Educational Reform
and the Sputnik Effect

February, 2001

   Sputnik from Britannica Online -- any of a series of artificial Earth satellites whose launching by the Soviet Union beginning on Oct. 4, 1957, inaugurated the Space Age. Sputnik 1, the first satellite launched by man, was a 184-pound (83.6-kilogram) capsule. It achieved an Earth orbit with an apogee (farthest point from Earth) of 584 miles (942 km) and a perigee (nearest point) of 143 miles (230 km), circling the Earth every 96 minutes and remaining in orbit until early 1958 when it fell back and burned in the Earth's atmosphere. Sputnik 2 carried the dog Laika, the first living creature to be shot into space and orbit the Earth. Eight more Sputnik missions with similar satellites carried out experiments on a variety of animals to test spacecraft life-support systems; they also tested reentry procedures and furnished data on space temperatures, pressures, particles, radiation, and magnetic fields.

The world after Sputnik: Soviet progress and American reaction

Premier Khrushchev anticipated the new correlation of forces in his foreign policy address to the 20th Party Congress in 1956. Soviet H-bombs and missiles, he said, had rendered the imperialists' nuclear threat ineffective, the U.S.S.R. an equal, the Socialist camp invincible, war no longer inevitable, and thus "peaceful coexistence" inescapable. In Leninist doctrine this last phrase implied a state of continued competition and Socialist advance without war. The immediate opportunities for Socialism, according to Khrushchev, derived from the struggle of the colonial peoples, which the U.S.S.R. would assist through foreign aid, propaganda, subversion, and support for "wars of national liberation."

The Soviet successes in outer space just 40 years after the Bolshevik Revolution were powerful evidence for Khrushchev's claims that the U.S.S.R. had achieved strategic equality and that Communism was the best system for overcoming backwardness. Sputnik restored Soviet prestige after the 1956 embarrassment in Hungary, shook European confidence in the U.S. nuclear deterrent, magnified the militancy of Maoist China, and provoked an orgy of self-doubt in the United States itself. The two Sputnik satellites of 1957 were themselves of little military significance, and the test missile that launched them was too primitive for military deployment, but Khrushchev claimed that long-range missiles were rolling off the assembly line "like sausages," a bluff that allowed President Eisenhower's opponents--and nervous Europeans--to perceive a "missile gap." Khrushchev in turn tried to capitalize on the apparent gap in a series of crises, but his adventurous policy only provoked perverse reactions in China, the United States, and Europe that undermined his own political support at home.

Eisenhower was apprised in advance of Soviet missile progress thanks in part to overflights of the U-2 spy plane. By the time of Sputnik the Pentagon already had several parallel programs for ballistic missiles of various types, including the advanced, solid-fueled Polaris and Minuteman. The great fleet of B-47 and B-52 intercontinental bombers already deployed also assured continued American strategic superiority through the early 1960s. The frugal Eisenhower thus tried to play down the importance of Sputnik and to discourage a race for arms or prestige, but he was frustrated by a coalition of Democrats, journalists, academics, and hawks of both parties who insisted that the United States not only leapfrog the Soviets in space and missiles but also increase federal support to education, extend more military and economic aid to the Third World, and expand social programs at home intended in part to polish the American image abroad--in short, pursue the Cold War more vigorously. Eisenhower conceded to this mood in 1958 by sponsoring creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and passage of the National Defense Education Act, accelerating weapons programs, and deploying intermediate-range missiles in England, Italy, and Turkey. He also acknowledged the expanded Soviet threat in his State of the Union address in 1958: "Trade, economic development, military power, arts, science, education, the whole world of ideas--all are harnessed to this same chariot of expansion. The Soviets are, in short, waging total cold war." A similarly total American response to this challenge, requiring virtually wartime levels of national mobilization to outdo a totalitarian system in whatever field of endeavour it chose to emphasize, would, in Eisenhower's mind, however, have undermined the free market and fiscal soundness that were the foundation of American strength in the first place. Liberal economists argued in response that a sharply expanded role for the federal government was a matter of survival in the "space age" and would even stimulate economic growth, military prowess, and social progress.

