Amidst a cold, nuclear war, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in subculture war to see which country had the technological resources to explore space first. After a month of preparation, the Soviet Union won the race after they launched their first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into outer space on October 4, 1957. The launch of Sputnik shook the foundation of American society and created fear among the American people. Many Americans thought the Soviet Union would attack the United States at a moment notice. Congress called an emergency meeting to discuss how the launch of Sputnik compromised national security and they needed to come up with a plan to minimized national security breaches. Congress targeted the United States' education system as one of the potential areas that needed improvement. Politicians scurried to reform the education system because the men and women of Washington believed the United States lost the space race with the Soviets because the youth of the Soviet Union had surpassed America's youth in academics and intelligence. After passing the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) on September 2, 1958 , lawmakers required each state to create a new rigorous curriculum that focused on the sciences and mathematics. This new rigorous curriculum opened new career opportunities for the rising generation, but how did the launching of Sputnik really affect the United States' education system?
First stop, how did Sputnik affect the family? What children take to school with them usually depends on what happens in their home environment. After the launch of Sputnik, the family unit changed. First, more mothers traded in the apron for working smocks, which created a need for a before school and after school daycare system (Schutz Slobodin 263). This change in the family unit disrupted family roles and produced new problems for educators. The new science-mathematics based curriculum did not prepare teachers to handle family problems, but parents expected their children's teachers to deal with their children's problems. Parents soon thought of schools as institute of learning and as a daycare for their children. Second, the new emphasis on ethnicity created more problems in the family unit because integration fostered hate among the majority and rebellion among the minorities, especially African American families. According to Schutz Slobodin, the post-Sputnik education reform did not prepare curriculum specialists for the evolving family unit (262). As a result, teachers received more pressure from parents, school districts, and politicians because not only did teachers have to deal with the newly arising family problems, they had to restructure their curriculum to accommodate a diverse student body as soon as possible.
The shimmering effects of Sputnik quickly moved from the family unit to the classroom. Politicians wanted to blame someone for the mishap of the Unites States' satellite launching program, so they used the education system and schools as the scapegoat (Bracey, 64). As a result, Congress passed the NDEA to fix the education problem by granting scientists and university professors federal funds to create a new rigorous curriculum in the sciences and mathematics. According to Mary Campbell Gallagher, one of the few remaining reformers from this movement, the NDEA expanded federal grants to help improve teachers' performance, create new standardized tests, purchase school equipment, and provide guidance counseling to promoting higher education opportunities (284). Thanks to the NDEA, the Sputnik generation received several dozen new textbooks on science and math. In addition, schools had the ability to supply teachers with new teaching tools such as videos, new technological equipment, and supplemental materials that engage students in the new rigorous curriculum. Politicians spent 1.4 billion dollars for educational research and curriculum reform. A decade later, the amount of money used for educational research and curriculum improvement increased six fold. Creating scientists became the primary goal of the curriculum reform. Politicians believed if they forced teachers to tailor their curriculum to teach their students to think scientifically (261).
The science curriculum required students to take courses in biological sciences and physical sciences. According to Gallagher, the scientists and professors of the Sputnik education reform movement wanted to create textbooks that allowed students to explore the world of science the same way scientists did when making new discoveries (281). In addition to in depth content of the new textbooks, publishers included newly improved laboratory experiments. In other words, they created another way to make students think and act like scientists. For example, if a student took a chemistry course, the student had to think like a chemist. This formality created by the natural science curriculum disrupted youths from following the American Dream to following the government's scientist pilot program. Eventually, the science curriculum made its way into other subject matter, such as English. As a scientist, students had to learn to keep journals to learn how to go about the documentation process. How did astronomy, the studies of the cosmos, fit into the science curriculum? For decades, scientists have treated astronomy as an extension of physics because of the similarity between the two disciplines (Grey, par. 19). Therefore, teachers taught concepts from both disciplines simultaneously.
