The Evolution of Science Education in the United States

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Science education in the United States has made substantiative shifts over the years to compete in the global arena. In part one of this three-part series, I will address our country’s evolution of formal science education, with an emphasis on the impact of the Space Race on STEM training. I will examine the impact of past and present legal reform and innovations and how all of this has culminated into the current state of public education in the United States.

The United States has long been striving for a top spot as a leader in STEM education since the mid-20th century. The American public school system is tasked with the substantial undertaking of providing their students with high-quality science education that measures up on a global scale. It’s fair to infer that a motivating force behind some of the current hot topics in education dates back to the fear instilled in our country during the Space Race. When America was forced to face the inadequacies within our education system on a global stage, it created a lasting impact in our country that has bled into our current educational policies today.

The Impact of the Space Race

The modern-day American education system looks vastly different than it did 50-100 years ago. There have been numerous political events, civil unrest, and critical educational reforms and innovations over the years that have shaped the way our public school system operates today. In the late 19th century, public interest in our country’s science education started expanding with the scientific and technological progress shown during the Industrial Revolution. Science education began to take on a more formal approach in schools. By the end of WWII, the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States started to generate a new global standard for science and technology advancement.  

 Sputnik Frenzy

In the late 1950s, our nation’s educational priorities were shifting; the Civil Rights movement was underway, and the U.S. panicked upon hearing that the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957. This event marked a turning point for STEM education in America. We suddenly became acutely aware that science education was falling behind globally, and we had to make swift and conscious efforts to prioritize our math and science preparation programs. By 1958, Congress had passed the National Defense Education Act, which prioritized defense education and training, new audio and visual technologies in American classrooms, and a hefty 1-billion-dollar budget for science education.  

“The Russian satellite essentially forced the United States to place a new national priority on research science, notes Paul Dickon, author of Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. He writes, “This led to the development of microelectronics — the technology used in today’s laptop, personal, and handheld computers. Many essential technologies of modern life, including the Internet, owe their early development to the accelerated pace of applied research triggered by Sputnik.”

No Child Left Behind

These events of the mid-twentieth century helped pave the way for continued and sometimes controversial legal change in our education system. In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was passed, which challenged “the basic culture of our education system” (Paige, 2006). NCLB sought to push the use of national standards as a measurement tool to ensure teacher accountability and student proficiency. Achievement goals were set for schools and states to adhere to but also allowed for local flexibility in how to reach the goals. Mastery was at the core of math and reading assessments, while schools were required yearly to achieve a benchmarked amount of progress. Schools that performed better on their yearly report cards were rewarded with better funding to motivate lower-performing schools to compete. 

NCLB was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which was meant to ensure equal opportunity in education. While NCLB pushed for higher academic standards and continued equal access to education, it also carried significant drawbacks that still impact the state of education in the U.S today. Two of the most prominent issues surrounding the implementation of NCLB are the hyperfocus on standardized assessments and inequality in focus on academic resources. Under NCLB, student and teacher accountability started to hinge on test scores, and even worse, followed by the misuse of those scores, which negatively impacted students from low-income areas. More attention began to be placed on reading and math proficiency, resulting in less time and resources spent on science, social studies, and related arts. Instruction took a sharp turn, and teachers felt the unending pressure to prepare students for high-stakes exams rather than create meaningful learning experiences. We had tunnel vision regarding ELA and Mathematics proficiency, allowing science standards to be further removed from our nation’s priorities.

