Apollo, Sputnik, and Math and Science Education

By Sean Cavanagh — July 21, 2009 2 min read
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I heard a radio interview yesterday with Craig Nelson, the author of Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, who was talking about the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Nelson had a lot of thoughts about the United States’ history of space exploration, and where the country might go from here, and some of his points have obvious relevance to education.

To paraphrase him, Nelson was asked about the wisdom and feasibility of putting together future American missions to the moon, or even more ambitious destinations, like Mars, and why space exploration isn’t regarded as being as urgent a national need as in the past. One clear reason is that the nation has a long list of domestic (or terrestrial?) priorities, which make discussions of flight through the heavens seem a lot less urgent. More specifically, he noted that the nation’s perspective in the Apollo 11 era was shaped very directly by the Cold War, and our determination to outperform, out-engineer, out-spend, out-everything the former Soviet Union. (Look at the galvanizing effect that Sputnik had on American education and technology, for instance.) The United States’ policy priorities tend to be guided by competition, Nelson suggested, and any resurgence in interest in space flight is likely to be sparked in part by the prospect of a foreign nation doing something daring in space, or even by a private-sector effort to rocket into orbit or sub-orbit for commercial reasons.

Similar motivations appear to be driving policy changes in math and science. Talk about foreign economic competition, from China, India, and high-performing foreign nations, has driven discussions about everything from the need to improve math and science teaching in the America COMPETES Act to the desire to improve and bring more consistency to the nation’s academic standards through the “Common Core” effort. Many science and technology companies, who face foreign competition for workers, presumably have a particular interest in and knowledge of the math and science skills that students need to fill jobs in that field. Skeptics, on the other hand, will tell you we don’t actually know that much about how well India’s and China’s students perform, compared to American students, since their results haven’t been reported on international tests. They caution against reading too much into the results of nation-by-nation exams like the PISA and TIMSS. And they’ll also note that many of the programs in the COMPETES Act have yet to be funded. Even so, global competition seems, at the very least, to be a powerful rhetorical tool in math and science education discussions.

The question of course, is whether U.S. policymakers are thinking about these issues in the right way. Many people quoted in EdWeek and elsewhere say these discussions need to become a lot more refined—that we should become much more knowledgeable about the features of high-performing foreign education models, but then bore in on what policies can be adapted to the U.S. systems, while regarding others much more cautiously. How can and should foreign competition guide the thinking of U.S. policymakers about improvements to math and science education?

Photo: Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, walks near the lunar module during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on July 20, 1969. NASA/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.