The Race to Space Rocketed NSF Into Classrooms

By David J. Hoff — May 19, 1999 10 min read
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On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I--the first manmade satellite to orbit the Earth--and with it a campaign to change K-12 curriculum in the United States.

With the American public caught unaware by its Cold War enemy’s scientific prowess, the federal government for the first time made a major investment in curriculum development for K-12 classrooms. The hope was to train future scientists who would help this country reach the moon before the Communist empire.

With money from the National Science Foundation, academics started to rewrite curricula for physics, biology, chemistry, and mathematics. By the early 1960s, the campaign had spread into the social sciences. University scholars conducted hundreds of summer seminars showing teachers how to teach with the new materials.

In the 20 years after Sputnik, the NSF--an independent federal agency--spent $500 million on curricula and teacher development. Some science materials were well-received and widely used; derivatives of them are in classrooms today. But others--such as the “New Math” of the 1960s and a controversial 5th grade anthropology program called Man: A Course of Study--failed to take hold and led to Congress’ curtailment of NSF curriculum projects in the late 1970s.

While the foundation has reclaimed a role in the precollegiate curriculum in the past 15 years, its involvement has never again reached the level it did during the heyday of the space race.

Elitist Curricula?

After Neil Armstrong, in 1969, became the first man to set foot on the moon--thus winning the pioneering race for the United States--public support for federal curriculum initiatives waned. The populace no longer demanded wholesale changes in schools, says Peter B. Dow, who led the effort to write Man: A Course of Study.

But the education historian Diane Ravitch maintains that NSF projects failed because they were created by academic elites without enough help from teachers or everyday citizens.

A redesigned math curriculum that emphasized theory over process and a social studies program that taught other cultures’ values that contradicted American mores may have made sense to professors in Cambridge, Mass., and Palo Alto, Calif., Ravitch says. But those ideas didn’t sit well in mainstream America, she says, where politically ascendant conservatives and other detractors questioned whether schools should challenge cultural beliefs and established methods--a tension that has been rekindled with the academic-standards movement launched in the late 1980s.

The seeds for curriculum change had been germinating a few years before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. Professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, and the University of Illinois started to investigate new ways of teaching math and physics.

In fact, the Physical Science Study at MIT first received NSF money in 1956.

But it wasn’t until 1958, when Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, that the 8-year-old NSF began pouring money into curriculum development.

By 1975, the science foundation’s catalog of active projects listed 15 for elementary schools, 12 for middle schools, and 34 for high schools. In many subjects, the foundation backed several efforts. In high school biology, for example, the NSF supported a comprehensive curriculum and a series of films, including ones on viruses, ecology, and social biology.

Typically, the agency would underwrite a group of academic experts and a limited number of teachers working through universities or nonprofit organizations to write a curriculum. In the case of the New Math, the money went to Yale University to support the School Mathematics Study Group, or SMSG.

Educational Services Inc.--a Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit group that later became known as the Education Development Center--won NSF grants for a variety of projects, including the Elementary Science Study and Man: A Course of Study.

In Theory

The academics leading the new curriculum charge started with the assumption that schools were not teaching the theory behind disciplines without which the nation could not produce rocket scientists. Mathematics taught in schools emphasized simple calculations used in consumer or business situations but never emphasized the principles behind arithmetic, geometry, or trigonometry, says Smsg The Making of a Curriculum, a 1965 book by William Wooten, one of the founders of the New Math project.

Likewise, the MIT project found that science textbooks dedicated too much space to simple functions such as how refrigerators and car engines work, while ignoring basic theory such as how waves travel, noted “The Government in the Classroom,” a 1980 article by J. Myron Atkin in the journal Daedalus.

The goal for the two NSF-financed projects--and many subsequent ones--was to teach the basic principles by offering students experiences in learning by doing. With that background, the hope was that students could apply their knowledge in a variety of circumstances.

“We want to expose children to science by letting them do science, by working with actual materials and deriving from their own manipulations a feeling of mastery and understanding which can come in no other way,” said a 1961 proposal for an elementary science curriculum that borrowed heavily in format and content from the ongoing physics project.

As a result, elementary pupils started learning about sets and number theories based on groups other than 10, rather than learning the mechanical procedures of arithmetic. High school physics students studied how waves travel in detailed and intricate experiments using tidal pools.

For Man: A Course of Study--known by its acronym, MACOS--the curriculum writers encouraged students to act as anthropologists, comparing how and why different cultures developed their values, tools, languages, and social organizations.

By 1975, 17,000 elementary schools in 47 states were using the macos curriculum, according to A Minor Miracle: An Informal History of the National Science Foundation by Milton Lomask.

But it’s not surprising that some aspects of the curriculum raised hackles. One segment, for example, taught about Netsilik Indians in the Canadian Arctic and their practices of infanticide and mercy killing.

