Ever since the Soviet Union surprised the United States with the launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957, American politicians and other public figures have used the term “Sputnik moment” to describe times of crisis. I’ve been using the word. Action is urgently needed in the field of education.

From the publication of the landmark 1983 report on education, A Nation in Crisis, to the polarizing election of President Donald Trump, comparisons have been made to the events of Sputnik.

As a professor who studies the rhetoric of education reform, I know that what politicians and others call the Sputnik moment does not necessarily live up to the name. Sputnik is often invoked for rhetorical situations or to create the impression that an important event has occurred that the public needs to talk about. Some Sputnik moments spark long-lasting public debate, while others are quickly forgotten.

American education is questioned

When many Americans learned about Sputnik, they wondered how the Soviet Union had defeated the United States in space.

One popular theory is that K-12 schools focus too much on extracurricular activities such as school plays, while Russian students study foreign languages ​​and advanced mathematics. was.

In the spring of 1958, Life magazine published a series of articles entitled “The Crisis of Education.” The One Life article unfavorably compared the rigor of American education to that of the Soviet Union. He claimed that Soviet students excelled at grade level in science. Another Life article called American education a “carnival.”

President Dwight Eisenhower read the Life article and began advocating for what became the National Defense Education Act of 1958. This was the first intervention in education policy and funding. This law was enacted to close the supposed educational gap between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Since then, the pivotal event for American education has come to be known as the Sputnik moment. Here are three examples in which the American president was involved.

President Reagan and the shaky education system

In 1983, the National Commission on Educational Excellence published A Nation in Crisis. The report warned of “increasing mediocrity” in education and likened it to an “act of war”. These words prompted President Ronald Reagan to reflect in his 1983 speech at Pioneer High School in Whittier, California: Then, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the country was shaken. We responded by prioritizing math, science, and engineering education. ”

President Reagan at Pioneer High School in 1983.

President Reagan cited NASA’s space shuttle program as evidence of the nation’s success. But he also said the commission’s report shows the country needs to “take a hard look at our education system and point out where we’ve gone wrong.”

“It’s up to us now to respond as positively as we did in the 1950s,” President Reagan said.

“A Nation in Crisis” is about lagging test scores, not one dramatic event.But like Sputnik, the incident sparked a decades-long debate about the rigors of U.S. public education.

President Obama talks about competition with China

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called the rise of China’s economy and the aftermath of the 2007-2008 mortgage crisis “the Sputnik moment of our generation.” In response to this moment, he proposed the creation of an Advanced Research Projects Agency for education, similar to what the United States maintains for defense.

Obama needed to sell his proposal to the public and the House, which had been dominated by Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections. Unlike President Reagan’s expression that “the nation is in crisis,” President Obama’s use of the phrase “Sputnik moment” did not spark long-lasting public debate. He also stopped short of creating the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Education.

Donald Trump’s election

In 2016, author Richard Kahlenberg and educator Clifford Janey declared that the rise of Donald Trump “should be a Sputnik moment for civics education.” Among other things, they argued that public schools were failing to develop young people into “thoughtful citizens” who “resist the appeals of demagogues.” They also wrote that in the wake of the 2016 election, schools should be encouraged to “instill in children an appreciation for civic values” as well as skills for employment.

As expected, Trump’s election has galvanized a national debate about civics education. Since 2016, a series of prominent reports have been published on this topic. These reports include the “Educating for American Democracy” report by iCivics, the “Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse” report by the National Academy of Education, and the “Teaching Hard History” report by the Southern Poverty Law Center .

There was also “Civic Learning for Democracies in Crisis” by the Hastings Center. The Trump administration also joined the discussion with its 1776 report calling for patriotic citizenship education.

Why is there a Sputnik moment?

Sputnik moments can occur spontaneously, be rhetorically constructed after the fact, or be somewhere in between. Even in those early moments, it wasn’t a touch-and-go incident.

President Eisenhower initially tried to downplay Sputnik, calling it “a little ball in the air.” But for critics of standard American education in the 1950s, such as Arthur Bester and Admiral Hyman Rickover, Sputnik was an opportunity to refocus American schools on rigorous academic instruction.

In the late 1950s, critics of American education took full advantage of this period by calling for greater emphasis on mathematics, science, and language. The National Defense Education Act did just that. They took advantage of this moment, and policymakers and education reformers have remained wary of more Sputnik-like moments ever since.

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