Some Sputnik Links:

Some Quotes from Recent Law Reviews:

Albany Law Review 1999
62 Alb. L. Rev. 1425

"... Sputnik shocked concerned people in the United States and brought to our attention, among other things, the incredible knowledge gap between our universities and what was being taught in our schools, first in mathematics and science, and later in other fields. n12 As a result, Congress passed first the National Defense Education Act n13 and later the Education Professions Development Act. n14 Both acts supported training programs at universities for pre-collegiate teachers, the development of improved curricular materials, and research and evaluation. n15 In addition to other fields, these acts provided support for the involvement of departments of political science, history, sociology, schools of law, and other disciplines in the improvement of pre-collegiate programs in civics, government, and the law. n16 A number of major national programs working today, including several university-based programs, received their foundational support under these acts. n17 Unfortunately, the level of federal support provided under the acts no longer exists. n18"


n12. See Michael Heise, Goals 2000: Educate America Act: The Federalization and Legalization of Education Policy, 63 Fordham L. Rev. 345, 352-53 & n.48 (1994) (stating that the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik prompted the United States to shift the focus in school curriculum to science, mathematics, and foreign languages).

n13. National Defense Education Act of 1958, Pub. L. No. 85-864, 72 Stat. 1580 (codified in scattered sections of 20 & 42 U.S.C. (1994)).

n14. Higher Education Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-329, 79 Stat. 1219 (current version at 20 U.S.C. 1001-1146(a) (1994)).

n15. See National Defense Education Act 501; Higher Education Act 501-28.

n16. See National Defense Education Act 501; Higher Education Act 501-28.

n17. See Augustus F. Hawkins, Becoming Preeminent in Education: America's Greatest Challenge, 14 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol'y 367, 375-76 (1991) (detailing the programs and financial assistance authorized under federal education enactments).

n18. See 20 U.S.C. 401 (1994) (indicating that the programs provided for under the National Defense Education Program are no longer funded).

Fordham Law Review, November, 1994
63 Fordham L. Rev. 345
By MICHAEL HEISE , pp. 352-53

A. Background: From Incrementalism to Post-Incremental Reform

Attempts to reform America's educational system are almost as old as the educational system itself. n41 Perhaps reflecting the gravity of the challenges confronting the nation's educational system, America's appetite for educational reform appears limitless. In many ways, one can view the history of modern American education as a history of reforms, or rather, recurring cycles of incremental reform, each with a distinctive theme, each influenced by a complex interaction of political, social, and economic interests. n42 Although federal educational reform acts typically receive more public attention than their state and local counterparts, the latter form the bulk of reform efforts in the history of American education. n43

States began to grant local districts power to fund school budgets through taxation as early as the end of the eighteenth century. n44 Beginning in 1803 with Ohio, Congress required that all newly-admitted states constitutionally guarantee free public education. n45 From World War II until the late 1970s, universal access to primary and secondary education was the dominant theme of educational policy. n46 Notions about accessibility expanded to include college and university education, embracing the proposition that higher education should be available to all interested students. n47 Responding to Sputnik, n48 educational [*353] reformers in the 1950s focused on science, mathematics, and foreign language curricula. n49 Reform efforts during the 1960s and 1970s emphasized civil rights and compensatory and equity programs. n50


n41 See generally Richard F. Elmore & Milbrey W. McLaughlin, Steady Work: Policy, Practice, and the Reform of American Education (1988) (analyzing the relationship between educational policymaking and educational practice in schools). See id. at 1 (noting that American educational reform dates back to the origin of publicly funded education in late 17th century colonial America).

n42 Id.

n43 Finn, supra note 1, at 68 (noting that "local control" of education is deeply embedded in the American social fabric). See also Charles F. Faber, Is Local Control of the Schools Still a Viable Option?, 14 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol'y 447, 448 (1991) (noting that the local educational systems originating in New England colonies were built upon "a belief in the value of local control and opposition to centralized authority"); Kearns & Doyle, supra note 26, at 112-13 (noting that the relationship between the federal government and state educational agencies is primarily based upon money).

n44 Faber, supra note 43, at 447-48.

n45 Gerald Unks, The Illusion of Intrusion: A Chronicle of Federal Aid to Public Education, 49 Educ. F.133, 136 (1985).

n46 Finn, supra note 1, at 5-6 (noting that state compulsory attendance laws increased the number of years' attendance required of students from the 1930s-era statutes).

n47 Id. at 6.

