National agendas in global times: Curriculum and standards in Australia and the USA since the 1980s

Year: 2013

Author: Savage, Glenn C., O'Connor, Kate

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


This paper provides a comparative analysis of national curriculum and standards reforms in Australia and the USA, set against the backdrop of global trends in educational governance since the 1980s. Australia and the USA are generative sites for comparative analysis as both are federalist systems in which constitutional responsibility for education lies with individual states and in which there are strong histories of local and state curriculum governance. Over the past three decades, however, both countries have moved towards centralised reforms intended to produce greater national consistency, culminating in the development of a national curriculum in Australia and the ‘common core state standards’ initiative in the USA.

The paper begins with an analysis of global trends in education policy and governance, arguing that reforms since the early 1980s reflect an emerging ‘global meta-narrative’ constituted by normative and interconnected concerns about cultural globalisation, equality of opportunity and market competitiveness in a globalising economy. The paper then considers the history of curriculum and standards-based reform in Australia and the USA in relation to this global context, identifying striking parallels in the reform trajectories of the two countries, including the development of national education goals in the 1980s, failed attempts at commonality in the 1990s, and renewed drives for national reforms in the late 2000s.

Building on this, the paper argues that despite broad historical commonalities, a closer look at the current landscape in each country suggests reforms are very different in scope and form, and have different implications for the kinds of curriculum knowledge valued and taught in schools. This distinctiveness, we argue, can be attributed to two core mediating factors informing the ‘national policy field’ of each country: first, distinct forms of federalism, underpinned by different state-federal relations and imaginations about the appropriate role of the federal government; second, different policy actors and institutions involved in policy development and reform, marked by the strong influence of philanthropic and corporate actors in the USA, which is relatively absent in the Australian context.

In conclusion, the paper argues that despite a shared global meta-narrative and striking points of historical commonality, distinctive ‘national policy fields’ in Australia and the USA have provided different conditions of possibility for curriculum reform. In making this argument, the paper contributes to a growing body of literature about the influence of global education policy agendas, suggesting that whilst there are certainly common global drivers, policy reforms are always relational and locally negotiated.