The Space Race as a Model for Transforming Education in California
by Doron Markus, San Mateo County Office of Education’s science and engineering coordinator
“Today's children will do well not to close their minds prematurely on the subject of wheels."
-David Hawkins (1983)
The space race began on October 4, 1957 with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. In less than one year, the U.S. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (NDEA) with the hope of spurring changes within education that would lead to homegrown scientific and technological advancements, and with those changes a significant edge over the Soviets. A little more than a decade later, American astronauts walked on the surface of the moon. Within the next several decades, the U.S. created the Space Shuttle program, put the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit, helped design, launch, and maintain the International Space Station, and currently leads the world in operational spacecraft currently orbiting the Earth.
The space race was the result of the U.S. perceiving itself to be in a crisis, and in response it invested in its own future. The NDEA provided federal funding to “ensure trained manpower of sufficient quality and quantity to meet the national defense needs of the United States.” It authorized the appropriation of over $1 billion ($9.3 billion in 2020 dollars) over seven years to U.S. schools, and became the first example of a comprehensive federal education legislation. The study of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) became imperative. Ultimately, the space race was “won” because the newly imagined and invested, career-oriented K-12 education system in the U.S. produced the scientists and engineers necessary to win it. In addition, the space race also led to the creation of several, new industry sectors and hundreds of millions of jobs around the globe.
In actuality, the space race was not a crisis, but an opportunity to prioritize technological advancements and improve education. During that era, humanity faced several true crises, namely global poverty, hunger, racism, and major political and ideological conflicts. It was also a time of tremendous industrial and economic growth, the positive and negative effects of which have accrued into the modern world. Today, we face global crises of epic proportions. The climate crisis affects every aspect of our planet -- our oceans, our air, our forests, and our biodiversity are all threatened by human activity. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of humanity in some way, and it has forced us to shift our mindsets and the way we live our daily lives. Centuries of systemic racism continues to marginalize and disenfranchise hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Nearly 700 million people still suffer from malnutrition and a lack of clean drinking water. We are in the midst of a human-caused mass extinction. The list goes on. However, the space race was a very different type of issue, as compared to current, global crises that threaten life on the planet. But just like the space race, our current global crises also offer new opportunities for technological advancement and educational improvement.
So what can we do? More specifically, what can K-12 educators do? We are not out there solving the climate crisis, discovering a cure for viruses, preventing future pandemics, bringing an end to systemic racism, transporting food and clean drinking water to all those in need, or stopping the extinction of millions of species. So what can the average classroom teacher and administrator do to help turn the tide on any of these crises? Well… a lot, actually. To date, nearly every single person in modern times who pursued a career that led to solving a problem, whatever its scale, was a student within a K-12 school system. And at some point while they attended school the seeds of interest in a career may have been planted, which might have led to the pursuit of a career that optimized their ability to solve that problem. Students might not make career choices during elementary school, or even by the time they are high school seniors, but at some point during their K-12 experience the “career seed” may have been planted, and that’s what educators can do -- we can plant the seeds.
Over the past ten years, California adopted new standards and frameworks in all content areas. These adoptions updated instructional practices and desired student outcomes to be more in line with current research on learning. But this begs the question: To what end do the new California content standards and frameworks help mitigate or solve our global crises? I would argue that they help with working toward that goal. The Science and Engineering Practices of the Next Generation Science Standards and the Common Core Mathematics Practices, for example, help students develop fundamental skills and way of thinking ; however, I believe there is one key element that is missing. This element is the invisible driving force of education that generally goes unspoken. This element is career education. I believe that if we are truly serious about preparing our students to help solve the world’s crises, then career education should play a much more prominent role among the content areas, and become its explicit, guiding force. By intentionally and fully integrating career education into K-12 classroom instruction, students will be able to connect the content and skills that they learn in class with the college degrees and careers that require them. It could help all students -- not just those who see career role models that look like themselves -- learn where they could fit into the world. Students could learn exactly why their education should be important to them, and why they should take it seriously.
Many educators are more familiar with career education in the form of vocational education, which, over time, has either been eliminated entirely or evolved into a new area called High School Career Technical Education (CTE). In California, this field is organized into 15 “Industry Sectors”, subdivided into 58 “Career Pathways” (see CTE website at CDE). High school districts decide for themselves which of the pathways they will offer, as they are based on regional needs, and usually offer between five to ten of them. However, a majority of high school students do not enroll in CTE pathway courses. For students in grades K-8, career education is almost completely allusive, as CTE pathways do not exist at all at this grade levels. This places the decision whether to incorporate career education into instruction solely into the hands of individual K-8 teachers who are interested in doing so.
The alignment and integration of CTE standards and practices with the other content areas’ standards and practices would serve to reframe education, making it more relevant and purposeful, and more explicit as to how we can help students start their journey toward solving the issues for which we desperately need solutions. It would provide full transparency as to the purpose of learning, namely helping students understand that doing well in school could lead to a career that pays a living wage. I believe that it must be made perfectly clear to all students that humanity and all life faces critical issues that are solvable, and the planet needs them to help devise and implement those solutions. They also need to know that time is of the essence. If we downplay or ignore the relationship between our current global crises and our future workforce, students may never understand that they can be part of the solution, and that school can play a significant role in helping them discover and prepare for a career that can make a difference.
In response to claims that there is no time for reforms or the “reinvention of the wheel,” Philosopher David Hawkins responded with his quote (above). Students must not grow up thinking that we already know everything we need to know, and that there is no purpose for academic pursuits. Our students must be given the opportunity to examine our world with fresh eyes to find new, more efficient solutions, and devise ways to implement them, as soon as possible. The pursuit of a better understanding of the metaphoric wheel is the means to a greater end -- a career that focuses on solving global crises. Just as in the past, we educators have the opportunity to play a significant role in those worthy pursuits. This is our space race. Losing is not an option.
CDE CTE Website: https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/ct/gi/