In August 1981, Terrell Bell, President Ronald Reagan's secretary of education,
assembled a panel of experts and charged them with the daunting task of
reporting back in 18 months on "the quality of education in the United States."
The result was a report, released in 1983 by the National Commission on
Excellence in Education (NCEE), titled "A Nation at Risk." "The educational foundations of our
society," its authors declared, "are presently being eroded by a rising tide of
mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people." They got
the country's attention.
Among the remedies prescribed by "A Nation at Risk" was the establishment of a
common core curriculum. High school students, the report said, should study
English for four years; mathematics, science, and social studies for three
years; and computer science for at least one semester before graduating. When
"A Nation at Risk" was released, less than one-fifth of all students in America
met those requirements.
Despite the headlines and the calls for action, a national movement for
academic standards was slow to get started. President Reagan -- who famously
held that government was the problem, not the solution -- opposed an expanded
federal role in education. In his campaign for the White House, he had even
advocated the abolishment of the U.S. Department of Education. Clearly, if
academic standards were to be established for America's public schools, the
work of setting them would be left to the states.
The States and Big Business
In January 1985, nearly two years after "A Nation at Risk" was released, the
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching issued data that it said
amounted to "an indictment of the schools." The findings did not bode well for
Nearly 75 percent of the major U.S. corporations it surveyed were forced to
offer their employees courses in reading, writing, and computation -- skills
that should have been mastered before entering the workforce. Each year,
American corporations were spending more than $40 billion to educate their
workers (a figure that included money spent on remedial education as well as
other professional development). The same year, the Committee for Economic
Development, an independent organization of 200 business executives and
educators, issued a similar report warning that the quality of the nation's
education system put the economic future of the United States in peril.
"[E]ducation has a direct impact on employment, productivity, and growth, and
on the nation's ability to compete in the world economy," the report said.
"Therefore, we cannot fail to respond."
Across the country, business leaders were already getting involved in education
policy. In 1984, the Texas billionaire (and future presidential candidate) Ross
Perot was appointed by Texas Gov. Mark White, a Democrat, to chair that
state's Select Committee on Public Education. The resulting reform package
stiffened high school graduation requirements and stipulated that students who
didn't pass their classes could not participate in sports.
Other business leaders got involved in their states' education affairs as well. In
Pennsylvania, for example, a consortium of companies including Westinghouse
Electric awarded grants to innovative teachers and principals. Louisiana
businessmen lobbied hard for a $20.5 million tax increase to fund school
improvements in New Orleans. South Carolina businesses urged their legislators
to levy a 1-cent sales tax increase to help increase teachers' salaries and
provide remedial education.
In 1987, The New York Times reported that 45 states had put stronger
graduation requirements in place for high school seniors. Forty-two states,
meanwhile, had bolstered their math requirements, and 34 did the same for
science. "Since 1983," Times reporter Robert Reinhold wrote, "two dozen
states, most of them in the South, have passed broad comprehensive educational
packages, tightening academic standards and discipline, raising teachers'
salaries and recognition -- and boosting taxes substantially to pay for it all.
Over all, state support for public schools has grown by 26 percent beyond
inflation since 1980."
By 1990, the National Center for Education Statistics found that nearly 40
percent of high school graduates met the core curriculum requirements
recommended in "A Nation at Risk." The standards movement, with the business
community's backing, was making progress at the state level.
A National Education Summit
In September 1989, President George H.W. Bush convened the nation's governors
in Charlottesville, Va., for the first-ever National Education Summit. Their
aim was to draft national "goals" for education. The summit, in which a young
governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton played a prominent role, established
six broad objectives to be reached by 2000. For example, American students
should leave the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades "having demonstrated competency over
challenging subject matter, including English, mathematics, science, history
and geography." It was, writes Harvard professor of education Richard Elmore,
the inauguration of a period in which there appeared to be "broad bipartisan
support for some sort of national movement to support state and local goals and
Bush announced the six goals to the nation in his State of the Union address in
January 1990, and in July 1990 he and the states' governors formed the
National Education Goals Panel to monitor and
report on progress toward the objectives. Over the next two years the White
House, with the governors and Congress, worked to set up the necessary
infrastructure to carry out the objectives outlined in Bush's education
proposal, dubbed "America 2000." Between 1991 and 1992, the federal government,
through the Department of Education, funded efforts to draft national
curriculum standards in several subject areas.
