Foundations of Education


Chronicles the intersection of social change and educational reform throughout the 20th century.

Key Concepts

  • Sputnik launch
  • human capital theory
  • A Nation at Risk

Social Change and 20th Century Education 3

The book excerpt below (written by the developer of this course website) summaries the impacts of a major world event (the Sputnk launch), a pervasive economic theory (human capital theory), and an influential report (A Nation at Risk) on education in the United States (and, somewhat less directly, Canada).

CREDIT: The text below is excerpted from: Hutchison, David. (2004). A Natural History of Place in Education. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 132 - 134.


Even before the Soviet Union launched the first orbiting satellite into space in October, 1957, public schools were facing increased scrutiny from critics who charged that progressive education emphasized so-called non-academic pursuits over the development of students’ intellectual capacities. The launching of Sputnik introduced a new feeling of fear into the debate over the place of education in society and, for the next several years, firmly entrenched that debate within the context of the Cold War (Kliebard, 1987). For the first time in American history, it was events outside the United States that provided the impetus for educational reform. The United States was losing the battle for economic and military supremacy critics charged and the chief culprit responsible for this failure was the public school.

Over the course of the next decade and in the name of national security, new investments in mathematics and science education would be made by the federal government and calls for a new rigorous approach to teaching would gain favor. The place of education in society became firmly intertwined with concerns for U.S. national security and America’s future economic and technological prowess.

Human Capital Theory

In so far as it was a singular event, the launching of Sputnik, which contextualized much of the debate over the place of education in society in the late 1950s, it was the gradual emergence of a newfound market ideology for education which underlied much of the debate over the economics of education in the 1960s and beyond.

Early formulations of human capital theory (Denison, 1963; Becker, 1964) extended the economic value traditionally ascribed to the material world to the labor force. Increases in productivity and personal income were equated with knowledge and skill investments in people. It was no longer sufficient to cite land, labor, and material capital as the sole harbingers of economic success. Rather, investments in human capital, in training and education, provided their own high rates of return, not only for those workers who were the direct recipients of training, but also for the wider economy more generally.

Far from playing a defensive role (as it did during the Sputnik era) education and training were now optimistically heralded as key to the labor force's social and economic development. New federal and state initiatives [in the United States], including educational loans, anti-poverty programs, and public relations campaigns, promoted the place of education in improving the lives of both the privileged and disadvantaged. Educational researchers and economists produced studies which demonstrated clear linkages between educational investment and economic success. Human capital theory successfully married economics and education in a way that established a new empirical and quantitative justification for the place of education in supporting the market economy. Monies paid out to schools were no longer to be labeled as consumptive expenditures. Instead they were to be seen as educational investments in the future.

The rise of human capital theory had clear benefits for schools. It produced an outpouring of monetary investment in education and, just as importantly, gave public schools a privileged role to play in forging future economic and social progress. Yet, at the end of the day, this newfound economic view of schools was beholden to the principles of market ideology. In the view of democratic proponents, the purpose of education was myopically limited to fulfilling the needs of the market economy as measured exclusively through quantitative data which rationalized educational investments solely in terms of economic outcomes (Engel, 2000). If the economic rationale of monetary investments in education were ever to be questioned, public schools might well lose much of the public’s esteem. Indeed, educators might even be put into the defensive position of having to justify monetary investments in public education solely on the basis of economic rates of return and using quantitative data alone (Chamberlain, 1971).

“A Nation at Risk”

It is precisely the above reversal of fortune which came to haunt the debate over public education in the 1980s. By 1980, the American economy was in decline. Having established a strong causal link between education and economic health in the last 30 years, public schools were assigned much of the blame. The economic recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s gave rise to a number of scathing critiques of North American education. Beginning in 1984 with the publication of A Nation At Risk, numerous government and business reports (followed by many single authored books in the 1990s and beyond) began calling for a 'total overhaul' and 'massive restructuring' of public education based on the charge that schools were failing to adequately prepare young people for the challenges of a competitive global marketplace. Typically subsumed within a discourse of crisis, these reports argued that only a drastic shift in the educational priorities of public schools could secure the economic future of the United States and ensure the future employability of students.

These reports were prompted by an increase in international economic competition and a perceived decline in the educational standards of schools and the basic literacy, numeracy, and thinking skills of students. They emerged out of a place context which saw the United States economy in transition, moving from a labor intensive industrial economy to a technologically intensive and information-based post-industrial economy. That schools should respond to the changing conditions of the labor market had already been established by proponents of human capital theory. What many of the business reports being produced in the 1980s argued for was a new planning agenda for public education that linked the school curriculum to shifts in demographic and employment trends. In short, schools should tailor their efforts to specific job categories, particularly those scientific, technical, and business related vocations that would become ever more plentiful in an emerging post-industrial society. In the minds of most business executives, educational policy makers, as well as the general public, the first obligation of schools was to ensure the future employability of students.

In addition to a post-industrial focus, the place context of education in the 1980s went international. School critics pitted the American economy against its stiffest international competitors, particularly Japan and Germany. By closely attending to what these economically productive countries were doing right with their schools, educational policy makers could reorient the U.S. public school system to the needs of a growth economy and gradually turn trade deficit/surplus and productivity levels to America's advantage.

The internationalization of the place of education in society was taken one step further as educational critics linked their calls for reform to the often disappointing results of international achievement tests assessing the basic knowledge of students in a variety of subject areas (especially math and science). American students consistently performed below average on these tests and such poor results were linked to the failure of schools to teach basic literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills. Such conclusions were reinforced by calls for educational reform by employers and university instructors who argued that the public schools were sending them increasing numbers of illiterate students.


Becker, G. (1964). Human Capital. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chamberlain, N. W. (1971). Some second thoughts on the concept of human capital. In R. A. Wykstra, Human Capital Formation and Manpower Development. New York: Free Press.

Denison, E. (1963). Measuring the contribution of education to economic growth. In Study Group in the Economics of Education. (Ed.), The Residual Factor and Economic Growth. Paris: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Engel, M. (2000). The Struggle for Control of Public Education: Market Ideology vs. Democratic Values. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Kliebard, H. M. (1987). The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.