How Comprehensive Reform Legislation Can Improve Secondary Schools

Allan R. Odden
University of Wisconsin–Madison
David D. Marsh
University of Southern California


Can broad state-level initiatives for school reform actually improve local schools? Using data collected in California, this article answers that question affirmatively—but it also reminds readers that successful local implementation of state-level initiatives depends on several factors.

Since 1983, when publication of A Nation at Risk touched off a national desire to reform education, many states have enacted comprehensive legislation intended to improve their schools. Such legislation typically increases high school graduation requirements, encourages a more substantive curriculum, defines new roles for teachers, and establishes higher standards. Like that of many other states, California's major reform legislation, S.B. 813, had no previous parallel in terms of scope. Enacted in 1983, its dozens of provisions, if fully implemented, would alter curriculum and instruction in virtually every school in the state. S.B. 813 spells out neither a philosophy of reform nor a cohesive strategy for changing the schools. Instead, it represents a return to conventional wisdom, to a set of aspirations meant to restore the state's education system to a former level of achievement and academic rigor.

Little is known about the effects of enacting such a broad range of reforms simultaneously. Can local school districts and individual schools cope with the complexities involved? How do the various components of an extensive legislated reform program influence one another? Can local districts weld the disparate provisions of comprehensive state legislation into coherent and effective instructional programs?

Earlier studies produced data indicating that California's reforms were being formally implemented, but most of those studies relied on surveys or on statewide aggregate data. They left unanswered questions about how the reform programs actually operate in local schools and whether or not they result in substantive change. Given the high stakes involved in education reform, answers to these questions are crucial for policy makers and practitioners alike.

This article was originally published in The Phi Delta Kappan by Phi Delta Kappa International and Journal Storage (JSTOR).

Suggested citationOdden, A., & Marsh, D. (1988, April). How comprehensive reform legislation can improve secondary schools [Article]. Policy Analysis for California Education.