Mathematics shared the same the same spotlight as the science curriculum. Instead of teaching a lesson out of a textbook, reformers wanted teachers to allow students to figure out or create their own short cuts in solving mathematic problems. Beberman, a pioneer reformer in mathematics, supported this position of teaching mathematic by giving the following example:
Consider, as an example, the expression "3x + 5x". After just a very few replacements of the "x's" by numerals, the student is ready to conjecture that "8x" is equivalent to the given expressionâ€¦So he demonstrates the equivalence of the two expressions by giving an example by deriving the simpler one form the given ones as follows:
By the commutative principle for multiplication, for every x, 3x + 5x = 3x + 5x/ And, by the distributive principle, for every x, 3x + 5x = x(3 + 5). Again, by the commutative principle, for every x, x(3 +5) = (3 +5)x, or 8x. So, for every x, 3x + 5x = 8x.
Our Students are urged to invent whatever procedures they can to arrive at simpler expressions as efficiently as possible. (29-30)
In addition to encouraging student to find different ways to simplify and solve problems, guidance counselors encouraged students to take addition courses in mathematics. For example, if a student wanted to figure out protections of a missile for a science project, he or she had to consult mathematic principles from trigonometry and calculus. Therefore, students had to take these two classes to understand the concept of calculating projection in order to figure out the answer. The reform mathematics curriculum did not stop at the sciences and mathematics classrooms. Reformers encourage teachers to incorporate mathematics in all subjects. For example, in a social studies course, teachers assigned assignments where students had to interpret graphs and use formulas to predict future outcomes.
Soon the Sputnik effect reached the country's state colleges and universities. Sputnik opened new opportunities for Americans to obtain a degree in science, mathematics, and engineering, especially women. The following table showed a moderately increase of women enrolling in college from the 1960's to the 1970's:
1 Individuals age 16 to 24 who graduated from high school during the preceding 12 months.
2 Enrollment in college as of October of each year for individuals age 16 to 24 who graduated from high school during the preceding 12 months.
NOTE: Data are based upon sample surveys of the civilian population. High school graduate data in this table differ from figures appearing in other tables because of varying survey procedures and coverage. Because of rounding, details may not add to totals. High school graduates include GED recipients.
Table 1. American College Testing Program, unpublished tabulations, 1987, derived from statistics collected by the U.S. Bureau of the Census; and U.S. Department of Labor, College Enrollment of High School Graduates, various years. (Note: Table has been modified to fit in document.)
Many students who enrolled in science, mathematics, and engineering programs went on to become distinguished scientists and engineers. Homer H. Hickam, one of the many scientists and engineers to emerge from the Sputnik education reform, wrote a memoir entitled Rocket Boys, which depicted life during the Sputnik era. With a society on the verge of a political breakdown from the launch of Sputnik, Hickam, known as Sonny, and a group of friends built a rocket that changed many Americans view on losing to Russia. Hickam mentioned several times in his memoir that women wanted to get involved with their rocket project. According to Hickman, Miss Riley, the boys' science teacher, had an interest in their rocket project, so she tried to get her hands on any textbook related to rocketry (163-184). In the end, the boys won the National Science Fair and several scholarships for college. Hickam has had a distinguished career, which included working for U.S. Army's Missile Command (1971 - 1981) and NASA (1981 - 1998). Thanks to Hickam's dedication and expertise in rocketry, the United States became one of the aerospace surveying giants in the world.
By the 1970's, the Sputnik education reform began to dissipate after the Americans beat the Russians to the moon on July 20, 1969. However, the launch of Sputnik created negative effects in the United States education system. The creation of the natural sciences curriculum ignored newly developing cultural changes that soon required teachers to become involved in unfamiliar territory, abandon past practices of fundamental ideologies, and prepare their students to become the nation's future scientists. Some aspects of the natural science curriculum remain today. For example, the way teachers state objectives in their lesson plans. Furthermore, instead of focusing on one rival country, like Russia, the United States has decided to make it a global competition. Today, states compete to see which of them have the highest standardized test scores composed from the SAT and ACT. The government has created programs like President Obama's Race to the Top program, which give states and school district federal funds to improve its curriculum and tests scores. School districts continue to improve its district's curriculum by any means necessary, even if it means to take away teacher's autonomy in the classroom. Will the United States accept their place in the world of education or continue their merciless crusade on improving students' set scores? Only time will tell.