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Education and Social Issues

Timeout for Child Policy

ęPhotoDisc Family life in the United States has changed dramatically in the past few decades. More parents with infants and preschool-aged children are working than ever before, and more young children are being cared for by adults other than their parents. Yet, when important scientific advances from almost 50 years of research could be used to develop better policies and practices regarding children and families, such knowledge is frequently dismissed or ignored, according to two recent reports from the National Academies.

The nation should re-examine policies that affect young children and bolster its investments in their well-being, says a committee of the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine in its report From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. The president should establish a task force to review the entire portfolio of public investments in child care and early childhood education. The group's final product should be a 10-year plan that focuses on ways to improve the quality of care in a range of settings, and addresses the needs of children with developmental impairments or disabilities, as well as those with chronic health conditions.

Early relationships are especially critical to a child's development. Federal policy-makers should recognize the importance of strong early bonds by expanding coverage of the Family and Medical Leave Act to all working parents, the committee says. Policy-makers also should extend the amount of time that welfare recipients with infant children are excused from work, and explore ways to financially support low-income parents who take family leave, since even a temporary loss of earnings can be a hardship.

Children's social and emotional needs should receive investments and attention similar to those devoted to their academic advancement. For example, scientific evidence shows that even very young children are capable of experiencing deep anguish and grief in response to trauma, loss, and personal rejection, the report says. But many early childhood education and child-care programs have failed to put such findings to use.

Additionally, society ought to place greater value on those who care for children when their parents are not available, the report says. Major sources of funding for child care and early education should set aside money to support initiatives aimed at increasing the skills, pay, and benefits of child-care professionals.

In fact, children age two to five who attend well-planned, high-quality preschool programs tend to learn more and are better prepared to successfully master the complex demands of formal schooling, says another Research Council committee in its report Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers. However, most preschool programs do not take advantage of scientific advancements in the understanding of how children's minds develop, and of new knowledge about effective methods of educating young children.

Young children who live in poverty, whose mothers have little or no formal education, or who live in other circumstances that place them at greater risk of failure in school are much more likely to succeed if they attend good preschools, the committee says. The federal government should fund quality preschool programs for all children who are at such risk.

Promoting excellence in education for all children calls for a major investment in the training of those who work with young children. These teachers should have a bachelor's degree along with specialized education related to early childhood, the committee says. Achieving this goal will require substantial public and private support and incentives, such as scholarships and loan programs, and compensation commensurate with the expectations of college graduates. In addition, teacher education programs should demand a mastery of information on the pedagogy of preschool-aged children, as well as more specific knowledge of the development of children's cognitive, social, emotional, and language skills.

While no single curriculum or educational approach can be identified as best, the most successful programs specify goals and integrate a broad range of subjects -- such as mathematics, science, and reading. State agencies and the U.S. departments of Education and Health and Human Services should fund efforts to develop and test curricula that incorporate what is known about learning and thinking in the early years -- including companion assessment tools and teacher guides, the committee says.

All states should develop standards for early childhood programs, such as class size and teacher-student ratios; guidelines for how schools should interact with parents and caretakers; specific teaching goals, content, and methods; and assessments for teacher improvement. These standards should recognize the variability in how young children develop. And states also should establish clearly defined job descriptions for early childhood teachers -- which at a minimum would include teaching assistants, teachers, and supervisors -- with differentiated pay levels.

From Neurons to Neighborhoods was funded by the National Research Council, Institute of Medicine, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Education, Commonwealth Fund, Irving B. Harris Foundation, Heinz Endowments, and Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Eager to Learn was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the Spencer Foundation, and the Foundation for Child Development.

Enhancing Education for Those Who Teach

International comparisons in science and mathematics achievement have shown U.S. students to be lagging behind their peers in other industrialized countries. This achievement gap has become a serious rallying point for parents, educators, and policy-makers. As a result, education initiatives often focus on improving student performance. But few factors are as important to a child's education as teachers who know and teach their subjects well, says a committee of the National Research Council in its report Educating Teachers of Science, Mathematics, and Technology: New Practices for the New Millennium. School districts and institutions of higher learning should join forces to establish a system that offers a rigorous and comprehensive education for both current and prospective teachers of K-12 science, mathematics, and technology.

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Teacher education in these subjects needs to become a career-long process that should stress continuous intellectual and professional growth. To that end, partnerships among school districts, community colleges, and four-year colleges or universities should be established to foster a greater sense of professionalism among K-12 teachers, the committee recommends. For example, an integrated academic-advising network could be created to encourage more high school and college students to consider careers in science or mathematics education. University-based scientists and mathematicians could use partnerships as an opportunity to help K-12 teachers master the same tools used to enhance teaching and learning in university classrooms. And experienced teachers who participate in these programs could provide mentoring and professional guidance to their less-experienced colleagues.

