Lessons of Sputnik



Gerald Bracey, a psychologist with a gift for polemic, has made a second career out of (in his words) "debunk[ing] the notion that schools were better in the past than they are today." In Education Week (registration required) he rolls out the guns once more to claim that the Soviets' launch of the first orbiting satellite 50 years ago "wounded" the reputation of US schools. According to him, they didn't deserve the criticism they got then -- and didn't deserve the criticisms they got in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s either.

In keeping with his stance as a defender of the educational status quo, Bracey doesn't even mention the real Sputnik effect: the influx of federal dollars and the collaborations between teachers and practicing scientists that led to new curricula and improved course designs in the sciences all the way down to grade school. In a paper from ten years ago, F. James Rutherford gives a more even-handed view of Sputnik's effects on US education, adding that if anything that reform program stopped too soon.

As for Bracey's hobbyhorse, he's partly right but mainly wrong. From my book Let's Kill Dick and Jane:

"This image of a lost Golden Age in American education helped fuel a movement to make schools more academically demanding. But as a picture of the world it is so incomplete as to be false. At the turn of the century, when American schools focused on traditional academic pursuits, they educated only a minority of American children." Only 20 percent of WWI veterans had finished eighth grade; 70 percent of WWII veterans had. "No wonder American schools and textbooks changed. For the first time they had to teach the children of all socio-economic classes for more than a few months. To do so, they followed the path of least resistance in a nation that had never been friendly to intellectual endeavor -- and made a virtue of this makeshift. American schools have not deteriorated -- they've never been good enough."

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