Monday, December 16, 2013

PISA and the original Sputnik moment

Found both at the Wall Street Journal and the Fordham Institute website:

A Sputnik moment for U.S. education

Chester E. Finn, Jr.

December 08, 2010

Fifty-three years after Sputnik caused an earthquake in American education by giving us reason to believe that the Soviet Union had surpassed us, China has delivered another shock. On math, reading, and science tests given to 15-year-olds in sixty-five countries last year, Shanghai’s teenagers topped every other jurisdiction in all three subjects—by a sweeping margin. What’s more, Hong Kong ranked in the top four on all three assessments.
I see lots of movement reformers (including the president) making a connection between the way we're reacting to our PISA scores and the way we reacted to Sputnik. This is odd, not because the comparison isn't apt, but because this seems to be a case of alluding to the joke and forgetting the punchline.

The most notable thing about the reaction to the original Sputnik Moment was how completely misguided it was. The Soviets weren't surging ahead of us in aerospace, let alone in science in general. American education wasn't failing to produce first-rate scientists and engineers; if anything, we were seeing a tremendous run of talent and innovation. The most notable pedagogical response (new math) not only didn't dramatically improve math and science education; it was widely seen as a failure and was largely abandoned a few years later.

Sputnik did help to increase the amount of money we were spending on space exploration (and gave then-Senator Johnson a wonderful propaganda tool for his pet cause). It also freed up generous funding for other research initiatives like DARPA. All that cash certainly had a strong positive (though generally indirect) impact on science education, but in terms of education reform, the Sputnik crisis was basically a misconception leading to a fiasco.

With that in mind, when people talk about this being "our Sputnik Moment," my biggest fear is that they might be right.

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