When President Bill Clinton took office, he built on Bush's plan in drafting
his own education proposal, called "Goals 2000," and in 1994 he signed the Goals 2000: Educate America
Act. The bill mandated the creation of the National Education Standards and
Improvement Council (NESIC), which had the authority to approve or reject
states' standards. When Republicans gained control of Congress in the mid-term
elections in 1994, many voiced strong opposition to an increased federal role
in the education system, and amid criticism that NESIC amounted to a national
school board, no one was ever appointed to serve on the council.
As power was shifting on Capitol Hill and the culture wars of the 1990s heated
up, the majority of the standards that were commissioned during the Bush
administration were finally released. The response was not favorable. The
proposed standards were excoriated in the press and in Congress. In January
1995, the U.S. Senate voted 99-1 to denounce the history standards, which were
attacked for pandering to political correctness at the expense of basic U.S.
history. (Sen. Bennett Johnston [D-La.], who cast the single "nay" vote,
withheld his support only because he thought the condemnation was too weak.)
Given the political climate of the mid-1990s, the idea that the federal
government should oversee the development of core curriculum standards was a
Governors Pick Up the Slack
In 1995, the National Governors Association invited Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the
chief executive officer of IBM, to speak at the group's annual meeting in
Burlington, Vt. Gerstner had long been involved in education reform, both as
president of American Express in the 1980s and as CEO of RJR Nabisco before
taking the helm at IBM in 1993. With a captive audience of state governors, he
took the opportunity to deliver a challenge. "You are the CEOs of the
organizations that fund and oversee the country's public schools," he said.
"That means you are responsible for their health. They are very sick at the
Gerstner told the governors not to wait for the Republicans and Democrats in
Congress to agree on national curriculum standards -- that the battle had to be
waged state by state. Along with governors Roy Romer of Colorado and Tommy
Thompson of Wisconsin, and CEOs Robert E. Allen of AT&T and John Clendenin
of BellSouth, among others, Gerstner had already started the planning of a
second National Education Summit to be held the following year. If the
governors showed up, Gerstner told them, he would team them with a major
corporate executive from their state, someone who would back them with strong
support in the often withering debates over education reform.
The second National Education Summit convened in Palisades, N.Y., in March
1996. This time, it wasn't the president of the United States who was the host;
instead, President Clinton was an invited guest. It was indicative of a new
reality in education policymaking. John Merrow, producer of FRONTLINE's
"Testing Our Schools," interviewed Gerstner for his 1997 PBS documentary "In
Schools We Trust" and asked him about Washington's role in the education policy
debates. "[N]obody's looking to Washington to solve this problem," said
Gerstner. "The founding fathers, when they set up this country, made education
a local responsibility. And Washington has very little impact on this problem."
The participants of the second National Education Summit pledged to support
efforts to set academic standards at the state and local levels. And business
leaders said they would consider the existence of state academic standards when
looking for places to set up new businesses.
Following the summit, a group of CEOs and governors founded Achieve Inc., a nonprofit, bipartisan effort to shepherd the
process of setting and implementing standards at the state level. In addition,
three business interest groups -- The Business Roundtable, the National Alliance of Business, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- announced a common agenda to help educators and
policymakers "set tough academic standards that apply to every student in every
school ... and use that information to improve schools and create
A 'National Presence' in Standards
In 1996, an opinion poll conducted by U.S. News & World Report
indicated that fully three-quarters of the respondents thought that school
standards were too low. No doubt sensing a shift in the political winds,
President Clinton made "national standards" a key part of his 1997 State of the
Union address. "Tonight, I issue a challenge to the nation," Clinton said.
"Every state should adopt high national standards, and by 1999, every state
should test every 4th grader in reading and every 8th grader in math to make
sure these standards are met." Those national standards, Clinton said, would
represent "what all our students must know to succeed in the knowledge economy
of the 21st century."
The weekend after the president's address, The New York Times reported
that Clinton's proposal indicated that the government was ready to stake out a
"national presence" in the standards debate, but not a federal (i.e.,
regulatory) role. As the president himself said in his address, "Every state
and school must shape the curriculum to reflect these [national] standards."
In other words, the federal government would establish broad guidelines, but the states would have a
great deal of latitude.
Clinton's education goals were soon blocked by the Republican-controlled
Congress, and the ultimate objective of implementing national standards would
remain unfulfilled. Indeed, in his next State of the Union address, Clinton
made no mention of "national standards" at all. Instead, he applauded the fact
that "nearly every state has set higher academic standards for public schools."
