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"Lessons from the Sputnik-Era Curiculum Reform Movement: The Institutions We Need for Educational Reform." In What’s at Stake in the K-12 Standards Wars: A Primer For Educational Policy Makers, ed. Sandra Stotsky, 281-312. New York: Peter Lang Publ


In scattered universities at the middle of this century, in the gloom of the Cold War, a few of America's leading scientists, mathematicians, scholars and educators began what was to become a brilliant national movement to reform American science and mathematics education. The curriculum projects they founded prospered and multiplied, ultimately receiving millions of dollars in federal and foundation support, producing scores of textbooks, films, and teaching aids, spreading across the curriculum to English and other subjects, and in time reaching hundreds of thousands of students, in the majority of America's schools. And then, having blazed into glory, just as abruptly, Curriculum Reform fell from sight. Of the dozens of high school science and mathematics textbooks that the projects published in the 1950s and 1960s, to my knowledge only three remain in print, in updated editions. Two are biology textbooks from the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) and one is the physics textbook from the Physical Sciences Study Committee (PSSC), which also has supplementary materials still in print. Of the dozens of groups of scientists, writers and teachers that were developing high school curricula then, only one, the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), remains in operation. Indeed, many of today's teachers have never even heard of Curriculum Reform. It lives now principally in the memories of the surviving Curriculum Reformers, and I am one.

Some say it was the naiveté of the Curriculum Reformers themselves, some that it was the perfidy of the educational establishment, and others, that America’s badly trained classroom teachers brought the movement down. I believe that we Curriculum Reformers were so secure in our scientific and pedagogical theories and so confident of our support from the government and foundations, that we failed to see how politically unstable our situation really was. Our certainty was all the more dangerous because we lacked a way into the heart of American educational politics. That heart is not in Congress or the national research universities, but in the states and towns of this country. Events were to prove that it was not enough for brilliant men to be right. To transform America’s schools, a revolution needs to hold onto its gains by erecting permanent institutions in the core and sinew of American education.

Remarkably little has even been written about Curriculum Reform over these past twenty-five years. Many of the founders of Curriculum Reform in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s have scattered or have passed away, and almost all of the seventy-some textbook publishers in existence in 1960 have merged into oblivion. When I speak here of Curriculum Reform, accordingly, I speak of the the principles of the movement, of the projects I knew at first-hand, and of those projects that I can best document. Ralph Raimi, professor of mathematics emeritus at the University of Rochester, is now tracing the history of the Curriculum Reform mathematics programs, sometimes called the "new math." Jamey Cohen-Cole, a doctoral student at Princeton, is studying the political causes of Curriculum Reform's loss of support in Congress in the 1970s. These histories will perform a great service.
I am interested here less in history for the sake of history, however, than in suggesting some of the lessons that those in the state standards movement can learn about the politics of American education from the experience of the scientists and scholars who led Curriculum Reform. I have been most fortunate in interviewing some of the surviving leaders of Curriculum Reform for this essay.

Full text available in book only.
Chapter by Mary Campbell Gallagher is © Copyright Mary Campbell Gallagher 2000. All rights reserved.