Multiple issues have contributed to our national space exploration woes, but the abandonment of a talent development strategy that was once the envy of the world is partly to blame.


Scared by the threat of Soviet dominance in space a half century ago, the United States responded to the “Sputnik moment” with an ambitious, aggressive and systematic approach to develop high-level math and science talent.
The plan worked. The U.S. not only won the space race; we went on to occupy the unrivaled position as the world's innovator, generating breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology that transformed our lives. Over the years, that commitment to talent development and our corresponding leadership has dwindled, and we've been coasting ever since.
Instead of rededicating the nation to fully developing our academic talent and investing in individual excellence, the administration and Congress eliminated the sole federal K-12 program focused on advanced learners and offered no replacement. Instead of committing to the strategies necessary to cultivate excellence so more students can pursue careers in demanding fields, we have settled for grade level proficiency while ignoring those capable of higher achievement.
To reverse this downward trend, we must commit to crafting and implementing a national talent development strategy; a genuine second Sputnik moment. This effort would seek to replenish our pipeline of skills and talents such as advanced critical thinking and problem solving abilities, creative thinking and the ability and interest to master challenging and demanding academic content. It would identify and cultivate students throughout their educational careers so they could pursue rigorous college and graduate studies and attain work in fields of the future.
Rather than a top-down approach, the strategy would be a partnership involving federal, state and local education stakeholders as well as the private sector and academia, particularly institutions that prepare our next generation of teachers. It would establish clear goals and metrics that embrace and build upon best practices in areas such as:

    •    Identifying and cultivating budding talent at the earliest stage possible;
    •    Preparing and training new and existing teachers to work with this unique student population;
    •    Committing to the policies, practices and resources necessary to support these learners throughout their academic careers; and
    •    Supporting research to develop and disseminate best practices in developing high-ability students from all socioeconomic backgrounds and in all classroom settings.
Reversing decades of neglect, underinvestment and decline will not be easy. But if we can overcome daunting technological challenges to send a man to the moon less than eight years after committing to the goal, we can surely coordinate our education bureaucracy to develop our most talented students and regain our position as the world’s innovator.
Olszewski-Kubilius is president of the National Association for Gifted Students and a professor of education at Northwestern University.