Sputnik at 25
Washington--The launching by the Soviet Union of the satellite Sputnik, 25 years ago this month, presented an immediate challenge to American education: the need to upgrade science and mathematics education as a means of ensuring that the nation could compete in the race to a high-technology future.
The path was clear, one month after the satellite was sent into orbit, when the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare unveiled a two-year study that said Soviet students received more hours of instruction in 10 years of schooling than American students received in 12 years.
Soviet students were compelled to begin studying biology in grade four, foreign language in grade five, physics and algebra in grade six, and chemistry in grade seven, while their American counterparts were spared such advanced subjects until high school, the study showed.
Furthermore, less than one-third of American high-school graduates studied chemistry for even one year, although Russian students completed four years of chemistry. Secretary Marion B. Folsom's report revealed similar deficiencies in language study, advanced mathematics, and physics.
"[The Soviets] are convinced that time is on their side and [that] they can win world supremacy through education and hard work," he said, in calling for "more and better science [teaching for] all students in secondary schools and colleges."
To educators today, the study's findings--and the Secretary's appeal--seem somewhat ironic. For although America caught and surpassed the Soviets in 1969 by landing the first man on the moon, and although the high-technology future has become a reality, the nation finds itself confronting another "crisis" in science and mathematics education.
Since 1980, when a study by the federal Education Department and the National Science Foundation said Americans were in danger of "scientific illiteracy," officials from all levels of schooling have proclaimed the need for more and better teachers of science, mathematics, and foreign languages. They have also called for the compulsory study of advanced levels of those subjects by high-school students and for improvements in basic and applied research in universities.
The issue is again international competition. But this time, the battle is not in space but in the marketplace. And the fear grows out of a realization that American business is losing its competitive edge to such countries as West Germany and Japan--countries whose success in producing technologically superior goods is said to be a result of the importance placed on mathematics and science education.
In Japanese secondary schools, "nearly all of the college-bound students take three natural science courses and four mathematics courses,'' according to the federally supported study. "In Germany, the general preparation is similar," it said.
For some, the current crisis is especially ironic because today, just as it was 25 years ago, the education community wants the federal government to provide money for developing a solution.
It was an $877-million, four-year federal program that was expected to solve the problem then--the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958, passed by the Congress in the wake of Sputnik.
At that time, when public reaction to Sputnik prompted the introduction of hundreds of education-aid bills in the Congress, the Eisenhower Administration responded with a bill to provide seed money to modernize schools' science programs and facilities, to improve teaching through graduate fellowships for teachers, and to boost foreign-language and guidance-and-counseling programs. The measure also provided funds for science curriculum-development programs through the National Science Foundation.
The bill, which represented the federal government's first foray into an area of instruction other than vocational education, would "have a significance far beyond what was believed by its most enthusiastic sponsors," the Arthur S. Flemming, who was secretary of HEW when the measure was enacted.
During the next several years, the NDEA was widely praised for its progress toward providing a solution--however limited and temporary--to the science-education crisis.
By 1961, HEW reported "a sixfold increase in the number of professional supervisory personnel employed by state education agencies in ... science, mathematics, and modern foreign languages." The department also said 57,000 local-improvement projects had been initiated with NDEA funds and that thousands of teachers had participated in summer institutes sponsored by the science foundation.
The percentage of students enrolled in high-school science courses increased steadily during that period, due in part to the interest generated by the federal initiatives, according to the National Science Teachers Association.
"It was a very exciting time, a very significant federal program," says Mr. Flemming, who is currently the chairman of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, an independent monitoring organization.
"The NDEA did make a dent and modernized the curriculum of the schools appreciably," agrees Harold Howe 2nd, a U.S. commissioner of education during the Johnson Administration.
But the federal government's emphasis on improving science and mathematics education was soon eclipsed by the Johnson Administration's Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which created catch-up programs to aid educationally disadvantaged students in preschool and elementary grades.
During the same period, passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 turned the attention of the public to desegregation, while amendments to the ESEA in 1966 provided grants to schools for educating handicapped children--a pilot program that became a universal mandate in 1975.
The social changes demanded of schools by such laws required a great deal of attention by school officials.
The de-emphasis of advanced science, mathematics, and foreign-language teaching in the nation's public schools developed gradually, as admission and graduation requirements in those disciplines were relaxed in colleges during the late 1960's and 1970's.
On campuses across the land, students were given much more freedom to design their own courses of study, grades were often abolished or changed to "pass/fail," and traditional academic competition was frequently denigrated as "unfair and exploitative."
The "back-to-basics" movement grew in counterpoint to the "liberalization" of the campuses, but even it failed to stem the tide, largely because "basic" programs in most school systems did not include rigorous subjects such as advanced mathematics and science or foreign languages.
