The 20th Century and Growth of Federal Involvement in Curriculum
The 20th century saw a big increase in the amount of federal involvement in educational matters. World War II and the Cold War put the country on edge, and the government became increasingly worried about ensuring the United States measured up on a global scale.
The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in October 1957 turned out to be a landmark in the history of American education. There was a realization in the United States that in both technology and the military, the nation was slowly falling behind. In addition to the concerns over the nature of the curriculum, the shortage of well-trained teachers and engineers emerged as an additional area of concern. Major curriculum reforms were undertaken in 1958 with the passage of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA).
NDEA encouraged federal funding for improved instruction in the areas of mathematics, science, and foreign languages. For the first time, the federal government intervened in the content of elementary and secondary education curriculum with the goal of directing the curriculum toward the needs of the future. NDEA stressed the dissemination of the latest theories and modern technology. New materials and methodologies were developed, and summer programs were organized to train teachers on their use and implementation. The NDEA also extended financial help in the form of student loans and fellowships for college attendance, particularly for students with interest and ability in mathematics and science.
Schools during this period were pressured into a curriculum based on the structure of the disciplines. This curricular approach required students at all grade levels to engage in inquiry in various fields of study. It was generally accepted that a subject needed to be presented in a sequenced pattern over a number of grades, with complexity and abstraction increasing with each passing grade. The basic premise of the structure of the disciplines approach to the curriculum was that students engaged in inquiry would experience a more in-depth understanding of the tenets that served as a foundation for the subject they were studying. The federal government supported and advanced this specific curricular approach.
The growth of federal involvement in education has brought mixed results. With the 21st century moving forward, the United States government is in the process of reevaluating its role and what sort of strictures it should hold in place for schools in the future.