Such lessons became the target of critics’ attacks. By introducing such topics as how the Netsiliks preserve their culture by killing unwanted babies and abandoning the elderly on icebergs, MACOS was teaching a “hippie-yippie philosophy,” charged the Rev. Don Glenn, a Baptist minister who organized opposition in Lake City, Fla.

Glenn succeeded in his campaign to remove MACOS from the Columbia County public schools. Conservative activists also rallied in Phoenix and other areas, and then took their cause to Congress.

After a series of hearings and intense floor debates, Congress voted to halt funding for MACOS in 1975.

Some schools continued to use the anthropology program, despite the controversy. Without federal funding for the publication of its materials or the training of teachers, however, MACOS slowly faded from the scene.

“MACOS really succumbed to the attacks of the right wing,” says Dow, one of its architects. “School districts are very sensitive to those attacks, so they just allowed it to fade away,” contends Dow, now an adjunct professor of anthropology at the State University of New York College at Buffalo and the president of a nonprofit organization that links museums and schools.

The demise of MACOS occurred, he writes in Schoolhouse Politics: Lessons From the Sputnik Era, because the curriculum developers and the newly organized and politically powerful conservative parents had different objectives.

The intellectuals wanted to teach children to “think about human behavior in a new way” and to “question and explore their own preconceptions,” he wrote in his 1991 book.

Parents, by contrast, “saw the course as a violation of the accepted ways of schooling children and a repudiation of social studies materials that promoted American values,” Dow wrote. And, according to those values, “children should not be encouraged to question; they should be taught what to believe.”

But the criticisms also involved fundamental questions about what children should learn and how they should learn it, Ravitch says. When her children took MACOS in the New York City public schools, she recalls, they were assigned projects such as writing a radio script about a salamander swimming upstream.

“They thought it was a lot of fun, but silly,” she says.

Not only did the macos curriculum succumb; the new methods and ideas incorporated in the math project also failed to take hold in the classroom. Teachers and parents didn’t understand the theories underlying the content, and the textbooks written for the courses failed to explain them clearly, says Ralph A. Raimi, a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Rochester, who is writing a history of the New Math.

“It never did take hold very deeply,” he says. “There’s a lot more inertia in school systems than you might think.”

During the 1976-77 school year, fewer than 10 percent of school districts surveyed by NSF researchers were using math materials created with foundation grants. Thirty-seven percent said they had used SMSG or other NSF-supported curricula before then, the survey found.

Still, some echoes of the New Math, especially its emphasis on conceptual understanding, are seen in the standards published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1989. While those standards were once widely accepted, they too are now the target of critics, who maintain they fail to teach such basic tasks as addition and multiplication.

Science Endures

While the NSF’s mathematics and social science work failed to make the impact the authors had envisioned, its science curricula were more successful. In that same 1977 survey, the NSF found that 41 percent of secondary schools used at least one form of the foundation’s science programs.

Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, suggests that the most important legacy of the foundation’s science initiatives was to make the subject a standard part of the elementary school curriculum.

What’s more, just about any high school student who has taken physics in the past 30 years has conducted extended experiments of waves in a ripple tank--as designed by the MIT project in the 1950s, Wheeler says. And materials crafted by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, another NSF-financed group, are used in many schools.

“There’s been more staying power in the science projects,” Wheeler says. “In their initial state, they’re gone. But there’s a lot of echoes that still exist.”

In addition, a series of professional-development seminars to train teachers in how to use the curriculum fostered a cadre of leaders who are active today, says F. James Rutherford, the education adviser for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the director of the NSF’s education programs in the late 1970s.

A few years after the MACOS brouhaha, the Reagan administration arrived in Washington intent on cutting all NSF education programs. It almost succeeded, according to Rutherford.

But in 1983, the federally commissioned report A Nation at Risk gave rise to a new scare about the inadequacy of the nation’s schools. And the foundation entered the curriculum-development field once again. But its commitment over the past 16 years pales in comparison with the burst of activity in the ‘60s.

In this decade, the NSF’s biggest projects have been programs helping states and cities define what they want to teach in science and mathematics and build the policies to accomplish those aims--what are generally referred to as systemic initiatives. The programs aren’t reaching teachers the same way that NSF projects did in their heyday--when the foundation paid for thousands of young teachers, including Rutherford and Wheeler, to spend six weeks of their summers learning new course materials.

In fiscal 1999, the NSF’s education division will spend $120 million on its standards-based math and science reform programs and $36.8 million on the development of curriculum materials. It will pay $126 million for teacher training.

The $282.8 million total compares with the $124.8 million NSF spent at the peak of its education efforts in fiscal 1968. The 1968 spending would equal roughly $550 million in today’s dollars.

“There’s less investment in teacher preparation and curriculum development,” Rutherford says. “It’s dealing more with systems as a whole and policy issues.

“In the ‘60s, [NSF projects] just seemed to be everywhere,” he adds. Science education “was the main topic of concern.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 1999 edition of Education Week as The Race to Space Rocketed NSF Into Classrooms


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