Orbiting the classroom

Back-to-school | Fifty years later, educators reflect on the scholastic boost launched by Sputnik

Issue: "Tough love," Aug. 18, 2007

On an autumn night at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., the Woodlawn High School Colonels slugged it out on the gridiron. Sophomore Barry Walker sat in the student section, cheering under a starry sky-until a student sitting near him pointed up.

"There's Sputnik," the other kid said, indicating what looked like an especially bright star.

Across the stands, like leaves angling toward light, face after face turned skyward. Even some of the football players on the sidelines looked up to witness a technological marvel: the first successful guided orbit of Earth by a man-made object.

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Then someone else sitting near Walker said quietly, "They're spying on us from up there."

On the night of Oct. 4, 1957, the arc of the satellite Sputnik across U.S. skies "sent a shiver through the nation," said Walker, now a science teacher at Briarwood Christian School in Birmingham. Overnight, citizens from the schoolhouse to the White House understood that America was losing the science and technology race to its arch enemy, the Soviet Union.

"Newspapers, television, and radio were full of the crisis," said James Rutherford, former director of Project 2061, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's program for reforming science education. When Sputnik launched, he was teaching high-school science in California.

"Here we were, supposedly the world's greatest superpower, and we literally couldn't get our own space program off the ground. Now we could see Sputnik in the sky and hear it beeping on the radio. We could even hear the barking of the dog, Laika, that was onboard. It was embarrassing," he said.

Galvanized by the prospect of Soviet technological dominance, Congress within months of Sputnik passed a flurry of legislation. Lawmakers boosted funding for the National Science Foundation, created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and offered federal incentives for private and university research. Also, they poured millions into science and math education. Now, 50 years later, were the education reform efforts good ones, and are they still making a difference?

Rutherford says yes-and no.

"The post-Sputnik concerns were curricular, focusing on what was being taught and how, rather than who was being taught," he said. The reform supernova that burst suddenly over educators forced them to grapple immediately with simmering pedagogical questions: Should education be "progressive" and "child-centered," or basic and discipline-centered? Who should decide what students are supposed to learn-community folks such as teachers and parents, or "experts" such as scientists and university scholars?

Since Sputnik demanded advances in science and such advances demanded scientists, the answer became experts. That launched unprecedented federal involvement in local schools, which was good before it was bad: Many of the quality-of-life comforts and technology innovations Americans enjoy today are rooted in the post-Sputnik push in science and engineering education.

But over the long haul, the resulting top-down educational structure led to low quality-and increasingly politicized schooling-at a very high price.

"For a while after Sputnik, the emphasis was on beefing up science opportunities and training for the academically gifted," said preeminent biologist Paul R. Gross. Then came Lyndon Johnson's Great Society initiative, the educational fallout from the civil-rights upheavals, and the steady leftward drift of academic intellectuals. Gross said: "That forced educational reform away from investment in achievement by the brightest and toward bringing about equality of educational outcomes across the socio-economic partitions." Up rose an army of "-isms"-environmentalism, feminism, multiculturalism, and in Gross' view, creationism-to muddy the waters of educational inquiry.

Among the most far-reaching laws Congress passed in the immediate wake of Sputnik was the National Defense Education Act, aimed at stimulating advancement in science, math, and foreign-language education.

Sputnik turned the National Science Foundation (NSF) into a major shaper of the nation's public-school science curriculum, triggering "dozens" of so-called curriculum projects, Rutherford said, all largely funded by NSF.

On the downside, he added, textbooks ballooned into huge survey-style tomes that skimmed the surface of hundreds of scientific concepts, rather than educating students thoroughly in a necessary few.

The fresh curricula began moving science education away from dry recitations of fact to the more hands-on approach that is still prevalent today. Shirley Malcom remembers the transformation. In 1957, she was a fifth-grader attending Lewis Elementary School, an all-black school in Birmingham. Science subjects were scarce, she said, and mainly involved rote memorization of natural history facts-nothing intriguing enough to turn the head of a curious 11-year-old in the direction of science.

"But Sputnik focused so much attention on what science really was, that it involved so much more beyond this collection of facts," said Malcom, now director of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general scientific society.


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