Sputnik Screwed Up American Schools and Superman Can't Save Them

10/29/2010 07:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's depressing to admit it, but I am old enough to clearly recall the national hysteria caused by the launch of Sputnik in 1957. We were beaten by the Soviets in the race to launch a satellite into orbit, a scary prospect during the Cold War.

The answer to the Russian threat, many at the time agreed, was "fixing" our schools. We were told we needed more and better science and math education if we were to beat the Russians. So we got our best minds in gear to tell us how to do it. Bookshelves are now filled with the reports of the various commissions, committees and experts charged with improving science and math education.

In reality, things were not so bad.

We quickly caught up to the Soviets, and made good on President Kennedy's promise to send Americans to the moon by the end of the 1960s. Important technology -- largely developed during this period -- such as the laser and computer microchip, was about to emerge from American laboratories, and even from garages in exotic places such as California.

A few short years after Sputnik, in 1963, I found myself in what was then considered the nation's best high school, the Bronx High School of Science. I thought I was pretty smart when I arrived there, but by the time I left, I had a much more realistic picture of my place in the academic world. My class produced two Nobel Prize winners. I am not one of them.

After more than 50 years, we are still talking about a "crisis" in science and math education. America is dropping down on the list of nations in the quality of our science and math instruction, and the number of college graduates we produce in the technical fields.

Ironically, I believe that this apparent decline is a result of all the introspection that went on in the post-Sputnik era. We were so sure that our education system was broken that, in our zeal to fix it, we sowed the seeds for the current concerns over the quality of our math and science education.

But in my high school back then, it didn't seem to me that we were in a crisis, nor I suspect did it seem that way to my Nobel Prize winning classmates. But as we were learning (or in my case trying to learn) calculus, "experts" were coming up with new strategies to fix what seemed to be working swimmingly.

Take math, for instance. Over the past decades a teaching methodology called constructivism, pushed by "reformers," has radically changed how children in elementary schools learn (or more precisely don't learn) math. Exploring different ways that problems are solved is now more important than actually solving them. This is a direct outgrowth of all those agencies formed and reports issued in the wake of Sputnik. So convinced we were that we were on the wrong track, that we forgot that basic lesson of life, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

As we tinkered with our once winning formula, other nations, continued teaching math in much the way as I learned it back in the 1950's and 1960's, are whizzing past us.

A useful investment of 15 minutes of your time is to watch a demonstration of just what kind of math is now taught in many, if not most American schools. M.J. McDermott, a mother of twin boys who does the morning weather on KCPQ-TV, the Fox affiliate in Seattle, is featured in a wildly popular video posted on YouTube, Math Education: An Inconvenient Truth.

Some years ago, Ms. McDermott decided to get a degree in atmospheric science, and so went back to school. She especially had concerns about the math courses she needed as a prerequisite to her coursework. It had been 20 years since she had last taken a math class. But as it turned out, she did just fine. It was her classmates, much younger than she, who couldn't handle the math, in some cases, even the easiest arithmetic. This experience gave her insight into why American kids are lagging behind: the failure of the constructivist math being taught here now, largely as a result of the concerns following Sputnik.

Instead of a spirited debate on how we teach math and what should be taught in math classes, we instead debate about who is to blame for the failure of our schools to deliver the results we all seek. That is the real tragedy of the Obama education agenda and all the hype over the pro-charter anti-union propaganda film, Waiting for Superman. It diverts us from addressing real solutions.

Maybe it's not the teachers, but the curriculum and the teaching methodologies that are holding back our kids? Maybe we're stacking the deck against teachers with the "reform" math that came out of the last set of reforms created during the educational hysteria we witnessed decades ago.

Is it, as Yogi Berra would say, "Déjà vu all over again?" When I hear the president, Secretary Duncan, Mayor Bloomberg and other "reformers" spout off about charters and evaluating "ineffective" teachers, I have visions of these sons and daughters of the failed "reformers" of yesteryear planting new seeds for American academic failure in the years to come.

The Soviets never succeeded in defeating us militarily with killer satellites or rocket launched bombs. But Sputnik may have had the unintended consequence of scaring us into adopting education policies that are just as lethal.


You owe it to your children to watch the video Math Education: A Inconvenient Truth. If your child's school is using a program called "Everyday Math" or TERC "Investigations" or anything that can be described as "Chicago Math", it is time to visit your child's teacher, principal and school board and demand that your child be taught real math. Such a program is called Singapore Math, and it is widely available and reasonably priced.