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A Policy History of Standards-Based Education in America

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Boyce Brown

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.
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Chapter 3. A Nation at Risk and a Decade of Reports (1980s–1990s)

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Milton Friedman has a famous quote on the relationship between crisis, ideology, and change, and the role of the intellectual class in mediating among the three.

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable (1982, p. ix).

This chapter is in large part the story of a concerted effort by think tanks, governmental agencies, and blue-ribbon commissions to establish a voluminous rhetorical infrastructure that both kept the seed ideas of standards-based education “alive and available” and fomented the sense of crisis that led to their eventual “inevitability.”

This chapter hopes to gauge the impact of A Nation at Risk and a plethora of other influential reports circulating in the educational policy debate of the 1980s and early 1990s, to examine how they prepared the way for standards-based education to emerge as one of the most influential American K–12 education reform ideas in following decades. Briefs from national business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of ← 33 | 34 →Manufacturers, Committee for Economic Development, and—especially—the Business Roundtable set the parameters of the policy agenda and delineated many of its key terms. Dynamic figures from the national corporate elite also helped to propagate this rhetoric in the...

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