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

 Symposium Main Page


 Current Paper Sections
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  


Back to the Top












  Symposium Main Page


Center's Home Page  


Back to the Top


Email questions or comments to

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

Was Curriculum Reform in the Sputnik Era a Failure?

Educational reform is not a pass or fail phenomenon. Every reform effort contributes to the overall development and continuous improvement of the educational system. The educational community and the public learn from the experience. It is also the case that many hold the misconception that a particular reform will, once and for all time, fix our educational problems. Reformers of the Sputnik era, therefore, did not fail. Although the reformers made mistakes and the programs had weaknesses, the approaches they used, the groups they formed, and the programs they developed have all had a positive and lasting influence on American education. Reports in the late 1970s indicated that the curriculum programs had broad impact. The new programs were being used extensively and commercial textbooks had incorporated these approaches (Weiss, 1978; Helgeson, Blosser & Howe, 1978). For example, in the academic year 1976/77 almost 60% of school districts were using one or more of the federally funded programs in grades 7 through 12; and 30% of school districts reported using at least one program in elementary schools. Reviews of the effect of science curricula on student performance indicated that the programs were successful, (i.e., student achievement was higher in Sputnik-era programs than with traditional curriculum) especially the BSCS programs (Shymansky, Kyle, Alport, 1982; 1983).

Mathematics presented a different situation. Mathematicians criticized the new programs because the content was too abstract and neglected significant applications; teachers criticized the programs because they were too difficult to teach; and, parents criticized the new math because they worried that their children would not develop fundamental computational skills. Although 30% of districts reported using NSF supported mathematics programs in the early 1970s, only 9% reported using NSF programs in 1976/77. Most important, mathematics teachers supported this change from Sputnik era programs back to basic curricular.

Another often unrecognized outcome of the Sputnik era was the birth of educational groups that specialized in development of instructional materials. Some of the groups continue today, for example, Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, Lawrence Hall of Sciences, and Educational Development Center. Further, new groups that serve a similar educational function have emerged since the Sputnik era, for example the National Science Resources Center (NSRC) and Technical Education Resources Center (TERC).

The Sputnik era had other indirect, but important effects on the individuals and the educational system. Over my years in science education, especially while working at BSCS, I have had numerous individuals tell about the influence a particular science program, for example the BSCS Green Version, had on their life. Some of these individuals are now scientists, science educators, or science teachers. Many are not. They are citizens who have an interest in science. The latter being an important goal of science and mathematics education.

A not insignificant influence from the Sputnik era is the many classroom activities and lessons that infuse science and mathematics education. For example, the ESS program produced activities on “Batteries and Bulbs” and “Mystery Powders.” These, and many other are used in classrooms, undergraduate teacher education, and professional development workshops. Though not as nationally prominent as achievement scores, we did affect some changes in the teaching and learning of science and mathematics.

I think it is quite significant that senior scientists, mathematicians, and engineers worked along with teachers and other educators in this reform. They set a precedent for current and future reforms of education. It is also significant that many educators, for example, those responsible for teacher education, were not directly involved in the reform and were slow to support it through revision of programs for certification and licensure, professional workshops for teachers, and undergraduate courses for future teachers.

The Sputnik era continued into the early 1970s. If I had to indicate an end of the era, it would be 1976. Man-A Course of Study (MACOS) an anthropology program developed with NSF funds, came under scrutiny and wide spread attack from conservative critics who objected to the subject matter (Dow, 1991). The combined forces of House subcommittee hearings, NSF internal review, and the Government Accounting Office investigation of the financial relationships between NSF and the developers, signaled the end of the MACOS program and symbolized the end of an era of curriculum reform.

What Have We Learned?

[Home] [Directories] [Publications] [Search] [Site Map] [About] [President's Corner] [Employment] [Browse] [Feedback]

 Copyright 1997 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.