The Sputnik Era: Why is This Educational Reform Different From All Other Reforms?
Rodger W. Bybee
Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education
National Research Council
Editor's note: The following two articles are taken from talks presented at the symposium Reflecting on Sputnik: Linking the Past, Present, and Future of Educational Reform, hosted by the Center for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education of the National Academy of Sciences. They have been edited in order to fit this newsletter, and are being reprinted here by permission of the National Academy of Sciences. The full text of the talks, along with others presented at the symposium, can be found online, to which the interested reader is encouraged to turn. In particular, the editor has taken the regrettable step of removing the references from these articles in order to save space. The extensive reference lists can of course also be found at the NAS website listed above.
At a recent meeting of science teachers, a colleague who was chairing the panel, asked me her favorite question about the current reform of science and mathematics education, "Why is this educational reform different from all other reforms?" October 4, 1997, the 40th anniversary of Sputnik, presents the opportunity for educators to ask how the Sputnik era was different from other reforms. In this essay I use the Sputnik era to illuminate aspects of educational reform that have implications for the contemporary period.
The educational reform of the 1950s and 1960s was already in progress when the Soviet Union placed Sputnik in orbit. However, Sputnik still played a significant role in educational reform. It has become a historical turning point. For the public, it symbolized a threat to American security, to our superiority in science and technology, and to our progress and political freedom. In short, the United States perceived itself as scientifically, technologically, militarily, and economically weak. As a result, educators, scientists, and mathematicians broadened and accelerated educational reform, the public understood and supported the effort, and the policy makers increased federal funding.
What is sometimes referred to as the "Golden Age" of science and mathematics education began in the 1950s with development of new programs that eventually became known by their acronyms. Science programs included the Physical Science Study Committee, known as PSSC Physics; the Chemical Education Materials Study, known as Chem Study; the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, known as BSCS biology; the Earth Sciences Curriculum Project, known as ESCP earth science. At the elementary level, there was the Elementary Science Study, known as ESS; the Science Curriculum Improvement Study, known as SCIS, and Science-A Process Approach, known as S-APA.
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.
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 schools (on the grounds that federal aid would lead to federal control) the 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.
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.
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." 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.
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?
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. 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.
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).
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. 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?
Examination of the Sputnik era reveals that it had both similarities and differences from other educational reforms. Some observations are worth noting for reform minded individuals and groups. Following are several lessons that we can draw from the experience.
First, replacement of school science and mathematics programs is difficult at best, and probably impossible. Although leaders in the Sputnik era used terms like "revision" and "reform" the intention was to replace school science and mathematics programs. Their zeal and confidence was great. In some sense they approached the reform as a "field of dreams." That is, if they built good curriculum materials then science teachers would adopt them, thus replacing traditional programs. Such an approach, however, confronts pervasive institutional resistance, raises the personal concerns of teachers, and alarms the public. The need to understand what happened in the Sputnik era contributed to research on curriculum implementation, concerns of teachers, and educational change.
The lesson here is the importance of using our knowledge about educational change. Not only are new programs important, other components of the educational system must themselves change and provide support for the implementation of educational innovations. Those components include peer teachers, administration, school boards, the community, and a variety of local, state, and national policies.
Second, reluctance of teachers increases as the innovations vary from current programs and practices and they lack political, social, and educational support. Teachers had difficulty with the content and pedagogy of new programs such as PSSC, BSCS, CHEM Study, SCIS, and ESS. Lacking educational support within their system and experiencing political criticism from outside of education, they sought security by staying with or returning to the traditional programs.
The educational lesson here centers on the importance of both initial and ongoing professional development and support for the new programs and practices. In addition, educational reformers have to recognize that changes in social and political forces has an effect on school programs.
Third, exclusion of those in the larger science and mathematics education community, e.g., teacher educators, science education researchers, and the public contributed to the slow acceptance and implementation of the programs, reduced understanding by those entering the profession, and afforded less than adequate professional development for teachers in the classroom.
Here we learned to involve more than teachers. Education is a system consisting of many different components. One important component consists of those who have some responsibility for teacher preparation, workshops and professional development, and the implementation of school science and mathematics programs. It is best to work from a perspective that attempts to unify and coordinate efforts among teachers, educators, and scientists all of whom have strengths and weaknesses in their respective contribution to reform efforts.
Fourth, realities of state and local school districts went unrecognized. Support from federal agencies and national foundations freed developers from the political and educational constraints of state and local agencies and the power and influence of commercial publishers.
This lesson directs attention to a broader, more systemic, view of education, one that includes a variety of policies. One view of education suggests it involves polices, programs, and practices. Usually, individuals, organizations, and agencies contribute in various ways in the formulation of policy, development of programs, or the implementation of practices, however, there must be coordination and consistency among the various efforts. Designing and developing new programs, such as we did in the Sputnik era, without attending to a larger educational context to support those programs and changing classroom practices to align with the innovative program surely marginalizes the success of the initiative.
Fifth, restricting initiatives to curriculum for specific groups of students, i.e., science and mathematically prone and college-bound students, resulted in criticism of Sputnik-era reforms as inappropriate for other students such as the average and the disadvantaged. To the degree school systems implemented the new programs teachers found that the materials were inappropriate for some populations of students and too difficult for others. Restricting policies or targeting programs opens the door to criticism on the grounds of equity. Proposing initiatives for ALL students also often results in criticism from both those who maintain there is a need for a specific program for those inclined toward science and mathematics and those who argue that programs for all discriminate against the disadvantaged.
Examining the nature and lessons of Sputnik era reforms, as well as those that came before and after, clearly demonstrates that educational reforms differ. Although this may seem obvious, we have not always paid attention to some of the common themes and general lessons that may benefit the steady work of improving science, mathematics, and technology education. Stated succinctly, those lessons are: use what we know about educational change; include all the key players in the educational community; align policies, programs, and practices with the stated purposes of education; work on improving education for all students; and, attend to the support and continuous professional development of classroom teachers, since they are the most essential resource in the system of science and mathematics education.