Default Lines column, January 2011 edition of eSchool News—On the morning of Oct. 5, 1957, readers of the New York Times woke up to a jarring three-line headline that spanned the width of the newspaper’s front page in all-capital letters: “SOVIET FIRES EARTH SATELLITE INTO SPACE; IT IS CIRCLING THE GLOBE AT 18,000 M.P.H.; SPHERE TRACKED IN 4 CROSSINGS OVER U.S.”
And so began the panicked reaction to the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which shocked U.S. policy makers into realizing they no longer led the world in technological development. Sputnik’s launch spurred passage of the National Defense Education Act, a four-year program that poured billions of dollars into education funding. In 1953, the federal government spent $153 million on education funding; by 1960, this amount had grown nearly sixfold.
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Fast forward more than five decades, and there have been several events in the past few months that should have prompted a similar sense of urgency among U.S. policy makers … and yet the collective response of the nation has been nowhere near as dramatic:
• In the latest international comparisons from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), released in December, U.S. students ranked 25th out of 65 industrialized countries in math, 14th in reading, and 17th in science. In its first year of participating in these international assessments, the province of Shanghai, China, topped the world in all three disciplines in 2009—outscoring U.S. students 600 to 487, on average, in math; 575 to 502 in science; and 556 to 500 in reading.
• For the first time ever, China also now boasts the world’s fastest supercomputer, the New York Times reported in October. According to Jack Dongarra, a University of Tennessee computer scientist who maintains the supercomputer rankings, the Chinese machine, known as Tianhe-1A, has 1.4 times the power of the previously top-ranked computer, which sits at a national laboratory in Tennessee.
• Korea, which ranked first among OECD countries in reading and math and third in science, is “years ahead” of the United States in terms of internet connectivity, reports Blair Levin, a former chief of staff for the Federal Communications Commission during the Clinton administration and now a policy analyst for the Aspen Institute. During a meeting of the State Educational Technology Directors Association in November, Levin said Korea is closing in on its goal of delivering 100 Mbps of connectivity to every home in the nation.