Education Policy: Research: Historical Overview: Bush, GHW:

Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009

The George H.W. Bush Years: Systemic Reform

During the hearings for the bill, the concept of "systemic reform" first appeared in widespread public discussion. Endorsed by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and other organizations, this theory pushed for aligning curriculum, standards, assessments, teacher training, and resources. As described by Marshall Smith and Jennifer O'Day in their seminal article "Systemic School Reform," systemic reform would "set the conditions for change to take place not just in a small handful of schools or for a few children, but in the great majority." The two authors placed a heavy emphasis on the role of the states-a role they argued had been previously neglected in favor of school and district efforts at restructuring and improvement. For some, this argument raised concern about the direct federal-to-school grants in Bush's proposal.


It also connected well with the groundwork that had been laid at the education summit, as well as with reform efforts already under way in several states, most notably California, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York. In California, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig had embarked on a major effort to create new curriculum frameworks, develop aligned texts, provide statewide content-based professional development, and require new assessments. This initiative in the largest state in the union, together with the experience in other states, demonstrated what an aligned state education system might look like. The vision appealed to many.


In mid-1991, as the popularity of systemic reform grew in Congress, and while the Senate and House still debated America 2000, President Bush submitted legislation to authorize a National Council on Education Standards and Testing. Bipartisan in nature, this Council would be responsible for considering the desirability and feasibility of establishing national standards and assessments. Once established by law, the Council worked quickly and, early in 1992, issued a final report that confirmed the desirability of national standards aligned with assessments. However, rather than the set of national tests advocated in America 2000, the Council recommended a system of assessments that would allow states greater independence in selecting curricula and assessment vehicles. This meant that while there would be national standards for achievement, state curricula would not be guided by national tests. Additionally, states would not have to participate in assessments to be eligible for federal support.


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