n48 Sputnik was a Soviet communications satellite launched in October 1957. A triumph of Soviet technology, it convinced many Americans that the Soviets had achieved scientific superiority over the United States. The incident gave momentum to claims that first arose in the mid-1950s suggesting that Americans were lagging far behind their Soviet counterparts in science education. Cries for educational reform led to the National Defense Education Act of 1958, signed by President Eisenhower. Pub. L. No. 85-864, 72 Stat. 1580 (codified in scattered sections of 20 & 42 U.S.C. (1988). See generally Peter B. Dow, Schoolhouse Politics: Lessons From the Sputnik Era (1991) (documenting the impact of the Sputnik incident on American scientific education); Dow argues that "decisions about educational reform are driven far more by political considerations, such as the prevailing public mood, than they are by any systematic effort to improve instruction." Id. at 5.

n49 National Defense Education Act of 1958, Pub. L. No. 85-864, 72 Stat. 1580 (codified in scattered sections of 20 & 42 U.S.C. (1988)); Dow, supra note 48, at 2 (noting that the 1958 Act directed federal funds to local schools, fostering innovation in all areas of the curriculum); Elmore & McLaughlin, supra note 41, at 1; Finn, supra note 1, at 7 ("Among the anxieties triggered by that feat was the fear that American education had become inferior, especially in math, science, and technology.").

n50 See infra notes 166-70 and accompanying text.

Stanford Law & Policy Review Spring, 2000
11 Stan. L. & Pol'y Rev 235

SYMPOSIUM: The Dangers of Fashionable Education Reform: Rather than adopt untried gimmicks, let us instead commit to implementing rigorous standards, effective teaching, on-going assessments, and a clear system of accountability by Stephen L. Gessner , pp. 235-7


American educational policy makers have explored various solutions in recent years to address poor academic achievement as measured by national and international assessments. Some of the remedies discussed in this symposium are likely to fail and have the potential to do great harm. These models assume that students cannot learn and teachers cannot teach in our current academic settings. Rather than improve the settings, the arguments go, we must reject them completely and transfer students to new schools.

This paper explores the shortcomings of the current educational system, describes some of the proposed remedies, and lays out the dangers and inadequacies of those remedies. It then proposes a model of reform that can work within the existing structure to improve teaching and learning through high standards, rigorous student and teacher assessments, and full accountability.

The United States' educational system has undergone constant reinvention since its conception by Horace Mann. Continual efforts to change it reflect a dissatisfaction with the system by educators, politicians, business leaders, and parents. As such, recent reform efforts come as no surprise.

The primary reason for current dissatisfaction is a lack of agreement on the purposes of a free, mandatory, K-12 system. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, much of the focus was on assimilating new immigrants who needed to learn basic English language and arithmetic skills quickly while acquiring some sense of American culture, history, and citizenship. This focus was buttressed by the popularity of John Dewey's pragmatic approach, which saw education as practical, immediate, and useful to society. With the onset of the Sputnik crisis in the late 1950s, many felt the pendulum had swung too far towards this socialization agenda at the expense of academic excellence, and attention was turned to increasing math and science achievement.

Then a new philosophy embodying free expression, individualism, and creativity emerged, undoing much of the progress made in the 1950s. New wavesof immigrants put additional pressures on schools to deal with a wider range of needs. The theory of teaching the whole child became more prominent,requiring a broader approach to teaching and learning. We have not yet recovered from that era and are still struggling to serve an extremely diverse population of students and parents without a consensus on what education should be trying to accomplish.

At this juncture, we must reflect on some fundamental questions. Is education still an important process of socialization, assimilation, and acculturation? Is it supposed to address the physical and psychological needs of students? Is it a training agency preparing students for specific careers by teaching practical skills? Or is it instead an intellectual and academic enterprise, teaching reasoning, problem-solving, reading, writing, and other key skills? For some people, education serves just one of these ends, while it must fulfill all of these missions for others. Choosing education's appropriate role remains a challenge.

The pressure for reform recently culminated in the establishment of the National Education Goals of 1990-- an attempt to set national academic targets with sufficient funding for implementation and monitoring. n1 The Goals called for higher academic standards for students and teachers, ambitious achievement targets, and on-going progress assessments. n2 Unfortunately, the project has been mired in politics and resisted by those in Congress who object to nationwide educational programs. These battles reflect a long-standing debate between those who seek a national approach to education (which most other countries in the world have) and those who favor a local approach. Much of the support for the Goals has shifted from the federal to the state level, where some progress is being made in establishing statewide standards. n3 However, some of the national subject-area associations and councils have developed significant standards, n4 while the U.S. Department of Education continues to monitor progress in attempting to meet the national goals. n5


n1 See generally NATIONAL EDUC. GOALS PANEL, NATIONAL EDUC. GOALS (1990) (describing establishment of National Education Goals).

