“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” President Kennedy, May 25, 1961
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed and walked on the moon. After rejoining Michael Collins, the crew of Apollo 11 returned safely to earth four days later, fulfilling the goal set by President Kennedy in an address to Congress and the American people in May 1961.
As we reflect on that accomplishment, we ponder why it has been so difficult to achieve seemingly much more pedestrian goals related to K-12 education. To answer that question, it may be beneficial to reflect on some other less famous excerpts from President Kennedy’s 1961 speech – those parts of the speech that made it clear that reaching the moon would come with a cost and would require a long-term commitment.
- I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.
- Let it be clear–and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make–let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.
- I believe we should go to the moon. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year.
- This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts.
- New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further–unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.
- But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.
From now on we live in a world where man has walked on the Moon. It’s not a miracle; we just decided to go.” – Astronaut Jim Lovell
We establish goals of improving America’s schools, leaving no child behind, and ensuring that every student succeeds, but we have never really “decided to go” when it comes to education reform. That is, “we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.”
We can put a man on the moon, but …
Even before the Apollo 11 astronauts emerged from the obligatory 21-day quarantine upon returning to earth and the United States, which may be the most relatable portion of their mission today, the phrase “We can put a man on the moon, but …” was ingrained in the American lexicon.
In fact, the phrase was first used in 1962 – seven years before we “put a man on the moon.” An equivalent today might be saying
We can vaccinate all Americans against COVID-19, but …
We can perfect driverless pizza delivery, but …
We can build a valid, reliable, fair, and useful large-scale state test, but …
Of course, only one of those three statements would actually be equivalent, because only one is something that we know without doubt will be accomplished. Whether you were using the “put a man on the moon, but” comparison as an inspiration to overcome a seemingly impossible challenge or simply as a whiny lament about the unfairness of the current condition, you believed that we were going to put a man on the moon.
More importantly, you believed that America and the American people were going to accomplish any goal that we prioritized and set our mind to accomplishing. The phrase reflected criticism of the goal that was being prioritized, not skepticism that it could and would be accomplished. As an American people, it doesn’t appear that we believe that anymore.
Last week, when people co-opted the phrase to tweet clever variations of “we can shoot a billionaire into space, but …” there was the appropriate sense of misguided and misplaced priorities, but not the sense that we can accomplish whatever we set out to do – perhaps a case of American Culture-al appropriation.
Stop trying to make Sputnik happen. It’s not going to happen.
We have been at this Education Reform game for a while now and continue to wait for that singular external event – our Sputnik moment – that is finally going to make Education Reform a national priority. In the 1980s we were a Nation At Risk because of our public schools. A decade ago, the Great Recession was going to be the moment that changed public education forever so that every student graduated high school ready for college and career. Now, it is the pandemic and America’s racial reckoning that will spur K-12 Education Reform. We need to stop waiting for a star (man-made or natural) rising in the east to be the salvation for public education. It’s not going to happen.
An effective leader can use an external event to rally the public. The reality, however, is that the impetus for Education Reform and the level of commitment needed to meet enormous challenges such as Early Childhood Education, producing highly qualified teachers and supporting them throughout their careers, providing all students with the opportunity to learn and succeed, and closing whichever gaps in achievement are deemed real and important to close must come from within. It must be part of who we are as individuals and who we are as a nation. That is true today, will be true tomorrow, and President Kennedy knew that it was true in 1961.
- Finally, our greatest asset in this struggle is the American people–their willingness to pay the price for these programs [the space program and other administration programs]–to understand and accept a long struggle–to share their resources with other less fortunate people–to meet the tax levels and close the tax loopholes I have requested–to exercise self-restraint instead of pushing up wages or prices, or over-producing certain crops, or spreading military secrets, or urging unessential expenditures or improper monopolies or harmful work stoppages–to serve in the Peace Corps or the Armed Services or the Federal Civil Service or the Congress–to strive for excellence in their schools, in their cities and in their physical fitness and that of their children–to take part in Civil Defense–to pay higher postal rates, and higher payroll taxes and higher teachers’ salaries, in order to strengthen our society–to show friendship to students and visitors from other lands who visit us and go back in many cases to be the future leaders, with an image of America–and I want that image, and I know you do, to be affirmative and positive–and, finally, to practice democracy at home, in all States, with all races, to respect each other and to protect the Constitutional rights of all citizens.