In 1957, the Soviet Union and its Спу́тник-1 shocked the United States and spurred the country to action. Twelve years later, America triumphantly became the first nation to step foot on the moon. Since that era, education commentators have attempted to identify education’s “Sputnik moment.” From “A Nation At Risk” to the country’s dismal showing in the 2009 PISA assessment, numerous moments have been highlighted. But none have catalyzed us to action quite the way Sputnik-1’s metronome of beeps heard over our radios as the man-made satellite flying overhead did.
Case in point are the most recent SAT score data dropped by the College Board this month and accompanied by scalding headlines like “SAT Scores Drop to Lowest Levels in a Decade,” “Maryland SAT Scores Decline for Third Year in a Row,” and “SAT Scores Hit Four-Decade Low.” Instead of a Sputnik moment, follow-up articles to the sensationalist first wave spoke of “why the dip in SAT scores may not be such a bad thing” and the fact that “as states change use of SAT and ACT, disadvantaged students get boost.” We can blame the lackluster efficacy of this most recent call to arms on apathy or poor message delivery. But the fact is that what we’re seeking to do is decidedly (and perhaps more dauntingly) difficult than “just” putting a man on the moon.
We’re hoping to catalyze to action a host of communities all pushing various strategies and various goals underneath a nebulous concept of “improving education.” Lowered SAT scores may resonate with and call to action a slice of the population, but they also likely light no fire under others—even those middle class families for whom the SAT historically has matter. And without a specific, singular, and measurable goal and definition of what an “improved education” looks like, it’s unlikely we’ll be celebrating education’s Neil Armstrong anytime soon.