A Policy History of Standards-Based Education in America

by Boyce Brown (Author)
©2015 Textbook XII, 207 Pages


A Policy History of Standards-Based Education in America is a narrative history of the development of standards-based education in the United States over the last several decades, from the perspective of anarchist cultural studies. There have been other books on the evolution of federal education policy, but few have struck the right balance between describing how it actually happened while still providing a theoretical framework, and none have kept the focus specifically on standards-based education. These related books have also rightly noted the great diversity of players, factions, interest groups, and organizations that helped move federal education policy from «equity», to «excellence», to «accountability» over the last four decades. This book goes on to make the original claim (using a rigorous analysis of the historical record) that big business was the primary empirical driver behind standards-based education and «global economic competitiveness» was the primary ideological driver. Finally, the book concludes by interrogating the implicit claims embedded within global competitiveness ideology; that the present international economy will continue as it has indefinitely, which is mathematically impossible. Unless things change quickly, this planet is heading toward economic, environmental, and geostrategic shocks of the very first order of magnitude. An eco-pedagogy for anarchist bioregions might be part of the solution.
The leading markets for this book will be major public and Division 1 research university libraries and university courses in education policy, education law, education history, political science, and public policy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. The Uneasy Alliance between the Corporate Elite and the Movement Conservatives (1970s)
  • Chapter 3. A Nation at Risk and a Decade of Reports (1980s–1990s)
  • Chapter 4. Federal Education Policy Conflicts over Standards-based Education during the Bush and Clinton Years (1988–2000)
  • Chapter 5. Hawaii, a Case Study (1991–present)
  • Chapter 6. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core
  • Chapter 7. Conclusion
  • References


A portion of chapter 4 is a revised version of what was previously published as Brown, B. (2009a). Standards-based education reform in the United States since A Nation at Risk. Honolulu, HI: Curriculum Research and Development Group. Retrieved from http://www.hawaii.edu/hepc/pdf/Reports/FINAL-History_of_Standards-Based_Education_Reform.pdf.

A portion of chapter 5 is a revised version of what was previously published as Brown, B. (2009b). A policy history of standards-based education reform in Hawaii. Honolulu, HI: Curriculum Research and Development Group. Retrieved from http://www.hawaii.edu/hepc/pdf/Reports/FINAL-History_of_Standards-Based_Education_in_Hawaii.pdf.

A portion of chapter 7 is a revised version of what was previously published as Brown, B. (2013). The assumptions and possible futures of standards-based education. Policy Futures in Education, 11(5), pp. 481–489.← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 →·1·


I would contend that the three main stages of the American economy have created three main different types of educational policy: 1) common schools of the agrarian period (from the colonial period to the late 19th century), 2) compulsory mass schooling and the rise of graduate schools of education during industrialization (from the late 19th century to the late 20th century), and 3) the family of reform models first called “systematic reform” and “school restructuring” in the 1980s and later consolidated under the broad rubric of “accountability” during the post-industrial phase over the last few decades (Emery, 2002).

Standards-based education is a central part of this complex of closely related reform ideas generally referred to as accountability. Building on Apple (2006) these include 1) raising the standards (first in the everyday sense of the term, later as explicit written guidelines in each subject matter and grade or grade spans), 2) testing frequently, and 3) raising the stakes in terms of rewards or sanctions for students, teachers, principals, schools, districts, and states based largely on those test results.

Since the seminal 1983 A Nation at Risk study marked the beginning of a major shift in the values debate in educational policy away from equity and equality towards efficiency and excellence, numerous educational reform ← 1 | 2 →concepts have come and gone. In this book, I hope to demonstrate that the one that may have had the biggest impact over the longest period since then has been standards-based education. It is also the only reform idea that has survived over the last several decades to become an integral part of local, state, and federal education today.

Many heterogeneous individuals, factions, organizations, governmental agencies, and businesses have contributed to the pervasive presence of standards-based education in American K–12 education today. Apple named the abstract Weberian ideal types of neoliberals, neoconservatives, evangelical Christians, and the professional managerial class as the primary progenitors (2006). Berliner and Biddle tapped the far right, religious right, and neoconservatives (1996). These camps (and a few other important ones, like teacher organizations and teacher training accreditation agencies) have certainly been influential in the propagation and consolidation of this concept, even when the goals and self-interests of their factions and organizations have occasionally been in conflict. These are the people Cuban calls the “policy elites.” They are

a loose network of corporate leaders, public officials, foundation officers, and academics who use both public and private funds to run projects and circulate ideas consistent with their versions of school reforms. They have ready access to the media and the capacity to set a public agenda for discussion. Political party labels do not define them, although there are clearly Republicans and Democratic members who carry their affiliation on their sleeves…These overlapping networks of like-minded individuals share values and tastes. They convene frequently in various forums, speak the same policy talk, and are connected closely to sources of influence in governments, media, businesses, academia, and foundations. They help create a climate of opinion that hovers around no more than a few hundred influentials in policymaking (Cuban, 2004, p. 207).

I hope to explore the notion that, among these many change agents, business may have been the most influential one. They were the most effective in making themselves heard, framing the agenda, sponsoring influential reports, organizing key events, supporting specific pieces of legislation, and generally maintaining the most vigorous, systematic, and sustained policy engagement over several decades.

