"This is a wake-up call," Washington education officials declared when the PISA scores were released a few months ago. The United States ranked in the middle of the participants with math scores a hundred points lower than the new Shanghai students.
National educators declared that this was "another Sputnik moment," alluding to that day (October 4, 1957) when Americans woke up to hear that the U.S.S.R. was first to launch an artificial satellite into space. That resulting national inferiority complex generated a huge push to kick our science education up a notch. It turned out that the United States was not behind in the "space race" at all.
But for two decades, resources were poured into science education. And it made a difference.
Kansas State Teachers College was one center for the Sputnik-era reform, We received national grants to improve science education. Money was directed to where it made a difference: science departments. Science teachers from across the country, from Florida and California and Maine, came to Kansas to double their coursework in science.
Programs consisted of Academic Year (AYI) and Summer Institutes (SI). Some science teachers had inadequate initial science coursework. Veteran teachers realized their science was out-of-date. Rapid progress was being made in biology (the DNA revolution), chemistry, and physics (our space program and nuclear power).
National scientists rose to the challenge as well. Nobel Laureate George Beadle came to Emporia to help train biology teachers at the institutes. Teachers went back to their home schools knowing that they were part of a national effort to advance science. They were the leading edge in convincing students to pursue science, and agents who would ensure that students learned more and better science.
Institute-trained teachers had an "esprit de corps" that lasted throughout their careers. The youngest finally retired by the late 1990s. And with their retirement (along with the No Child Left Behind fiasco) we have seen a sharp decline in American students entering science and science teaching.
Between the 1970s and the present, teacher in-service was hi-jacked by educational reform movements that switched professional development away from biology, chemistry, physics and earth science. "Strategic reforms" promoted by Education Schools had kidnapped the AYI-SI funding by the 1980s. Eisenhower grants specifically targeted to update science teachers in summer programs were diverted to non-science coursework. In this last decade, Kansas teacher in-service was placed in the hands of school committees that focus on getting test scores raised. Content training is abandoned.
State and national science "standards" now contain more teaching methods than science. Accreditation of teacher institutions at both state and national level likewise shortchanges science content and penalizes strong content programs. Under a banner of "less science, not more," most states have drifted to one-size-fits-all, shallow-trained science teachers. Kansas is one of just eleven states that still requires depth-of-training in biology or chemistry or physics, etc.—a residual strength left from those Sputnik-era workshops.
If the U.S. was to panic and reinstate a "Sputnik-era" acceleration of science education, the money today would mostly be diverted to useless education and instructional-technology fads.
We are shutting down our space shuttles. We can no longer afford a robust space program. A growing proportion of our engineers, physicists, chemists, etc. are foreign born. Science teacher production nationwide is about one-fifth what is needed to fill vacancies.
The call for another "Sputnik moment"—directed to science departments—is a little late.