Race to the Top

Fast forward to 2009, and the Race to the Top (RTTT) Initiative further enveloped the fear that America’s education system was still failing decades after the launch of Sputnik. RTTT was enacted as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) and aimed to provide States with monetary incentives for specific education reform. This grant mandated various changes in state and local education systems as a condition of receiving Title I funds (Title I subsidizes educational programs for students from low-income areas). Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind were both born to pursue education innovation and reform, but NCLB mandated reform while RTTT was voluntary. “The RTTT grant moves beyond the NCLB to focus on teacher effectiveness as well as qualifications by giving higher scores to states that link teacher evaluations and student performance” (Office of Legislative Research, 2010). The addition of RTTT continued to place a billion-dollar investment in test scores, student data, and teacher evaluations. In fact, RTTT encouraged competitive marketplaces in public education and prioritized data collection and standardized assessment, thus diminishing the value of experiential, age-appropriate learning experiences.

The Common Core Connection

One of the critical areas the U.S Department of Education wanted to focus on was “Adopting Standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy.” (“Race to the Top Fund,” 2016). Many believe the States motivation to adopt the Common Core State Standards is directly linked to this 4.35-billion-dollar Race to the Top Initiative. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were released in 2010 and are skills/objectives that were established to provide the States with guidelines of what all students should be able to do concerning literacy and math and bring all schools into alignment at the national level. Since 2010, the CCSS has been adopted voluntarily, and it’s worth noting that the CCSS only addresses literacy and math skills.

In 2015, President Obama signed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to update and replace the previous version of NCLB. The new law aims for every student, regardless of race, socioeconomic background, disability, or language, to receive the highest quality education (U.S Department of Education, 2016). It does implement pieces of NCLB, such as using state assessments to measure academic progress but increases the role of the individual states and local school districts to provide rigorous and high-quality education. The adoption of ESSA was a landmark moment and formally recognized what educators had been yelling into the void for 15 years; that a single test score cannot and will not ever encompass all of the nuances of a child’s academic ability. 

The Impact of CCSS & State Science Standards

Here we are today, in 2022, still concerned with our country’s international performance status, with various states still using the Common Core State Standards to measure academic success. According to Education Week, as of 2019, 35 states and Washington D.C. still use the CCSS, while 11 states that initially committed to the CCSS have recanted and announced the use of new or reformed benchmarking goals. Many states, including Florida and New York, are developing individual academic standards that include all subject areas.

As it stands now, Ohio still uses CCSS to address math and literacy standards, both absolutely essential puzzle pieces of our education system, especially now with the current literacy crisis in our country. But where do Ohio’s Science standards find their footing among the prodigious CCSS? Yes, math is the foundation for strong science, technology, and engineering skills. Still, somewhere amid NCLB, the limited subject scope of the Common Core, and the increased value of standardized testing, the U.S. seemed to place science as a core subject on the back burner.

I taught third grade at a Title 1 public elementary school in Ohio for 7 years. The Ohio Reading Guarantee (3GG) was my companion as I navigated each year with that high stakes standardized reading assessment looming over my head like an invisible rain cloud that wouldn’t break. Reading, Writing, Grammar, and Math were the most crucial subjects to fit into my daily schedule, with Social Studies and Science always lingering in the background. I received additional time and materials to prep, plan, and teach the third grade reading standards. My daily ELA time was a substantial 90-minute district-mandated block, and Math was an undivided 75 minutes. I taught in a self-contained classroom, meaning I was responsible for all subject instruction. Once I built in all of the additional time dedicated to specials, transitions, lunch, recess, and daily fire dousing, it left me thinking: 

Science who?

My intent was never to disregard the importance of science instruction, but when your job and your 8-year-old students’ academic futures hang in the balance of one test score, you’re left with few options. The CCSS overtook my classroom and hindered my ability to balance time dedicated to each subject area. And while there is merit to establishing learning standards at a national level that are designed to ensure the same expectations across the country, regardless of mitigating factors, this very approach marginalized my classroom into a “one size fits all” mentality. There are many effective ways to measure school performance, but a standardized test given on one day is not an accurate indicator. Often, the impetus for decisions like this stem from a politician with little or no actual experience in the field of education.