The latest blow to federal support for science programs came last year, when the Reagan Administration reduced the budget of the National Science Foundation's science-education directorate from $70 billion to $20 billion, eliminating all programs at the precollegiate level.
Echoing the post-Sputnik era, Congressional hearings on today's crisis have produced testimony from experts ranging from representatives of high-technology industries to military-recruitment officers. Nearly all have painted the same grim statistical picture:
Last year, one-third of the nation's school districts required only one year of mathematics and one year of science for graduation, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
The number of high-school students enrolled in foreign-language classes increased by less than 2 percent between 1965 and 1978, although total enrollment increased by 19 percent during that period, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
Shortages of qualified mathematics teachers were reported by 43 states in 1981; similar shortages exist for science teachers. Almost five times more science and mathematics teachers last year left the profession to take other jobs than left to retire, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
Among newly appointed science and mathematics teachers last year, 50.2 percent were judged "unqualified" by their principals, according to the National Science Teachers Association.
At least 25 bills were introduced in the 97th Congress to upgrade science, mathematics, technology, and foreign-language teaching in schools and colleges. Some resemble the federal-grant programs of the NDEA; others provide tax credits as incentives to businesses that would retrain teachers or donate equipment to schools.
Passage of none of the bills is certain, in part due to the lack of support from the current President--who says he believes responsibility for education does not rest with the federal government. But support for such legislation is also uncertain because there has been no dramatic, Sputnik-like event to galvanize public opinion. Twenty-five years ago, America's awareness and concern soared with the Soviet rocket; today, observers point out, the nation's spirits seem to sink with its economy and its standing in the world.
Because the current situation involves long-term economic issues rather than a crisis in national defense, the solutions will be more complex, according to several of those interviewed for this article.
"There was paranoia after Sputnik," says August W. Steinhilber of the National School Boards Association. "The approach to the problem is far more reasoned now. We need a more rounded program involving the training and retraining of teachers, consultation with business and industry, the upgrading of equipment, curriculum development, and requirements for more years of math and science."
"It will be necessary for the federal government to foot a part of the bill," says Glenn T. Seaborg, professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.
"It won't be possible for industry to finance the broad program that is needed," he adds. "But it is important to have industry involved, to invoke some unconventional methods, such as asking retired scientists to teach in high schools and making maximum use of the instructional capabilities of public science centers and museums."
Schools must find and hire more mathematics and science teachers, because three or four years of those subjects should be required of all students, says Carl F. Berger, associate dean of the University of Michigan's School of Education and president of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST).
"Unless we have a strong push back to the notion that there are some courses you take because of their rigor, then we will constantly have students looking for courses based only on their interest," he says. But he warns that if the federal government provides college-level fellowships for teachers--as did the NDEA--or tax incentives for industry-sponsored summer training programs, similar to a proposal pending in Congress, such enrichment programs could encourage teachers to leave the profession.
In a study of the teacher-training institutes supported under the defense-education act in the 1960's, NARST found that 90 percent of the participating teachers left the classroom within 10 years, he says.
Mr. Berger, who as a high-school science teacher participated in one of the institutes in the early 1960's, cites his own situation as typical of those who left teaching. Teachers such as himself "saw the exciting things being done in science and left for higher education or industry," he said.
Salaries competitive with those offered by industry will be necessary to keep science and mathematics teachers in the schools, says Mr. Howe, who is currently a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
"We've had economic developments that have made it extremely attractive for people with knowledge of mathematics and science to move out of the classroom. It's not surprising that they have moved; the economic competition for trained talent is losing the game for the schools."
The NARST study, Mr. Berger points out, also found that although the NDEA provided funds for the salaries of school guidance counselors, such personnel were rarely trained to encourage students to take the most academically rigorous subjects.
"Even in the midst of federal efforts to convince students to take science and mathematics, the counselors were counseling them out of it," he asserts. "They said students didn't need it, especially women.
"That, coupled with the notion that we moved from a relatively linear high-school curriculum to an incredibly comprehensive high school with a large number of offerings, created huge choices for students," he says.
Some educators have argued that the crisis in mathematics and science education is more severe now than it was in the pre-Sputnik era.
"Our needs are more related to economic viability now than they were 25 years ago," notes Mr. Seaborg.
"In order to move out of the present recession, we're going to have to be able to produce. The jobs are going to be different," he says. "People who are unemployed aren't going back to the same kind of jobs. Instead, the jobs will be in the high-technology industries, computers, lasers, robots, new energy sources."
Vol. 02, Issue 06, Page 11