How State Education Reform Can Improve Secondary Schools—Part II

Background and Technical Appendices
Allan R. Odden
University of Wisconsin–Madison
David D. Marsh
University of Southern California


In the early 1980s, a study of California secondary students' pathways through high school documented an erosion in secondary school curriculum. Electives had replaced academic courses; student exposure to sound mathematics, science, and U.S. history had dropped; and courses taken to graduate from high school had failed to aggregate into a clear body of knowledge.

In 1982, the California Business Roundtable proposed a series of reforms to remedy these system declines. Also in 1982, Bill Honig, then a member of the State Board of Education, won election to the office of superintendent of public instruction. His platform included a common core curriculum for all students; stiffer requirements for high school graduation; tougher academic standards; and better school discipline. In early 1983, State Senator Gary K. Hart, Assemblywoman Teresa Hughes, and State Superintendent Bill Honig unveiled comprehensive proposals for education reform.

These California-initiated education reform efforts were bolstered in April 1983 by the release of A Nation at Risk, a report to the U.S. Secretary of Education that proposed major school change along dimensions similar to the California proposals. A Nation at Risk called for increased high school graduation requirements, a new core academic curriculum, stricter standards, and longer school days and years. This report was followed by a flurry of other national reports proposing comprehensive school reforms.

California responded swiftly. By June 1983, the legislature had enacted, and the governor had signed, Senate Bill 813, a sweeping, comprehensive education reform program. The bill contained over 80 education policy and program reforms, from finance structures to curriculum and instructional issues. The goal of the reform was to improve local schools. For each of the next four years, an additional $1 billion was appropriated to boost funding for the overall education system and reform programs.

Between 1984 and 1986, several studies produced information indicating that the California reforms were "working." But most of these studies relied on survey or statewide aggregate data. They left unanswered questions about what reform programs really looked like in local schools, whether local schools actually were implementing substantive quality improvements, and how the improvement process worked. The study described in this report was undertaken to ascertain whether and how state-level education reform initiatives could improve local schools.

Suggested citationOdden, A. R., & Marsh, D. D. (1987, December). How state education reform can improve secondary schools: Part II: Background and technical appendices [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.