Beginning in the 1980s, evidence that American students lagged far behind the academic performance and workforce preparation of students in other nations generated a national clamor for change that resulted in sustained efforts to improve public education at the local, state, and national levels. Despite the wide range of approaches to improve education attempted during this time, there was little indication that student learning had improved substantially, if at all, in national assessments taken after this initial wave of education reform. Studies of the reform efforts indicated that most states had attempted to improve student performance by mandating additional rules and regulations on top of an already overburdened system. Legislatures increased the number of school days, required additional academic courses for graduation, and tightened licensing requirements for teachers. The introduction of various pieces of legislation essentially mandated regulatory change rather than supporting instructional and curricular improvements that were directly tied to improving the learning of all students.
In the early 1990s, the lack of improvement in student achievement fueled a growing consensus around the need for change at all levels of the educational delivery system and for developing a common understanding of the level of academic achievement that students would need in an advanced, technology driven society. This reform movement was termed 'systemic' and is an approach to reform that centers around setting higher standards for students, teachers, and schools and developing accountability systems to monitor whether these standards are being met. Another element of 'systemic' reform is to allow schools some freedom from rules and regulations that can hamper principals, teachers, and other school staff from focusing on innovative instructional strategies and developing challenging curriculum to meet the individual needs of students. Since the introduction of 'systemic' reform, standards for students have been introduced by a wide range of organizations and all states except one. These organizations include national subject matter specialists such as the National Council of Teachers of Math, national commissions appointed by the federal government such as the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS), and industry groups like the Council on Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Education's hospitality and tourism standards. This document serves as a resource guide to the wide range of efforts currently under way to define the essential skills and competencies that Americans will need now and in the future. It includes: