FEd April 1998 Newsletter - The Sputnik Era

April 1998



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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 on the Internet at www2.nas.edu/center/index.cfm, 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.


Rodger W. Bybee
Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education
National Research Council

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.




George E. DeBoer

Colgate University



Forty years ago, the Soviet Union launched the earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik, an event that energized a reform movement in science and mathematics education that had actually begun several years earlier. In the mid 1950s the National Research Council (NRC) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as various professional organizations in science and mathematics, sponsored meetings and conferences to discuss ways to revise the science and mathematics curriculum. The interest in reform was stimulated by two related concerns. First, World War II raised questions about the adequacy of our technical expertise, especially vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in the postwar years, and it raised questions about the quality of our educational system for preparing individuals for work in technical fields. Second, progressive education, which had enjoyed the support of the educational community for most of the first half of the 20th century, was being mercilessly attacked during the late 1940s and early 1950s for being anti-intellectual and for having failed to transmit the cultural heritage to the youth of this country.

According to the critics, science and mathematics content was badly out of date and tended to be presented in an encyclopedic format, as bits and pieces of information to be memorized, or computational skills to be mastered, without developing a sense of the relationships between broader ideas. The subjects were not presented as coherent, integrated, conceptual wholes but as collections of fragments. A second concern was that the older courses misrepresented the nature of science and mathematics by failing to portray the essential character of rational inquiry in generating knowledge. These subjects were treated as sets of stable facts and principles, and adequate attention was not given to the historical development of the subject or the human dimension of scientific and mathematical inquiry. Finally, the connections that were made between scientific principles and social and technological applications in the name of personal and social relevance were seen as trivial and were thought to diminish the intellectual quality of the courses.

What We Have Learned

We believe now that it is possible for education to be both rigorous and student-centered at the same time. Curriculum reformers of the 1960s were responding to a barrage of conservative criticism of progressive, child-centered education. Unfortunately, learning the structure of mathematics or chemistry or physics meant learning the discipline the way that scientists understood the subject. Today curriculum reformers present a logically organized outline of the disciplines, but they also take a much more student-centered approach to teaching and learning. The image is of students and teachers working together in setting goals, planning instruction, designing and managing the learning environment, and assessing the learning outcomes

Our ideas about inquiry have also changed since the term was so prominently used during the curriculum reform movement of the 1960s. At that time the word "inquiry" was used to describe both a significant aspect of the nature of science as well as a specific approach to teaching. In this latter sense, inquiry was synonymous with "discovery" and "inductive" approaches to teaching and learning. During the reform movement of the 1960s there was the tendency to define inquiry quite precisely in terms of a set of process skills, often with the implication that these skills could be learned independently of the content of science. Today, inquiry still receives serious attention in the NRC's National Standards but it is presented as a much more general process of investigation, both as conducted by scientists and by students in the classroom. Inquiry means asking questions and attempting to answer them through various means of investigation.

Equity issues are also prominent in the 1990s approach to curriculum reform in a way that they were not in the 1960s. In the postwar years, gifted education was thought of as a way to solve the problem of shortages of qualified personnel in technical fields. Giftedness was seen as a valuable national resource that was being underutilized. Today, however, there seems to be a genuine interest in providing a high quality education with explicitly high standards for everyone. In keeping with this equity orientation, the National Science Education Standards does not differentiate goals for differing ability students. A common criticism of the curriculum reformers of the 1960s is that they did not sufficiently consider the need to postpone abstract learning until the student was capable of dealing with such intellectual complexity. Today, given the influence of Piagetian ideas, stages of intellectual development and readiness for learning are given much more attention.

Even though there are significant differences in the way we look at science, mathematics, and technology education today compared with 40 years ago, many of the ideas that were important then are still important today. One is the idea that "less is more." Numerous attempts were made during this century to organize content into conceptually integrated packages that could be studied in depth so as to avoid the fragmentation that results when facts and information are presented in encyclopedic fashion.

A second idea that was prominent both in the 1960s and today is that leaning is an active process. During the first half of the century, activity-based education tended toward the solution of practical and socially relevant problems that were of interest to the students. During the period of NSF-reform, students were expected to practice the kinds of activities that scientists engaged in because this was seen as an effective way for them to master content and because it would provide them with an accurate view of the process of scientific investigation.

Where are we headed?

In many ways it seems that we are very much on track in our thinking about science, mathematics, and technology education. Educational leaders have taken the best ideas of the progressive era and the Sputnik era and modified them to produce statements about education that speak to a rigorous engagement with organized content within a context that is sympathetic to issues of personal and social relevance and to student interest. But more needs to be done. In the space remaining I would like to point to some areas of science, mathematics, and technology education that still need improvement and how we might achieve our goals.

In the August, 1997 issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Bill Kyle addresses the need to improve undergraduate science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education at the postsecondary level. He refers to two recent reports: one is the NRC's (1996) From analysis to action: Undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, and the other is the NSF's (1996) Shaping the future: New expectations for undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Both reports note the critical but unmet need for all college students to acquire "literacy in these subjects by direct experience with the methods and processes of inquiry".

Our failure to achieve the important goal of scientific literacy and to impart functional knowledge to our students is as important now as it has ever been. There is today a very significant anti-science attitude in this country and a growing belief in the claims of pseudo-science.

The impact we are having in developing an understanding of the nature and role of science in our world is extremely limited. Neither schools, nor the mass media, nor the scientific community itself has been able to present science so that it is understood and appreciated by the general citizenry. I would like to make four suggestions, each of which point to what I will call a more humanistic approach to science, mathematics, and technology education. I propose a humanistic approach because I believe it is the only way to genuinely engage students in the study of science, mathematics, and technology so that they become knowledgeable about their importance in our world.

1. The study of science, mathematics, and technology must be made more enjoyable and interesting.

Science, mathematics, and technology education must be made much more enjoyable and interesting if we are to have any success at all in our efforts at scientific literacy. Science is perceived by many to be distasteful and hard to learn. I believe it is distasteful to many people because the approach of science is to analyze our experience with the world into parts and particles that have very little meaning for the way we actually live our lives. Thus, science is often criticized as being coldly analytical and objective, and without passion. Science, mathematics, and technology must be presented in ways that make sense to people and connect with the actual lives they live.

2. Science, mathematics, and technology education should be used for personal intellectual development and not to accomplish the society's political goals.

Instead of using the educational system to accomplish specific instrumental goals of the society, a humanistic approach maximizes personal intellectual development. Prominent political goals in this country have included the desire to achieve military and economic supremacy in the world and to be first on international tests of science and mathematics knowledge.

It is one thing for a free democratic society to compel its students to attend school in order to give them a broad general education that will help them to engage with the world in an intelligent way, to recognize their responsibilities to each other and to the maintenance of the natural world, and even to learn what we think it means to lead a virtuous life. But it is something very different for that society to educate these students to achieve specific nationalistic aims. Regardless of our personal ambitions for national supremacy or for global democracy, we must always keep in mind that the only legitimate goal that we can have for our students is their own personal growth as it relates to the world in which they live. Their autonomous development is what will make them true citizens in a free society.

3. Teachers and local school districts should have the autonomy to interpret broadly stated aims of education in terms of local conditions and the cultural norms of the community.

Education in the United States grew up around a rational, technical, management model of curriculum and instruction whose purpose was the efficient transformation of society. Since the early years of the 20th century, educators have attempted to specify in great detail what is important to know and how to get students to learn it so that societal goals can be met. Teachers are asked to take on the role of educational technicians whose responsibility is to present the curriculum package and to measure its outcomes. When expected learning outcomes are not achieved, teachers are blamed for not delivering the curriculum to the students or for not demanding more of the students. There are two problems with this approach to teaching and learning. The first is that it restricts the choices that students can make. If everything is specified and "essential," there is little room for choice on their part. The second is that it fails to make adequate use of the knowledge and expertise of individual teachers by limiting their autonomy to act as responsible professionals.

We have let go of a lot of what we consider essential knowledge in recent years, but we need to let go of even more. There is simply too much to choose from. There are hundreds of versions of science courses that could be taught in high school, each with a different approach and focus, but each legitimate in its own way. We must take the "less is more" philosophy seriously and get to the place where only the broadest outlines of the subjects are considered essential. Individual teachers and school districts should then have the freedom to address these broad goals in the way that they feel is most suitable for their own students.

4. We should make greater use of student-directed learning.

With respect to students' participation in their own learning, the NRC's Standards discusses at considerable length a model of shared responsibility for teaching and learning in their chapter on "Science Teaching Standards." According to this model, teachers begin with the questions that students have and build instruction around these questions jointly with them. This will insure intellectual engagement in a way that coercion never will. At all levels of education, students represent a rich resource of life experiences that they can share as well as creative ideas about how teaching and learning can effectively occur. Given responsibility for organizing the classroom, they can devise strategies that work for them. Student-directed learning is more than student-centered learning. It gives students, in cooperation with the teacher, the freedom to organize the classroom and to decide on the content that they are to learn.

In summary, a humanistic approach to science education grants students and teachers the freedom they need to grow together toward a deeper understanding of the role of science in our contemporary world. It offers an awareness of the methods of science, a sense of the enormous influence that science and technology have had on the physical and intellectual landscape of the modem world, an understanding of some of the major theories that have been offered to explain the phenomena that we observe in the natural world, and an appreciation for the limits as well as the power of scientific thinking to describe human experience. A humanistic approach to science education presents a particular way of thinking and the knowledge that has been generated by those methods. It is not fragmented. It is holistic and it is organic. It always comes back to the big questions. It is humanistic because its primary interest is in how studying the natural world and the developments that have come from it affect all of humanity.

Developing and Sustaining Leadership in Science, Mathematics and Technology Education

How can we build leadership to accomplish an agenda like this? There is a tendency when speaking of leadership in education to interpret it as the ability to implement reform, to educate teachers and administrators concerning some new program and the program's philosophy so that it can be effectively delivered to students. Staff development, organizational development, involvement of parents and other community members, and the reform of teacher preparation programs are cited as the tasks of educational leaders. Although these are important skills for leaders in education to possess, I believe there are additional qualities that should characterize educational leaders as well.

1. Leaders in science, mathematics, and technology education should be broadly and liberally educated.

2. Leaders in science, mathematics, and technology education should be critical and skeptical in their own work and model these attitudes for others.

3. Leaders in science, mathematics, and technology education should think of education as a life long pursuit, both for themselves and those they are trying to lead.


The Sputnik era was a distinctive period in the history of science education in the United States. It is often considered a time of conservative reform because of its emphasis on rigor and discipline as opposed to the more progressive child-centered approaches that both preceded and followed it. It is reminiscent of the science education reforms of the 1890s that were led by Harvard President and chemist, Charles Eliot, and which culminated in the report of the Committee of Ten. It also bears similarity to the spirit of reform of the early 1980s, particularly the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk. Although we can easily point to lessons that were learned during the Sputnik era, it is difficult to say how long those lessons will be remembered. Attitudes in science education seem to oscillate over time between those that favor the mastery of content as it is understood and organized by the adult mind and those that favor adapting the content of the curriculum to the particular interests of individual students. Without a clearer and more fundamental sense of what we are trying to accomplish, there is little reason to think that movement between these two distinctive ideologies will not continue in the future.

Science, mathematics, and technology educators will not achieve the success they desire until they can clearly identify the educational goals and purposes that are suitable within a free democratic society and successfully communicate that vision to teachers, administrators, and parents. I have argued here that the personal development of autonomous individuals should be the goal of educators within a democratic society. All students should receive a broad general education that will help them to engage with the world in an intelligent way and to recognize their responsibilities to each other and to the maintenance of their physical world. Our goal should be the personal development of free, rational, and independent individuals in ways that allow them to live more fully and intelligently in the world they experience and to engage thoughtfully and critically with the most important issues facing us.