|Lessons from the Sputnik Era in Mathematics Education (continued)|
Glenda T. Lappan, Michigan State University
The NSF Strategy for Improving Mathematics and Science Education
In order to produce more scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, NSF recognized that there had to be sufficient numbers in the science and mathematics pipeline at all stages, including K-12 students. NSF was the federal agency with primary responsibility for this effort. From my perspective as a student who graduated from high school in the spring before Sputnik was launched, and whose graduate education was during the time of National Defense Education Act fellowships, what happened during the 1960s as a result of NSF and other federal agencies efforts was an amazing nationwide focus on mathematics and science education. Even in the high school in a small rural town in southern Georgia in which I taught mathematics in 1961, the mathematics teachers were delighted to have a new faculty member to ask about this new mathematics stuff that was being talked about. Imagine my chagrin to have no idea what they were talking about in spite of my brand new bachelors degree. It seemed that my undergraduate degree was obsolete, and I chose to enter a masters degree program at the University of Georgia in the summer of 1962. After a year I was encouraged to stay on for a doctorate and offered a chance to work with a psychologist on the faculty who was studying the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG) high school algebra material that was developed as a self-study, self-paced course. At last I had a first-hand seat to part of the curriculum development effort that was attempting to change the mathematical landscape in school mathematics in the U.S.
During this decade after Sputnik, NSF undertook two major kinds of activities to accomplish its goal of pumping more well-educated young people into the scientific pipeline¾improving the knowledge base of teachers of mathematics and science, and improving the curriculum materials that were used in schools for teaching mathematics and science. To improve the knowledge base of teachers NSF funded projects at institutions of higher education across the country with a level of support and intensity that exceeded anything available to teachers before or since this effort. Creative mathematics and science courses were developed. These were designed to be accessible to teachers and, at the same time to enhance greatly the mathematics and science knowledge of teachers. Many of these projects were extended intensive immersion programs that led to masters degrees in mathematics or science. The result of this effort was the development of highly qualified experienced teachers, of mathematics and science leadership for higher education institutions, and of school and state supervisory personnel. As we look from the vantage point of 40 years of history since Sputnik, the number of persons in leadership positions in mathematics and science education across the country who came out of programs such as the Academic Year Institutes and Experienced Teacher Fellowship Programs of the 50s and 60s is a testimony to the success of NSFs effort. The combined efforts of NSF institutes and NDEA funding for advanced studies dramatically increased the number of young people receiving advanced degrees in science and mathematics. Many of the new Ph.D.s in mathematics took jobs in industry.
The second aspect of NSFs strategy was to fund the development of innovative K-12 curriculum materials in mathematics, science, and social science. The stance was that with mathematically correct and demanding materials for K-12 and massive mathematics education for teachers, schools would be able to deliver to students a mathematics program that would stimulate an increase in numbers of young people who would become mathematicians as well as an increase in the general mathematical competence of the population. This massive curriculum development effort has been talked and written about in great depth during the intervening years. The label coined for these curricula, new math, has gone from indicating an exciting new school program to a label of disdain applied by conservative, basic skills proponents even today. Just to give an example of the still-existing excitement about the potential of these curricula in 1965, the first fall that I was on the faculty at Michigan State University, I was asked by the Continuing Education College to offer a television course entitled Modern Mathematics for Puzzled Parents. Many of my audience were, in fact, teachers who wanted and needed to know what was going on, but were embarrassed to admit their puzzlement.
Throughout the decade of the sixties enormous energy went into efforts to improve mathematics and science education. Mathematicians, scientists, social scientists, and psychologists became totally committed to the creation of outstanding materials to engage students in learning mathematics and science. The materials of projects such as School Mathematics Study Group excited mathematically talented young people about mathematics as a discipline. In the current group of mathematicians in their forties, many of them found their way to mathematics through these demanding new materials. At the same time, many young people and teachers found the new materials a bridge too far. The abstraction of the mathematics made the ideas extremely difficult for some to understand. The almost total lack of emphasis on application meant that some young learners, who need to build on their informal knowledge to make sense of mathematics, were not able to succeed with the new materials. Yet, the emphasis in the country on mathematics and science education put pressure on schools to require that young people study more mathematics in high school. The rumbling of a backlash was beginning.
In the 1960s, the curriculum development efforts extended to include social science. It was this latter effort that became the linchpin in the conservative backlash that discredited the curriculum efforts and caused the education activities at the NSF to decline dramatically.
Copyright 1997 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.