Colleges and universities should take the lead in providing experienced K-12 teachers of science, mathematics, and technology with coordinated professional-development programs, to boost teachers' understanding of these subjects and of recent findings in cognitive science, pedagogy, and related fields. Currently, school districts' training opportunities often consist of a mix of courses and activities that have little effect on the quality of mathematics and science instruction.

Another concern is the growing challenge school districts face in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers for these subjects. Federal, state, and local governments should offer financial incentives such as low-interest student loans and extra pay to attract teachers, the committee says. In addition, each member of these educational partnerships should create line items in their institutional budgets specifically for a shared fund dedicated to these partnerships. Moreover, administrators in higher education and school superintendents should consider pooling money that they now spend to support individual teacher-education programs, to make the most of training dollars.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Putting the Emphasis on HIV Prevention

U.S. efforts to slow the spread of HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS -- have stemmed the rapid growth of the epidemic in this country, but the number of new infections remains unacceptably high. A national strategy that focuses on better tracking of HIV infections and funding the most effective prevention programs could significantly cut the number of new infections, says a committee of the Institute of Medicine in its report No Time to Lose: Getting More From HIV Prevention.

Although there has been a dramatic decline in the number of new AIDS cases in the past 15 years among men who have sex with men, the number of new cases among women, minorities, and adolescents has increased considerably. Keeping up with such shifts in the epidemic requires a better tracking system and a proactive approach to prevention -- one that can deliver more effective prevention services to those at the greatest risk of becoming infected, the committee says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should create a national surveillance system to identify new HIV infections, enabling public health officials to track where the epidemic is going instead of focusing solely on where it has been. But rather than trying to count every newly infected person, the committee recommends an approach that would estimate the number of new infections by testing a statistically valid sample of those at the highest risk. These individuals would be drawn from sites such as clinics for substance-abuse treatment, family planning, and tuberculosis -- where at-risk people are likely to seek care.

Federal funding for HIV prevention currently reflects the number of AIDS cases reported in specific populations and geographical areas. While this approach may be useful for allocating funds for treatment, it is inappropriate for prevention services. Funding decisions should focus on preventing as many new HIV infections as possible. And routine evaluations of HIV-prevention programs should be conducted to determine their cost-effectiveness. The committee estimates that better allocation of resources to the most effective programs could reduce new HIV infections by as much as 30 percent annually.

In addition, laws and policies that prevent the use of proven strategies to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS should be abolished, the committee says. For example, federal, state, and local policies that require public funds to be used for abstinence-only sex education should be rescinded. The federal government has appropriated $250 million to be spent over five years for abstinence-only programs -- without any evidence that the approach works. Comprehensive sex education and condom availability, however, have been shown to reduce the risk of HIV without promoting sexual activity. Federal and state barriers to the adoption of clean-needle programs for drug users also should be lifted because there is clear evidence that these programs avert new HIV infections without increasing the level of substance abuse.

The study was sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Better Conditions for Postdoctoral Scholars

ęPictor Since the 1960s, U.S. universities and other research organizations have relied on a growing population of postdoctoral scholars to carry out research endeavors. Fueled by this human capital, the nation has developed one of the most robust research enterprises in the world. But if the United States wants to remain a global leader in science and engineering, then the employment conditions for these postdoctoral scholars need to be significantly improved, says a committee of the National Academies in Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies.

Postdocs -- scientists or engineers who have recently earned a doctorate and are pursuing more training in their profession or learning a new specialty -- typically work in academia, government, industry, or private research institutions under the guidance of an adviser to gain additional experience. While most postdocs value their experiences and the opportunity to do rewarding research, many of them are dissatisfied with their situations. They often receive embarrassingly low pay and meager benefits, and have uncertain status in university settings since they are not faculty, staff, or students. Many receive no clear statement of the conditions of their appointments and have no place to go to determine appropriate expectations or take grievances.

The committee sets forth several guiding principles for the postdoctoral experience. First and foremost, it should be viewed as an apprenticeship with the purpose of gaining important skills that advance the postdoc's professional career. Second, these scholars should receive appropriate compensation, benefits, and recognition for their contributions to research. Third, to ensure that postdoctoral appointments are beneficial to all concerned, everyone involved should agree on a clear and mutual understanding of the nature and purpose of the appointment.

Institutional recognition and status should be awarded commensurate with the contributions of postdocs to the research enterprise, the committee says. For example, postdocs should be assured access to health insurance and to institutional services. Distinct policies and standards also should be developed for postdocs -- especially at universities, where these policies can be integrated with those already in place for students and faculty.

In addition, the total time spent as a postdoc should be about five years, the guide says, so that these scholars are able to assume professional-level positions within a reasonable amount of time.

The guide was funded by the National Research Council, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the Sloan Foundation.

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