Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Glenn Commission Revisited

On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the first landing on the moon—the Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, announced the appointment of a 25 member National Commission of Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century which came to be known as the Glenn Commission. The Commission Chairman was none other than Astronaut John Glenn, the third American to fly in space and the first to orbit the Earth.

On September 27, 2000, the U.S. Department of Education was presented with Before It’s Too Late, A Report to the Nation from The National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century. In revisiting this document today, the observations and concerns expressed so many years ago could have been written yesterday. Things haven't changed much in terms of teacher qualification and I find that terribly disconcerting.

In the Letter of Transmittal the Commission stated, The goals and action strategies we suggest may be seen by some as too great a reach, by some as not bold enough. We are convinced, however, that if they are ignored, our children and our nation will soon pay the high price that always accompanies apathy.

Despite the Glenn Commission's genuine desire to be a catalyst of change and the cogent argument that "the most direct route to improving mathematics and science achievement for all students is better mathematics and science teaching", we are in the grips of a shortage of qualified educators that drives elementary schools to seek teachers from other countries. This is a sad state of affairs. We cannot say it was lack of foresight or information because clearly we knew this would happen, so does that mean apathy trumps reason?

Most of the concerns and problems that the Commission examined almost seven years ago still haunt math and science education today. We cannot possibly consider where we find ourselves in 2007 as the progress that the Glenn Commission envisioned as they deliberated, debated and challenged each other to collaborate on the findings and recommendations of their report. In spite of their best efforts to “set the stage for advancement in mathematics and science for the next thirty years” we find ourselves very much where we were in 1999 when the Commission began this important endeavor.

I encourage you to read the report, and judge for yourself. I have included a brief summary excerpted from the report here, but caution readers that the report is worth reading from cover to cover. It contains insight we would have been wise to heed then, but can no longer be apathetic to now.

Like the ancient Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time is today.” We failed to plant that tree seven years ago, so we need to start planting that tree now. We don't have even one moment to waste.

*Selected Excerpts from the Letter of Transmittal

Before It’s Too Late*
A Report to the Nation from The National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century

September 27, 2007

John Glenn, Commission Chairman

This report makes only a few straightforward points, but it makes them urgently and insistently.

First, at the daybreak of this new century and millennium, the Commission is convinced that the future well-being of our nation and people depends not just on how well we educate our children generally, but on how well we educate them in mathematics and science specifically.

Times have changed. In an integrated, global economy, whose key components are increasingly knit together in an interdependent system of relationships, will our children be able to compete?

Second, it is abundantly clear from the evidence already at hand that we are not doing the job that we should do—or can do—in teaching our children to understand and use ideas from these fields. Our children are falling behind; they are simply not “world-class learners” when it comes to mathematics and science.

We are failing to capture the interest of our youth for scientific and mathematical ideas. We are not instructing them to the level of competence they will need to live their lives and work at their jobs productively.

Third, after an extensive, in-depth review of what is happening in our classrooms, the Commission has concluded that the most powerful instrument for change, and therefore the place to begin, lies at the very core of education—with teaching itself.

We are of one mind in our belief that the way to interest children in mathematics and science is through teachers who are not only enthusiastic about their subjects, but who are also steeped in their disciplines and who have the professional training—as teachers—to teach those subjects well.

Fourth, we believe that committing ourselves to reach three specific goals can go far in bringing about the basic changes we need. These goals go directly to issues of quality, quantity, and an enabling work environment for teachers of mathematics and science.

The task to which we call the American people is therefore not an easy one.

We are just as strongly convinced that the downstream cost of not turning this
problem around will be exponentially higher than the cost of beginning to solve
it now.

As our children move toward the day when their decisions will be the ones shaping a new America, will they be equipped with the mathematical and scientific tools needed to meet those challenges and capitalize on those opportunities?

These are our children, and the choice is ours. We know what we have to do; the time is now—before it’s too late.

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