Sputnik Essay

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Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, was launched from the Soviet Baikonur Cosmodrome on October 4, 1957. The satellite orbited the earth every ninety-six minutes, broadcasting signals from two radio transmitters that could be picked up by amateur radio operators around the world. Thus, the launch of Sputnik literally heralded the start of the “space race,” as the satellite remained in orbit, broadcasting for three months before falling back to earth. Sputnik marked a historic moment in space exploration, as well as a historic turning point in American education.

For the American public, this Soviet triumph symbolized a threat to American security, while calling into question American superiority in science and technology. In short, the United States was forced to ponder what it meant to be in second place scientifically, technologically, and perhaps militarily in the midst of an era ripe with ideological tension. As a result, educators, scientists, and mathematicians called for accelerated educational reforms; the public expressed supported for the effort; and policy makers increased federal education funding.

Understanding the educational impact of the Sputnik launch requires placing this episode into its historical context. As the Cold War began to unfold in the years following the end of World War II, the adversarial relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States touched nearly every aspect of public life in both countries. Public schools, as the institution responsible for shaping the thinking of the next generation, naturally became one site for this ideological battle. The United States was committed to demonstrating to the rest of the world that the Soviet challenges to American-style democracy were both misguided and impotent. American schools, and the educational programs enacted therein, had a critical role to play in this mission. Thus, the movement toward educational programs aimed at providing enhanced intellectual rigor and promoting economic and military dominance was already well underway before the launch of Sputnik.

The Soviet success in launching Sputnik made it clear to the American public that further changes to the educational system were in the national interest, particularly as related to the curriculum in mathematics and science. These changes were implemented at all levels and included the passage by Congress of the National Defense Education Act of 1958.

Research scientists and mathematicians from the country’s most prestigious universities soon became prominent voices in this discourse on education reform. The scientists were empowered both by the successes they had had in weapon development during World War II and by the goodwill that these successes granted them among the general public. Thus, when the scientists began to voice dissatisfaction with what they saw in schools and then decided to turn their talents to educational reform, there was little or no objection. Scientists gained new and unprecedented influence in matters of public education policy.

These scientists had the support of the federal government to launch a sweeping reform of precollegiate science and mathematics education. At the heart of these policies was a focus on curriculum reform to emphasize content that the research scientists and mathematicians thought most important. The emphasis was on the structure of each discipline rather than on applications. Thus, the structure of K–12 science education was largely brought into conformity with science as taught in the universities. Teaching the internal logic of each discipline as it was understood by university professors was the guiding goal. This was a radical shift away from the “life adjustment” curriculum that held sway in schools during and immediately following World War II. Built partly on Deweyan progressivism and partly on a psychological need to adjust from a wartime to a peacetime mentality, the life adjustment curriculum focused on applications of knowledge in a real-world context.

The Sputnik-era scientist-educators shared a common vision of education as the pursuit of excellence through high academic standards. This vision required banishing the life adjustment curriculum and replacing the emphasis on vocabulary and applied aspects of content with a focus on the structures and procedures of science and mathematics disciplines. Resulting programs in science included work done by the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC Physics); the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS biology); and the Earth Sciences Curriculum Project (ESCP earth science) among others. New programs in mathematics included the University of Illinois Committee on School Mathematics (UICSM), the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG), and the University of Maryland Mathematics Project (UMMP), among others.

Just as social and political factors initiated and propelled the Sputnik-era reforms in mathematics and science education, new social and political realities beginning in the mid-1960s acted as oppositional forces to the philosophical underpinnings of these reforms. Specifically, the focus on pursuit of excellence, the emphasis on rigorous academic standards, and the conceptual and methodological disciplinary focus in science and mathematics education were perceived as elitist and inattentive to the academic needs and realities of an increasingly diverse student population.

Although the Sputnik-era reforms were not carried forward as initially developed, their legacy can be seen clearly in the latest wave of science and mathematics education reforms more than forty years post-Sputnik. The Principles and Standards for School Mathematics put forth by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and the National Science Education Standards developed by the National Research Council (NRC) built on the Sputnik-era legacy by including prominent research scientists and mathematicians in their development and emphasizing disciplinary processes and high academic standards as key elements of the reform effort. This legacy is tempered, however, by an equal emphasis on attending to the learning needs of diverse students and promoting scientific and mathematical literacy for all as the ultimate goal. Additionally, the Sputnik-era focus on curriculum reform has now been broadened to consider reform of teaching, professional development, assessment, and policy factors, as reform of science and mathematics education is now viewed as a systemic and long-term project.


  1. Ravitch, D. (1983). The troubled crusade: American education, 1945–1980. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Rudolph, J. L. (2002). Scientists in the classroom: The Cold War reconstruction of American science education. New York: Palgave.
  3. Smith, M. B. (1949). And madly teach: A layman looks at public school education. Chicago: H. Regnery.
  4. Tyack, D. B., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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