In its 1997 "Quality Counts" report, Education Week found that 31 states
had adopted standards in core academic subjects and several more states were
developing or revising their standards. In 1998, that number increased to 38,
despite the fact that the federal government had not played a major role.
When the third National Education Summit convened in 1999
(again hosted by IBM's Gerstner), the focus for the first time was less on the
development of standards and more on holding schools accountable for their
students' achievement through measures such as testing and
issuing school report cards to the public. Gerstner, however, urged the
attendees not to become complacent. "The work of putting standards in place was
difficult and often painful," he said. "Victory isn't 45 or 50 well-crafted
documents that spell out what a high school diploma ought to stand for. The
goal here -- our No. 1 national priority according to the American people -- is
delivering radically improved student performance."
The 'Movement' Today
In a 1996 article in U.S. News & World Report, Tommy Thompson, then
the governor of Wisconsin, was quoted as saying, "We might get national
standards eventually. But the only way it's going to happen is bottom up,
through coalitions of states." And that is exactly what happened. Today, 49
states have adopted standards in the core subject areas. (Iowa is
the lone holdout; there, local school districts still set their own
Not everyone agrees about how much influence corporate America has wielded --
or should wield -- in the movement for standards-based reform. Some feel business has played too large a role. Others see business as part of a larger
coalition. "[T]he reason standards have swept the country so quickly is not
just that business wants them, but that they're popular with voters, they're
popular with parents," says Nicholas Lemann, Washington correspondent
for The New Yorker. "I think it's wrong to say it's only coming out of
business. But it is right to say that the most important wholesale reform
movement of the last generation in American public education has been imposed
on educators from without, rather than having been suggested by them."
Speaking at the most recent National Education Summit in October 2001, Lou
Gerstner said, "Let's not forget where things stood when we convened the 1996
Education Summit. It was a bad time for public education reform, bordering on
fatalistic. And the debate over standards -- standards as the centerpiece of
public school reform -- was being conducted with the decorum of a street
Today, as the bipartisan support for President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act would seem to indicate, nearly
everyone agrees on the need for some kind of standards-based reform. (The bill is a case study in legislative finesse: a landmark education reform that
manages to significantly expand the role of the federal government while respecting state control over standards.) But when
it comes to states implementing the accountability measures contained in the
new law -- the increased standardized testing, the reporting of scores, and the
corrective actions for schools that perform poorly -- the rough and tumble
politics of past education debates may return with a vengeance. Whatever
happens, it seems safe to predict that the business community, if not occupying the driver's seat, will at least make its voice heard as it tries to keep the politicians on course.
"Hard Lessons," an interview with Diane Ravitch
"We should continue to strive for consensus on standards, because in most fields it makes little sense to have fifty states with fifty standards." An interview with Diane Ravitch, former education adviser to George W. Bush and author of Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform (2000). (Atlantic Unbound, Nov. 1, 2000.)
"The Politics of Education Reform," by Richard Elmore
"The story of U.S. education reform since the early 1980s is worthy of either a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta or theater of the absurd, depending on your tastes." (Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1997.)
"What Should Children Learn," by Paul Gagnon
"A year after the standards projects reported, the national version of standards-based reform is dead of multiple wounds, some self-inflicted, others from our culture wars, still others from congressional antipathy to any federal initiative, and most from American educators who have long resisted establishing a common core of academic learning." (The Atlantic Monthly, December 1995.)
"Measuring Up: Tests, Curriculum, and Standards"
Background information and a timeline that tracks the controversy surrounding testing and the standards movement, from the website for the PBS documentary "School: The Story of American Public Education." (Original airdate, September 2001)
"New Page, Old Lesson: Why Educational Standards Fail the Political Test," by Peter Schrag
"Do we really want a system that is demanding, meritocratic, and characterized by high expectations? ... Or would we prefer an egalitarian system of perpetual second chances and endless opportunity for all comers? We pay great lip service to standards. We become far more timid and divided when they stare us in the face." (The American Prospect, March/April 1998.)
"The New School Wars: How Outcome-Based Education Blew Up," by Peter Schrag
"It's striking how quickly our struggles about curriculum ideas escalate into quasi-religious controversies over social or moral absolutes. The right sees a conspiracy by the federal government and its secular humanist legions to strip parents of control over their children and inculcate them with relativistic values, witchcraft, and satanism. The left looks at every parent who walks into a principal's office complaining about a book or a school assignment as a tool of religious fanatics." (The American Prospect, December 1995.)
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