n2 Id. at 2-3.


n4 See, e.g., NATIONAL COUNCIL OF TCHRS. OF MATHEMATICS, PRINCIPLES AND STANDARDS FOR SCHOOL MATHEMATICS (1998) (discussing standard-setting amongst national subject-area associations) [on file with author].

n5 See NATIONAL EDUC. GOALS PANEL, THE NATIONAL EDUCATION GOALS REPORT: BUILDING A NATION OF LEARNERS (1999) (noting Department of Education's role in achieving National Education Goals).

Yale Law & Policy Review 1996
14 Yale L. & Pol'y Rev. 169
"Common Schools, Uncommon Values: Listening to the Voices of Dissent" by Rosemary C. Salomone pp. 178-79

After the turn of the century and through the mid-1900s, a competing view of education, different from both of these visions, took hold. This view was more genuinely secular and child-centered. Under the American pragmatists, led by John Dewey, the primary locus of education in America shifted from the church and the family to the public school. Gradually, "the religious function shaded into the patriotic and the achievement of a broad objective of moral goodness into the nurturing of good citizens." n42 Dewey considered the school to be a social and transformative institution. The object of education was not to reproduce a static culture through the teaching of morals in an authoritarian sense as espoused by the common school reformers. On the contrary, he viewed education as serving a "cultural revision" function n43 where the moral was synonymous with the social and could be learned by doing rather than through direct instruction. For Dewey and his followers, the common experience of the school would develop a common faith that would transcend individual and group differences without negating the latter. Schooling would promote a sense of community awareness and further community progress. n44 Incorporated into their notion of community was a recognition of cultural differences, including language, literature, cultural ideals, moral and spiritual outlook, and religion, although Dewey disagreed with efforts to infuse religion per se into the public school. n45

Despite its widespread appeal over the course of decades, by the mid-1900s, progressive education began to fall into cyclical disfavor alternating with more traditional approaches to education. The first shift took place in the late 1950s with the launching of Sputnik by the U.S.S.R. and the race to compete on every front with the Soviet Union. Here educators moved from teaching the whole child to a decided emphasis on excellence. n46 Economists began to talk about education as investment in human capital for the good of society. n47 By the mid-1960s, the pendulum swung back again to progressivism with the civil rights and anti-war movements and the War on Poverty which challenged both traditional assumptions of life and society and the apparent competitiveness and achievement orientation that had crept into schooling. n48 By the mid-1970s, however, declining scores on standardized achievement tests, increasing dropout rates, and student violence - all the perceived ills of American education - were laid again at Dewey's door, blaming his theories for the permissiveness, valuelessness, and lack of academic standards in the public schools. n49 Progressive teaching methods such as the New Math and the New Social Studies together with the open classroom and unconventional elective courses generated a backlash and ushered in the Back to Basics movement. By the late-1970s, the influence of that movement, supported by a rising tide of religious fundamentalism, became manifest in textbooks and curricula across the country. n50 Thus began the present era in which, on an academic level, school officials combine the best lessons learned from the two competing philosophies. However, on a philosophical and political level, they must constantly readjust to the cultural dissonance in the larger society and to the shifting political and constitutional views on the purposes, governance structure, and substance of education.


n42. Robert Michaelson, Piety in The Public School 87 (1970)., at 62-63.

n43. Toni Marie Massaro, Constitutional Literacy 25-26 (1993).

n44. Michaelson, supra note 42, at 144.

n45. Id. at 146-48.

n46. Diane Ravitch, The Schools We Deserve: Reflections on the Educational Crises of Our Times 82-83 (1985).

n47. See, e.g., Theodore W. Schultz, Investment in Human Capital, 51 Am. Econ. Rev. 1, 13 (1961) (maintaining that human skills and knowledge are form of capital in which society ought to invest for general welfare).

n48. Ravitch, supra note 46, at 84-85.

n49. Id. at 88-89.

n50. Frances Fitzgerald, America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century 192-94 (1979). Some historians maintain that the indictments leveled against Dewey in the 1950s and again in the 1970s misrepresented Dewey's philosophy and further exaggerated its impact on schooling. See Kaestle, supra note 20, at 107.

Key Texts

Prepared: January 23, 2001 - 12:02:29 PM
Edited and Updated, January 24, 2001

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