Where Is Sputnik When We Need It? (Rep. Vernon Ehlers)

Fifty years ago on October 4, the Soviet Union changed the world by launching Sputnik I into orbit. People who were alive in 1957 vividly remember Sputnik.

It shocked the American public and dwarfed the achievements of our rocket program. It was so serious that President Dwight Eisenhower had to go on national television to apologize for our failure, and promised a boost to our science efforts. This led to an awakening of innovation, which resulted in the United States launching a comparable satellite of its own, the Explorer I, into orbit fewer than four months later. More importantly, Sputnik spurred U.S. investment in math and science education programs and sparked an intense focus on equipping our workforce with the skills needed to compete with the Russians.

Unfortunately, once again the United States is falling behind other nations. This time, it is our children who are falling behind their peers in European and Asian countries that have more rigorous math and science education programs. We must do a better job of preparing our kids for the jobs of the future.

Already, economic pressures have pushed some states and the federal government to improve math and science education. For example, in Michigan the business community supported the effort to require that high school graduates take at least four years of math and three years of science courses. My state desperately needs a workforce equipped with math and science skills to attract employers and retain current jobs. Also, I should mention that President Bush recently signed into law the America COMPETES Act of 2007, which includes provisions to encourage innovation in manufacturing and to strengthen many of our federal research and education programs. While these efforts are crucial to our nation's future, we must do more to improve.

We should not wait for another Sputnik-like spark to bolster our nation's math and science education programs. Fortunately, this year we have the perfect opportunity to invigorate our education system by improving upon the successful No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This law has helped countless students in the United States improve over the past five years, and it is a great launching pad for developing an educational system that will prepare our nation for the future.

NCLB has helped shine a bright light on schools that need improvement, and has focused our nation's attention on accountability. The result is a tangible impact on the level of proficiency in schools. NCLB has helped our children learn to read and understand math, and has closed the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their more privileged peers.

Yet NCLB still needs additional improvements. I introduced a bill to put science on a par with reading and math. The Science Accountability Act requires that science testing, which begins this school year, be included in states' student evaluation systems starting next school year. Another bill I introduced, the Improving Mathematics and Science Teacher Quality Act, provides dedicated funding for teacher in-service or professional development training.

Furthermore, we need to ensure that states are treated equitably. Our nation's mix of 50 different state educational standards and state tests distracts from our national focus on preparing our kids for their future. In that spirit, I worked with Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) to introduce the Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for Kids (SPEAK) Act, which creates rigorous, voluntary education content standards for math and science. In exchange for voluntarily adopting these math and science standards, it provides states regulatory flexibility. It is worth noting that since education is primarily a state and local responsibility the bill specifically avoids creating national curricula or tests.

We must seize this Sputnik-like opportunity and strengthen NCLB. After the Russians beat us to space, our nation redoubled its efforts and improved its focus on space programs and developed an innovative workforce. This led to many scientific discoveries and helped us put humans on the moon. In the same way, we must redouble our efforts as we build on the successes of the first version of NCLB to help launch our students and our great nation into the 22nd century and beyond.