Getting the Sputnik Era's 'Where We Stand' Wrong

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To the Editor:

In his Commentary “Where We Stand: Echoes of Sputnik and a Call to Action” (Sept. 24, 2008), Ronald Thorpe commits two errors, one of them rare, the other all too common. The rare one happens when he asserts, “The United States once led the world in math, science, and other critical subjects.” This simply is not true.

When international academic comparisons began in the 1960s, the United States was average or below average, depending on topic and grade. The fact is that these comparisons say nothing about the quality of education in various countries, nor do they bear on global competitiveness. (When Japan sunk into 15 years of economic stagnation and/or recession, for example, Japanese kids continued to ace tests.)

The all-too-common error occurs when Mr. Thorpe claims that “the Russians had beaten us to the punch in space exploration by launching Sputnik.” Wrong again. As I wrote in an online Commentary for Education Week (“The Sputnik Effect,” Oct. 2, 2007) and detailed more extensively in the October 2007 Phi Delta Kappan (both pieces written for Sputnik’s 50th anniversary), the United States could have beaten the Russians by over a year—but chose not to.

I suggest that Mr. Thorpe produce a documentary to help dispel the terrible myths about Sputnik, from which the schools have never recovered.

Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, Va.

Vol. 28, Issue 08, Page 34

Published in Print: October 15, 2008, as Getting the Sputnik Era's 'Where We Stand' Wrong
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