Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Eisenhower Years: Sputnik, Defense, and International Competition
By 1957, the federal role in education had already expanded considerably, but major changes were in store. In October, 1957, the focus of federal policy changed when the Soviet Union launched the world's first orbiting satellite, Sputnik. Immediately, the rhetoric surrounding education shifted from the needs of below-average students to the needs of above-average students. When the Soviet Union launched a second satellite just a month after the first, the success of academically talented students became the foremost preoccupation of the nation's schools. A week after the launching of Sputnik II, a federal policy paper titled "Education in Russia" stressed the Soviets' aggressive cultivation of academic excellence and called on American educators to do the same-but better-in hopes of out-performing the Soviet Union and winning "the race for space." The cold war was no less potent than previous wars had been in stimulating rapid increases in federal aid to education.
The combined themes of national defense and international economic competition proved remarkably durable over time as reasons to expand the federal role in education. In 1958, Congress hurriedly approved the "emergency" National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which sent an unprecedented infusion of federal funds into the public schools. According to President Eisenhower, the United States needed to outdo its foe, the Soviet Union, "on the Communists' own terms-outmatching them in military power, general technological advance, and specialized education and research." The NDEA, therefore, targeted these areas, shoring up the nation's educational and research facilities, fostering technical development, and trying to improve students' academic achievement levels. In particular, federal resources under the NDEA funded programs in science, mathematics, engineering, and foreign languages. (It is worth noting that legislation for such a program had been in process even before Sputnik; the satellite simply bolstered political support for existing science- and language-related initiatives and prompted Congress to act.)