SOE News

William Tate proposes action to improve attainment in mathematics and science

It is widely agreed that achievement in mathematics and science needs to be improved among students in the United States. How universities can help make this happen was the focus of a lecture by William Tate, the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, at the School of Education on Jan. 23, 2006.

Addressing an audience of 50 faculty, students, teachers and researchers, Tate posed two conceptual questions to establish a context for his remarks.  First, what combinations of policies, programs and professionals result in the scientific advancement of traditionally underserved students?  Second, to what extent are the scientific goals of a state aligned with its human resource development strategy?

Tate identified several factors that influence how people advance in our society including family background, education and socioeconomic status.  He proposed a School-Based Attainment Model as a way of understanding the interaction among these factors.  He stated that in our society we have both policy tools ─ such as accountability measures, inducements and mandates ─ and “opportunity-to-learn” factors ─ time, quality and design variables.

“Policy matters,” he began, “but success is the marriage of policy tools and opportunity-to-learn factors.”

Tate reviewed signature moments in mathematics and science education in the United States over the last 20 years.  One area of concern, he pointed out, is that traditionally underserved students have sometimes been denied access to mathematics and science education.

Recent trends have shown some improvement.  For example, from 1991-2000 the number of African-Americans who earned baccalaureate degrees in science, mathematics or engineering in the United States increased, bringing the number closer to the 12 percent proportion of all African-Americans in the U.S. population.

These increases have occurred as a result of changes in legislation, litigation and other policies.  “Policy matters!” Tate said. “The fundamental opening of the gateway has made a difference.”

However, many factors need attention and much more progress is needed to improve students’ performance.  “It’s in the public interest to improve attainment in mathematics and science,” Tate stated.

One of those factors is teaching.  Tate related an example of the effect of quality teaching on students’ mathematics performance.  Among a group of second graders in Dallas, half had highly effective teachers and the other half had ineffective teachers. By the end of fifth grade, the average mathematics scores of those with effective teachers rose from the 55th percentile to the 76th.  Among those with ineffective teachers, their average mathematics scores dropped from the 57th percentile to the 27th.

“Teaching matters!” Tate said.

Those who work in universities have a unique opportunity to make a difference, Tate noted, because university faculty can divorce themselves from the politicians and analyze data “to know the truth.”  

Two things that universities can do in the public interest at the current time are:

  1. Establish a strategic link to whoever is in charge of data generally, such as a state agency, and conduct good, clean, serious data analysis;
  2. Link that analysis back to how universities do teacher training, and begin preparing mathematics and science teachers who will raise the cognitive level of K-12 students.

“Being ‘on point’ with what really matters is our challenge in the public interest,” said Tate.  He urged the audience to “take on the mantle of leadership,” analyze data sets and use the findings to revise and improve K-12 teacher training and education across the United States.