THE BLOG

What Sputnik Taught Us

05/07/2015 02:41 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched a small satellite called Sputnik that led to enormous changes in American education. The initial reaction was a lot of hand-wringing. During the preceding two decades, Americans learned the importance of math and science, both in research and in public life, but Sputnik showed we had lost our competitive edge. Life magazine ran a cover story comparing a studious Moscow high school student with a prom-infatuated American teenager. Some pundits scolded schools for emphasizing the basics too much while others suggested they were focused on too little. We were perplexed; we were frightened; we were angry.

But after less than a year, our nation stopped focusing on our weaknesses and instead focused on our strengths. In August 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which provided scholarships and fellowships to prospective mathematicians and scientists. Math and science teachers were specially favored in that program. The National Science Foundation ran intensive summer workshops for teachers that brought together the best, immersed them in math or science for weeks at a time and fostered a passion for their subject. These teachers inspired their students and one another. These were my teachers in the early 1960s in chemistry, physics and mathematics, and they changed my life.

In the decade that followed, our country continued to build on our strengths, culminating in the moon landing in 1969 -- an event celebrated by the entire world. The public's imagination was ignited by the possibilities math and science offered. We had high aspirations and a long-term vision for scientific progress. We increased the number of mathematicians and scientists many-fold during the 1960s, leaving a legacy of inspired teachers and a generation of young people who were turned on by math and science.

What were the lessons of Sputnik for education? Two are obvious.

First, while it's important to acknowledge education's shortcomings, hand-wringing doesn't solve problems. Solutions come by focusing on strength rather than dwelling on weakness. For example, some teachers are truly outstanding in the classroom. Find out why and then use them as models. And above all, keep them teaching!

Second, of all the activities we undertook in the decade following Sputnik -- new curricula, new textbooks, new technology - our investment in teachers had the most lasting effect. Those educators influenced their students long after the new math had disappeared, the textbooks were pulped and the technology was superseded by handheld calculators.

We have forgotten these lessons in the past 30 years. We now focus on what is going wrong - failing schools, weak teachers, struggling students. We expend most of our effort on rooting out bad teachers or bad schools. We fret endlessly about curriculum, assessments and technology, seeking some magic to improve achievement. We replace bold aspirations, like creativity and curiosity, with exceedingly modest ones, like higher test scores. Because the public hears only about education's failures, confidence in education is at an all-time low, down by more than half since the early 1970s. Teachers are demoralized and interest in the profession is plummeting. Some of our best teachers are just walking away.

We can change this, and the lessons of Sputnik tell us where to begin -- by focusing on the exceptional teachers already in our classrooms.

Master Teacher programs select outstanding math and science teachers, where "outstanding" is carefully defined -- teachers who know their subject, deeply and appropriately, who know the craft of teaching and who know their students and their needs. Holding teachers accountable for these things is meaningful accountability. Master teachers come together in lively communities of scholars, with much of the activity driven by the teachers themselves.

They create and run workshops on math, science or teaching itself--with subjects ranging from Common Core, 3D printing and AP statistics to the biochemical deconstruction of sandwiches, the chemistry of art and neurological disorders in students. These programs provide educators with opportunities to learn about recent developments in their fields, compare notes and talk about policy. In short, they do what accomplished professionals do in any field. And they are given additional compensation for this work as recognition for their professional efforts and accomplishment. Above all, they receive respect.

Such programs already exist -- I head one and there are others around the country, including one recently created by New York State -- but they are too few and too scattered. We need more, in every state.

After thirty years of wringing our hands, we ought to realize by now that we are not making things better. Instead, we are losing our most inspiring teachers and failing to bring in new ones. We need to make teaching an attractive profession if we want to get better.

That's what we learned from Sputnik.