still has a long way to go to turn promise into practice.

“Education policies have been moving us backwards in relevance of curriculum and in required skills–including skills with technology–that are necessary for maintaining global competitiveness. So, not only must we gear up in science and math, but we must undo damage, reverse policies, and refocus efforts…in math, science, and technology,” said Don Knezek, chief executive officer for the International Society for Technology in Education. “The challenge to solve the math and science issue is far more complex than it appears on the surface, and it requires a new focus on relevant curriculum, on teacher development, and on requisite technology skills, as well as technology-rich math and science content.”

Links:

The White House
http://www.whitehouse.gov/

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

U.S. Department of Commerce
http://www.commerce.gov/

U.S. Department of Energy
http://www.energy.gov/

U.S. Department of Labor
http://www.dol.gov/

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org/

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org

National Science Teachers Association
http://www.nsta.org

State Educational Technology Directors Association
http://www.setda.org

Software & Information Industry Association
http://www.siia.net/