Science Education Report 'Is Not About Spending More Money,' Obama Adviser Says

The co-chair of a new White House report on strengthening science education says its recommendations will not add significantly to federal spending. He strongly disputes yesterday's account in ScienceInsider that a bevy of new programs could add as much as $1 billion to the federal budget.

The new programs called for in the report have a price tag approaching $1 billion a year. But Eric Lander, co-chair of the panel convened by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), says their adoption would require "little or no new federal money." Instead, says Lander, most of the reforms can be achieved by refocusing money within existing programs not currently targeted for such activities. "This isn't about money, it's about the really good use of money. ... In the end, could it take 10% more? Of course it could. But this report is not about spending more money."

Lander, head of the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute, teamed with physicist James Gates Jr. of the University of Maryland, College Park, to lead a 19-member panel that spent more than a year examining ways to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in U.S. elementary and secondary schools. Here's what the report itself says about how the programs should be funded:

Many of the recommendations in this report can be carried out with existing Federal funding. Some of the recommendations could be funded in part through existing programs, although new authorities may be required in certain cases. Depending on these choices, the new funding required to fully fund the recommendations could reach up to approximately $1 billion per year. ... Not all of this funding must come from the Federal budget. We believe that some of the funding can come from private foundations and corporations, as well as from states and districts.

And here's how Lander, in an e-mail to Insider, interprets that paragraph:

It means that the cost could be ZERO if existing authorities are sufficient (as I think they are) or new authorities allowing existing appropriations to be used are created (in the event that the existing ones are not). If not (that is, if folks decide not to use existing authorities/funds), it could cost up to $1b — much of which would/could be nonfederal. As I told you, my guess is that virtually no new money is needed because I think the authorities are already broad enough.

The distinction could be important in the current political climate. Although the idea of boosting STEM education enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, Republicans have sharply criticized the tens of billions more in overall federal spending on education during the Obama Administration. They also take a dim view of the idea of giving Washington a bigger role in an area that constitutionally is the province of state and local government, as well as any proposed growth in the federal bureaucracy.

The PCAST report would grow the federal presence and increase its involvement in local and state education programs. Among its recommendations is a call for a new Advanced Research Projects Agency-Education, or "ARPA-ED" that would promote new education technologies and digital learning materials and the creation of an Office of STEM Education within the Department of Education. It also recommends that the government help to create 1000 new STEM-focused schools across the country and assist in a $15,000-a-year salary boost for a cadre of 22,000 master math and science teachers with exemplary records of boosting student achievement and participation in science.

The Obama Administration has urged companies and philanthropic organizations to supplement the $1.2 billion a year that the federal government now spends on K–12 STEM education. Yesterday, President Barack Obama embraced the PCAST report during a White House ceremony during which he applauded corporate and private-sector CEOs for forming Change the Equation, a nonprofit organization that has pledged to bring "best practices" in STEM education to 100 needy high schools and communities.

In an interview with Insider, here is what Lander had to say about the report, titled Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for America's Future.

Lander: Where in the world do you get the idea that we call for $1 billion in new spending? Let me make it clear that the vast majority of the funds exist but might require authorizations to do them. PCAST hasn't done the analysis, but my personal guess is that this might require 10% more money. ... What we said was that new authorities might be needed, and depending on whether people got those authorities or didn't get them, they might need appropriations.

Let's take after-school money. A lot of these things could be done with after-school money. But it's not PCAST's role to work all that out. ... We expect that this can be done with little or no new federal money, but making the best use of existing federal money, including targeting some of them toward STEM, like by creating STEM-focused schools. There exist turnaround funds, and magnet funds, but they're not at the moment focused on using them for STEM schools.

SI: Where would money for the master teachers program come from, for example?

Lander: We believe that the vast majority can fit under existing programs, although maybe it would require new authorities. ... You have to remember that not all of the Administration's [proposed] reauthorization of ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] has been programmed.

SI: Are you saying that PCAST is staking a claim within the proposed reauthorization for a program to pay master teachers?

Lander: We believe that, within the boundaries already laid out by the Administration, there is authority and capacity to include these programs. ... There's a blueprint out there for ESEA, and we're not messing around with the magnitude or direction of that blueprint. But we're talking about how those programs could be shaped to have the maximum impact on STEM.

SI: There are two tables in the report on FY 2010 funding for STEM education that, when combined, show a total figure of $1.2 billion. Are you saying that figure is incorrect?

Lander: That's not a helpful arithmetic. If we're spending many billions on after-school programs, and we say in the report that some of them should have a STEM focus, it may be that some of them already have a STEM focus. So if somebody begins to spend X dollars but with a STEM focus, that's not new money. It's a question of making better use of the dollars we've already got. ... I don't think you should focus on the $1.2 billion. That number is artificial, because the OMB [White House Office of Management and Budget] decided that something with a certain label had to be classified in a certain way.

SI: So when the press release says that "fully funding all of the recommendations could require investments of approximately $1 billion a year"...

Lander: I don't care about the press release. Read the report. ... The report says that many of the recommendations can be carried out with existing funding. Depending on these choices, the new funding could reach up to $1 billion. Or you might need zero. It depends on how you use those authorities. ... This isn't about money, it's about the really good use of money. In the end, could it take 10% more? Of course it could. But this report is not about spending more money.

SI: The report says that dedicated federal spending in this area has been "relatively small." What do you think is the appropriate level?

Lander: I don't know. ... If you look at our recommendations, we are saying some funds that are differentiated need to be differentiated and put to a better purpose.

SI: Switching to your recommendation for an ARPA-ED, who would be the customer?

Lander: Think ARPA-E. We're careful not to say a single customer. What's important is the ability to fund bold programs, at scale, to let people take risks.

SI: NSF says it's already funding transformative research. Is the report saying that it is not funding transformative research in education technology?

Lander: Speaking just for myself, I think NSF is funding basic research with the potential for transformation. That is not the same thing as saying they have programs to fund bold and ambitious projects. If the grants are all of the same size, for example, then bold new ideas to create technology platforms might die at the hands of the study section unless there is a program that requests the best ideas for such projects. ...

I think NSF is doing a great job at funding early creative things, but they don't yet have programs in place to fund the next stage of translation. So everybody has to build their own platform for their educational technology rather than three or four grants being given to build these in some interoperative way.

SI: But NSF has said historically that's not its mission. Are you saying it should be?

Lander: It should be part of someone's mission. What PCAST is saying is that between NSF and ED, in order to deliver on the extraordinary promise of education tech, we should be investing in platforms that make it easier for someone to design a great course. Suppose I'm a great physics teacher and I want to design a new course. Right now I have to worry about building a whole bloody platform for it. And the course should have professional development materials and adaptive problem sets and visual material and so on. What we want to do with platforms is liberate really smart people to contribute what they can do best. And we are not funding those things that would unlock their creativity.

SI: Many people would say the Education Department has no experience in acting that way.

Lander: That's why we think both agencies should be involved. ED knows a lot about schools and what works in schools, and NSF knows how to fund scientific research. But ED knows more about how to connect this to schools. So we concluded both agencies have to play a role, but we're not sure the right way to do it. We're not architects of federal programs. It could start off as a joint effort using i3 funds. Figuring out how to do this should be done by the Education secretary and the NSF director.