Ultimately, the greatest impact of business on standards-based education, however, is not merely to be found in a resurgence of human capital theory or the consolidation of the ideology of global competitiveness as a leading outcome desired from American K–12 education. Rather, business’ greatest impact may lie in what is not spoken, in what is taken for granted: the ← 2 | 3 →desirability of continuing the global economy as it is, in spite of the fact that it may be unsustainable and could be leading us to a wide variety of significant problems in the near-to-medium term future, a question I will address at greater length in the conclusion.

Chapter 2 seeks to understand how the corporate elite began colluding with the movement conservatives in the 1970s. Chapter 3 aspires to be the history of a kind of a “dog pile,” with many different elite factions contending, generating reports, and holding influential meetings during the 1980s and 1990s, one that encompassed Democrats as well, making this education reform idea a bipartisan consensus.

After everyone emerged from the dog pile, however, the business-conservative (and nascent “New Democrats”) coalition was left still holding the ball. Their reports and representatives gained traction. Their crisis rhetoric, workforce development, and school-to-work policies proved dominant. They became instrumental in how standards-based education became conceptualized in the public policy arena.

The National Governors Association and Business Roundtable each dedicated an annual meeting exclusively to education during the 1980s. This helped consolidate the dominance of a new business-conservatives-presidency-governors-teacher union leadership-new Democrats bloc, decisively displayed at the 1989 Charlottesville National Education Summit with President Bush. This newly emerging bloc was powerful enough to steamroll an attempted preemptive strike by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, who held a press conference right before the summit.

State efforts in California and Minnesota (Berman and Clugston, 1988), city efforts like the Boston Compact, and corporate initiatives like R. J. R. Nabisco’s “Next Century Schools” (spearheaded by Lou Gerstner, who would continue to be influential in standards-based education when he became head of IBM shortly thereafter) became models of government-business collaboration. They were the entering spear-point of the ascendant business-conservatives-presidency-governors-teacher union leadership bloc. This bloc, though powerful and rising fast, still wasn’t dominant. Even with their help, the signature education reform legislation of President Bush and former governor then Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, America 2000 (of which standards were a big part), failed to pass a Democratic Congress.

In chapter 4, the competing and cooperating factions really went at it. The coalitions they led often broke up and reconfigured. The “grassroots” ← 3 | 4 →started speaking up for themselves, both “left” and “right.” Congressional Democrats, especially ones from urban districts, fought a strenuous battle for equity and resources but it was a rear guard one. They were gradually losing control over the policy agenda they held since the mid-1960s.

The social conservatives also started shearing off in significant numbers from their partners in “business.” The social conservative grassroots and their leaders (or some might say manipulators) among the self-proclaimed “Republican revolution” conservatives of 1996 were often more interested in school choice, vouchers, culture war issues, and conservative social values than in educational standards, workforce development and “global economic competitiveness” issues. This schism turned into the “standards wars” of the mid-1990s.

By the mid-1990s, it seemed that parents, rank-and-file conservatives, rank-and-file teachers, “Republican revolution” conservatives from the 1994 elections, urban Congressional Democrats—everybody—had a bone to pick with these new standards, albeit often for different reasons. The policy elites were having a hard time keeping those they professed to lead on point.

Urban Congressional Democrats failed to capitalize on these internecine battles. Many of those among the Fortune 500 CEOs did capitalize on them. These were people like IBM’s Lou Gertsner, Xerox’s David Kearns, and several others. These captains of industry began taking a far more activist, hands-on approach, serving in government and working outside of it, convening national education summits, publishing books, writing influential op-ed pieces, and being profiled in leading magazines, particularly of the business press. As Harvey’s noted account of the rise of neoliberalism put it, these CEOs and other “key operators on corporate boards” and their technocratic associates, themselves “leaders in the financial, legal, and technical apparatuses surrounding this inner sanctum of capitalist activity” have become an undeniable “rising class power under neoliberalism,” as I discuss in greater detail in chapter 4. (2007, p. 33). Elsewhere, Harvey provided one of the better definitions of neoliberalism when he wrote that:

The capitalist world stumbled towards neoliberalization as the answer through a series of gyrations and chaotic experiences that really only converged as a new orthodoxy with the articulation of what became known as the ‘Washington Consensus’ in the 1990s. By then, both Clinton and Blair could easily have reversed Nixon’s earlier statement (“We are all liberals now”) and simply said ‘We are all neoliberals now.’ The uneven geographical development of neoliberalism, its frequently partial and lop-sided application from one state and social formation to another, testifies to the ← 4 | 5 →tentativeness of neoliberal solutions and the complex ways in which political forces, historical traditions, and the complex ways in which political forces, historical traditions, and existing institutional arrangements all shaped why and how the process of neoliberalization actually occurred (Harvey, 2007, p. 13).


XII, 207
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Anarchist studies Global competitiveness Eco-pedagogy Anarchist bioregion Narrative history
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 207 pp.

Biographical notes

Boyce Brown (Author)

Boyce Brown’s professional career has centered around school administration, non-profit administration, education law, teaching, and research. He earned two Masters and a PhD (in education policy) from the University of Hawaii. He is currently a research fellow with the Hawaii Educational Policy Center.


Title: A Policy History of Standards-Based Education in America
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