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Sputnik Moments, And Getting Above Average

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

So what does a "Sputnik moment" look like? And does it mean the same thing to the public as it does to our leaders?

The usual definition is that it's a moment when the United States has been bested in technological competition something that gives the American public a kick in the pants to move forward. That's what happened during the original Sputnik moment in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union was first to put a satellite into orbit, and the first American attempt to do the same turned out to be a humiliating, televised, flop.

President Obama and others say the latest international education scores should serve as another Sputnik moment. Students from Shanghai, China, in their first appearance in the standings, came out first in the world in science, while American students improved to the point where their scores are now "average." Leaders in business, science and academia have been beating the drum on science and math education for years now, warning that the U.S. risks losing its edge and falling behind on innovation.

And that may be the heart of the problem. Public Agenda's Are We Beginning to See the Light research, funded by the GE Foundation, found that both parents and the general public think math and science education is important, but they don't share leaders' sense of urgency.

Overwhelming majorities of Americans say that in the future there'll be a lot more jobs requiring advanced math and science skills, and that students with those skills will have a big advantage in getting into college. Majorities are also open to a lot of different ways of improving math and science in schools.

At the same time, few Americans think it is "absolutely essential" for students to understand advanced sciences like physics (28%) and advanced math like calculus (26%). When it comes to their own child, few parents want more emphasis on advanced math and science like physics (42%) and calculus (42%). Additionally, nearly 7 in 10 Americans say science can wait until middle and high school.

And that's on the heels of a long series of reports showing American students falling behind.

So if our Sputnik moments fall flat, how do we get the public engaged in this challenge? In our Opportunity Knocks report, we found one way is to talk about opportunities: ways in which learning more math and science can build better careers and better lives for young people.

It's not as dramatic as a rocket exploding on the launch pad but it may be more effective. After all, parents may be a lot more concerned about whether their own child has a good career ahead than about whether their child outscores another child half a world away.




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