55 Years Ago, Sputnik Created An Education Revolution…For Like 5 Minutes

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” President Obama said in one of the most-quoted lines of his 2011 State of the Union address, after noting that the US has lost its advantage in science and technology.

What exactly did he mean?

On October 4, 1957, exactly 55 years ago, scientists in the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1.

This launch of the first satellite to orbit the Earth was a coup for the Soviet Union, a Communist country and America’s principal international rival in the Cold War.  The Soviets’ history-making accomplishment created both paranoia (Americans feared that the Soviets were spying on them), and concern that the Soviets had beaten Americans into space.

And so, just as Sputnik jump-started the space race, that little aluminum sphere also jolted the nation’s education system: educators quickly seized on the launch to push for more government money. The effect was huge.

In 1958, Congress approved $1 billion for the National Defense Education Act, or NDEA, the first of an alphabet soup of more than a dozen programs meant to help US students compete with the Soviets. It also involved the federal government to an unprecedented extent with all levels of American education.

In addition, the federal government took several other remarkable actions:

*  President Eisenhower established the position of Presidential Science Advisor;

*  The House and the Senate reorganized their committee structures to focus on science policy;

*  Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), charging it to create a civilian space program;

*  Congress tripled funding for the National Science Foundation to improve science education.

And at the local level: schools began focusing on gifted students, handpicking them for upper-level courses, and they also began receiving matching funds for math, science and foreign languages.

From USA Today:

Those 1960s-era “language labs” with headphones and microphones also were a direct result of Sputnik, says Peggy Kidwell, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

“That was something that was really big after Sputnik,” she says.

Baby-boomer families began buying educational toys — telescopes and plastic models of the human body. A Gilbert chemistry set that already had been on the market “sold really well” the Christmas after Sputnik, Kidwell says.

And second language instruction quickly found its way to elementary schools (a very smart move, since those youngsters are very receptive to learning another language).

That one satellite caused a revolution in American education 55 years ago, but where are we today?

There is virtually no legacy from the post-Sputnik burst of energy in the sphere of education. Ironically one effect it did have was to reinforce Americans’ fears that federal involvement in education would lead to federal control of education. (Reminder: The US does not have a national school system. In accordance with the US Constitution, the ultimate authority to create and administer education rests at the state level – an important distinction.)

So the experience of the 1950s and 1960s definitely led to the prohibition of such efforts in federal statutes — prohibitions that the Obama administration has violated in recent years by endorsing national curriculum standards and funding national tests, national curriculum frameworks and related teaching materials and lesson plans.

Ironically, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), one of the biggest federal education programs, has had a dramatic effect on science.

US students don’t know much about science, according to the results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  Many science educators believe that NCLB is to blame for these poor scores. That’s because the 2002 law has pushed the subject out of classrooms by emphasizing reading and mathematics, those areas emphasized in the high-stakes tests mandated by NCLB.

The 2009 assessment, which focused on science, found that 40 percent of high school seniors perform below the basic level in science and only 1 percent at the advanced level. Younger students did marginally better, with 29 percent of fourth-graders and 38 percent of eighth-graders falling below basic and 1 and 2 percent at the advanced level, respectively.

Worse yet, some parts of the country have taken a step backwards. In Tennessee and Louisiana, evolution and creationism are required to be taught in science classes, as if they were equal, while six other anti-evolution bills have been introduced around the country.

As for the burst of interest in foreign languages, the post-Sputnik national push has fallen back to earth. Despite this country’s ethnic diversity, Americans still place little emphasis on learning foreign languages. The overwhelming majority of Americans are monolingual. Strangely, this is in spite of the fact that a substantial proportion of Americans speak a language other than English at home. Today, the figure is about one in five.

Maybe instead of reacting in dramatic fashion to whatever happens in the world, the US should develop a solid, steady approach to education. Let’s forge our own path proactively instead of always reacting to the moves of other countries.


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Photo Credit: thinkstock


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