Unfortunately, this same story can be and has been told repeatedly by teachers across the country. I remember this very conversation happening in one of my first placement experiences back in 2012. My cooperating teacher was a wonderful person and educator who helped shape me into the teacher I am today. She was an incredibly gifted ELA teacher but would often complain that the lack of time, resources, and focus from the state impacted her ability to properly teach the Ohio science and social studies standards. I didn’t know it then, but I would come to have this same obstacle ten years later regarding my own classroom. Science instruction became a hindrance to precious test prep time, and not only that, but our school also often needed more consumables and resources to adequately teach science. 

Where do we go from here?

So, when did we stop prioritizing Science education in the American classroom? Sometime between the Sputnik era and the reformation of NCLB in 2015, the American classroom became a little less curious, inferential, imaginative, and creative. Even our test scores are lackluster; when it comes to international mathematics and science assessments, the U.S has shown little to no growth over the past decade (The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2020 | NSF – National Science Foundation, n.d.). Possibly even more concerning, “Approximately 28 percent of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate” (Scientific Literacy: How Do Americans Stack Up?, n.d). With important scientific topics like climate change, evolution, and vaccines being increasingly politicized, many Americans have fallen prey to cherry-picking information that supports their preconceived notions, with little scientific evidence used to back up erroneous claims. 

At the very least, keeping science standards out of the national spotlight has undoubtedly done a disservice to our students, teachers, and communities. There will never be a perfect equation to academic success, as that relies on the magic of the individual teacher’s expertise and unique student capabilities. But the bottom line is literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies all play a fundamental role in cultivating well-rounded, knowledgeable, and civically responsible citizens. That being said, The Common Core State Standards have certainly been scrutinized in recent years- and with good reason. As a guide for curriculum design, the CCSS are important. Still, as a tool for performance measurement, it cannot effectively produce the results for which it intends, and many states are beginning to see that and make the necessary changes. Furthermore, amid this CCSS albeit controversial censure, the conversation around the caliber of America’s Science Standards has started to take a front seat in the education space. All core subjects deserve the time, materials, and energy that have been, rightfully so, poured into reading and math. 

While the launch of Sputnik certainly gave the U.S. the push we needed to compete with other developed countries, today, we are still being outperformed globally. The irony is that the United States is home to some of the top universities in the world; we’ve played one of the most prominent roles in global technology advancement, and we have the largest economy in gross domestic product (U.S. News, 2021). The United States is also one of the wealthiest countries in the world, both in economic prosperity and power. Yet, despite these merits, the U.S still faces challenges with science literacy and the quality of our STEM education.

In the 60+ years since the Space Race began, we swung from one end of the spectrum to another for the field of education to address its glaring inadequacies. What are the implications of our approach to the American public school system since the 1950s? Could we have unintentionally kept our country’s performance stagnant or even pushed us further back in the international competition? And what are we doing to try to catch up? STEM is one of the most talked about education topics in recent years. Nevertheless, something has been amiss in our approach to Science, Technology, and Engineering education. 

Could the Next Generation Science Standards be exactly what our country needs?

In part two, I will outline Ohio’s approach to science standards, how the Next Generation Science Standards came to be and what the core principles of NGSS are. Finally, how has the Ohio Energy Project contributed to the betterment of science education in Ohio and what does the future hold for us?


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Dickson, P. (2001). Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. Walker Pub.

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Map: Tracking the Common Core State Standards. (2015, June 29). Education Week. Retrieved November 14, 2022, from

Michigan State University. (2007, February 27). Scientific Literacy: How Do Americans Stack Up? ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 14, 2022, from

Paige, R. (2006). No Child Left Behind: The Ongoing Movement for Public Education Reform. Harvard Educational Review76(4), 461–473.

Race to the Top Fund. (2016, July 19). Retrieved November 14, 2022, from

The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2020 | NSF – National Science Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2022, from

U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Retrieved November 14, 2022, from

U.S. News. (2021). The Best Countries for Education. US News. Retrieved November 14, 2022, from

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