Reflecting on Sputnik:  Linking the Past, Present, and Future of Educational Reform
A symposium hosted by the Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education

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Introduction.
Before Sputnik.
The Sputnik Era
What have we learned?

 

Other Papers
J. Myron Atkin
(Rodger W. Bybee)
George DeBoer
Peter Dow
Marye Anne Fox
John Goodlad
Jeremy Kilpatrick
Glenda T. Lappan
Thomas T. Liao
F. James Rutherford

 

 

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Symposium Main Page

 

 Current Paper Sections
Introduction.
Before Sputnik.
The Sputnik Era
What have we learned?

 

Other Papers
J. Myron Atkin
(Rodger W. Bybee)
George DeBoer
Peter Dow
Marye Anne Fox
John Goodlad
Jeremy Kilpatrick
Glenda T. Lappan
Thomas T. Liao
F. James Rutherford

 

 

Center's Home Page  

   

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Email questions or comments to csmeeinq@nas.edu

The Sputnik Era: Why is this Educational Reform Different from All Other Reforms? (continued)
Rodger W. Bybee, Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education, National Research Council

What Was Education Like Before Sputnik?

After World War II, debate about the quality of American education escalated. Individuals such as Admiral Hyman Rickover, and most notably Arthur Bestor, became critics of John Dewey’s ideas and the rhetoric of progressive education, especially the theme of life-adjustment. The dominant theme of the critics was BACK--back to fundamentals, back to basics, back to drill and memorization, and back to facts. Bestor called for a return to past practices and argued for a restoration of learning as the theme for reform (Cremin, 1961; Ravitch, 1983). Several observations are worth noting about the criticism of progressive ideas and emergence of Sputnik-spurred programs. First, such educational criticism was not new, for example, in the late 1800s critics said that students were being “spoon-fed,” the curriculum was too easy, and music and art took too much time from fundamentals. Second, some of what critics such as Bestor wrote included a serious distortion of facts. Further, the critics seldom appealed to evidence in support of their arguments; they relied on personal opinion and powerful rhetoric. Third, educators did not respond to the critics. There is no clear explanation for the educators’ silence. Recall, however, that this was the Cold War and the period of McCarthyism, so they may have been fearful to say anything. It is also the case that Progressive Education was on the decline and in its final throes. In 1955 the Progressive Education Association closed its doors, and two years later the journal Progressive Education folded. So those disposed to counter the critics may have thought it would make no difference. Regardless, educators remained silent. Fourth, life-adjustment education did not convey a message that students would learn basic concepts of mathematics, science and other disciplines. Progressive educators introduced the term “life adjustment” to describe programs for secondary schools that built on the “important needs of youth” expressed in the Educational Policy Commission’s report, Education for All American Children (1951). Life-adjustment education focused on the needs of students in “general tracks” and proposed a curriculum of functional experiences in areas such as the practical arts, family living, and civic participation. Such rhetoric about the curriculum seemed to neglect aspects of the disciplines that critics thought vital. Finally, progressive educators lacked (probably never developed) public support for their ideas while the critics opinions had a natural appeal to the public’s perception of what constitutes a good education. This is probably explained by the critics’ appeal to basic themes such as “restoration of learning,” which implied students were not learning anything. The critics’ ideas and recommendations were aligned with the educational experiences the public had when they were in school and represented activities parents knew and could do with their children.

In the fall of 1957, the debate about American education reached a turning point. Sputnik resolved the debate in favor of those who recommended greater emphasis on higher academic standards, especially in science and mathematics. Sputnik made clear to the American public that it was in the national interest to change education, in particular the curriculum in mathematics and science. Although they had previously opposed federal aid to schools¾on the grounds that federal aid would lead to federal control¾the public required a change in American education. After Sputnik the public demand for a federal response was unusually high and Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958.

Another important point: Curriculum reformers of the Sputnik era shared a common vision. Across disciplines and within the educational community, reformers generated enthusiasm for their initiatives. They would replace the current content of topics and information with a curriculum based on the conceptually fundamental ideas and the modes of scientific inquiry and mathematical problem solving. The reform would replace textbooks with instructional materials that included films, activities, and readings. No longer would schools’ science and mathematics programs emphasize information, terms, and applied aspects of content. Rather, students would learn the structures and procedures of science and mathematics disciplines.

The reformers’ vision of replacing the curriculum, combined with united political and economic support for educational improvement, stimulated the reform. The Eisenhower administration (1953-1961) provided initial economic support and the enthusiasm of the Kennedy administration (1961-1963) moved the nation forward on reform initiatives. While the Soviet Union had provided Sputnik as a symbol for the problem, President Kennedy provided manned flight to the moon as America’s solution to the problem.

Reformers enjoyed financial support from both public and private sources for their curriculum projects. Federal agencies, particularly the National Science Foundation (NSF), and major philanthropic foundations, particularly Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, provided ample support for the development of new programs.

The reformers themselves represented senior scholars from prestigious institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and American Mathematical Society (AMS). They had affiliations with Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, University of Illinois, University of Maryland, and University of California. In the public’s and funders’ views, the scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who led projects during this era gave credibility and confidence that we could really achieve a revolution in American education. In 1963 Frances Keppel, then U.S. Commissioner of Education commented that “more time, talent, and money than ever before in history have been invested in pushing outward the frontiers of educational knowledge, and in the next decade or two we may expect even more significant developments” (p. 1). Keppel may have been correct about the investment and the frontiers of educational knowledge; but, in the next decade, education witnessed significant developments that changed his optimistic projection of the Sputnik-based revolution in American education.

Americans developed a new awareness as a result of the events in the 1950s. A social awareness of civil rights developed and the origins of this included the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. School Board and Governor Faubus and his refusal to allow Black students to enter Little Rock High School. In the early 1960s society increased its attention to civil rights, poverty, and an escalating war in Vietnam. Socially, we entered an era of protest that education did not escape. The titles of books from this period clearly express the educational protest--Compulsory Mis-Education (Goodman, 1964), Death at an Early Age (Kozol, 1967), Our Children are Dying (Hentoff, 1966), and How Children Fail (Holt, 1964). The criticisms of this period were many, deep, and wide. At the same time, constructive solutions were few, shallow, and narrow. Interestingly, there was a call for relevance of school programs—a call that echoed progressive ideas—although most critics did not identify them as such. Programs from the Sputnik era were included in the critics’ view of what was going on in American schools. Indeed, as the new PSSC, CHEM Study, BSCS, SCIS, ESS, and other programs were reaching students, criticisms of their elitism and lack of accommodation for disadvantaged students mounted.

Just as social and political factors had initiated and supported the Sputnik era of educational reform, in the 1960s social and political factors also arose and acted as countervailing forces to the pursuit of excellence, high academic standards, and learning the conceptual and methodological basis of science and mathematics disciplines. I should also note that in the Sputnik era political, social, and economic support combined with the enthusiasm of scholars and a single focus on replacing curriculum programs omitted what I consider a necessary aspect of educational reform--establishing policies at the state and local levels that would sustain the innovative programs in the school system.

Was Curriculum Reform in the Sputnik Era a Failure?


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