Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009
Phase I: The Standards Movement
The comprehensive high school (and its differentiated curriculum), which had enjoyed widespread support during the 1960s and 1970s, began to experience intense public scrutiny during the early 1980s. The emergence of the standards movement coincided with publication of the landmark study A Nation at Risk.15 The report's scathing assessment of U.S. public high schools focused on a perceived lack of academic rigor. Its central theses were economic: first, that U.S. competitiveness was tied directly to the quality of public education and, second, that the educational foundation of the U.S. economy was "being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity."16 The educational free markets that characterized the comprehensive high school curriculum drew an especially sharp critique. The report charged that most secondary schools offered "a cafeteria style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses."17 The report recommended that all high school graduates complete what it called "the New Basics": a minimum of four years of English and three years each of mathematics, science, and social studies. In this sense, A Nation at Risk echoed many of the sentiments expressed by the Committee of Ten almost a century earlier. The report's recommendations, as well as the curriculum reforms that emerged from it, represented the start of a cultural shift away from the social efficiency argument—the notion that students' social and academic diversity required different academic experiences—toward a counter-argument for a more common academic high school curriculum.18
State Curricular Reform Initiatives
Motivated partly by the charges leveled in A Nation at Risk, states engaged in education policy making as never before. Indeed, education reform became the central legislative activity of state governments during the 1980s.19 Between 1983 and 1987 alone, state allocations for public education increased 21 percent.20 The most common state reform initiatives of the 1980s involved an expansion of the number of courses (particularly in core subjects) required to obtain a high school diploma.21 From 1980 to 1993, the average number of credits required to graduate increased from 17.3 to 19.8.22 Many states viewed these stronger graduation requirements as the most direct means of increasing the rigor of secondary schooling. States often justified the new requirements by citing the notion of "opportunity to learn"—students cannot learn academic material to which they have not been exposed.23 By the close of the 1980s, forty-five states had strengthened high school graduation requirements.24 Their efforts found broad public support and were quickly adopted,25 in part because they were relatively easy to implement—the teachers, classrooms, and courses they required were already largely in place.
The new, more stringent curriculum standards did not influence all students equally. They did not target (and rarely affected) course-taking among college-bound students, most of whom surpassed the standards even before their adoption. But they had considerable impact on non-college-bound students. For example, enrollment in vocational courses declined considerably during the 1980s, whereas participation in core academic courses and the arts increased. Comparisons of random samples of high school transcripts gathered in 1982 and 1987 suggest a 17 percent increase in the number of mathematics credits completed (from 2.54 to 2.98 courses), and a 20 percent increase in science credits (from 2.19 to 2.63 courses) during the five-year period.26 Roughly one-quarter of students completed an extra year of mathematics, and one-third completed an extra year of science by the end of the decade.
These Phase I curricular reforms targeted the number of credits students earned and (ostensibly) the subject matter of courses associated with those credits. However, the mandates often allowed school districts to decide which courses met the requirements or even which students were required to meet the standards.27 Many students were permitted to earn credits for courses in subjects that were non-academic or consisted of low-level or even remedial content.28 For example, Pennsylvania considered that "business math" fulfilled a core mathematics requirement.29 Within schools, multiple levels of the same course often satisfied the same requirement, even though the courses often differed substantially in both content and rigor. Thus, the increased graduation requirements constituting Phase I reform likely influenced academic rigor only marginally. In fact, the majority of new courses that high schools added to their curricula were at basic, general, or remedial levels. The move seemed understandable, however, given that the new requirements were mainly targeted at low-achieving students. One scholar summarized these efforts as "a national experiment in offering lower-level academic courses to middle- and low-achieving students who previously took something else (vocational courses, various electives)."30
Phase I Research
Research on these Phase I reforms often focused more on the extent to which they effected fundamental educational change rather than on whether and how they influenced student learning. In general, the standards movement demanded "more of the same"—more courses, more days of school each year, and more hours of school each day. In this sense, the mandates entailed quantitative rather than qualitative changes to the high school curriculum.31 They rarely focused on school restructuring or classroom teaching and learning.32 Indeed, the curricular standards movements may have affirmed rather than transformed educational practice; students, teachers, and schools were simply asked to do more of what they were already doing.33 Despite the clear limitations of these Phase I efforts, the curricular reforms associated with the standards movement remain largely in place more than twenty years later—a rare feat in the history of education policy making. Along with expanded use of standardized testing and increased (and more equitable) education funding, tougher graduation requirements may be the most lasting and important element of the larger standards-based reform movement.
Researchers have offered various explanations for the popularity and longevity of these Phase I reforms. From the standpoint of successful policy implementation, these legislative efforts reinforced norms and notions already held by parents, teachers, and students, and they legitimated the activities in which schools were already engaged. By contrast, initiatives that seek to fundamentally transform teaching, learning, and content are quite difficult to implement and sustain.34 Reforms that assume that improving student performance requires only additional exposure to the "treatment" are likely to garner wide support, because they demand little real change—from either students, parents, teachers, schools, districts, or local and state governments. Phase I reforms assumed that contemporary approaches to teaching and learning were adequate; increasing learning simply required that students become more deeply engaged with these processes. Schools and districts were generally quite comfortable with the approaches and content that the standards required. Perhaps most important, teachers retained the ability to craft their own instruction, and teacher autonomy—a central appeal of the profession to its practitioners—was preserved.35