50 Years of American Voices


Stanley M. Elam and Alec M. Gallup

The 21st annual Gallup Poll
of the Public’s Attitudes
Toward the Public Schools

“The public is ready for tradition-shattering changes in the policies that govern U.S. public schools. . . . The public favors allowing students and their parents to choose which public schools in their communities the students will attend. . . . A consensus appears to be building for more uniformity in public school programs. . . . . More should be done to improve the quality of public schools in poorer states and communities. . . . The public favors reducing class size in the early grades to as few as 15 pupils. . . . The public favors after-school and summer programs for students whose parents work. . . . People are deeply concerned about what they perceive to be the declining quality of the nation's inner-city schools . . . Respondents favor more state and federal assistance for high school graduates who have the ability and desire to attend college but cannot afford to do so.”

What was happening in American education?

May 15-25, 1989: Los Angeles schoolteachers go on strike. The strike ends with the teachers gaining more administrative control and a 24% pay raise.

June 8, 1989: In Rose v. Council for Better Education, the Kentucky Supreme Court rules that the state’s public education system is inefficient and inequitable and orders the legislature to enact reforms to bring the system into alignment. The legislature does that in 1990 when it passes the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), which becomes a model for improving funding and introducing sweeping changes into the state’s schools.

June 1989: The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development publishes Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century, which examines how well schools are serving young adolescents. The report leads to widespread changes, encouraging many school districts to shift from traditional junior high schools to middle schools.

Sept. 25, 1989: In Utah, 20,000 teachers stage a one-day strike, which closes 38 of the state’s 40 school districts.

Sept. 27-28, 1989: President George H.W. Bush gathers all 50 governors for a national Education Summit at the University of Virginia where they establish six broad goals to address the issues raised in A Nation at Risk. That report, which was titled The National Education Goals Report: Building a Nation of Learners, once again emphasizes the need to develop standards for student performance.

1989: The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics publishes Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics, which launches what becomes known as the “math wars” when reformers and traditionalists disagreed about the best methods for teaching mathematics. Among the recommendations is one that calls on greater use of calculators in classrooms so that children become more independent learners.

1989: The Pennsylvania State Board of Education begins revising the Pennsylvania state school code to shift its emphasis from traditional Carnegie units of time spent in the classroom to student learning outcomes or what students are actually learning in their classes. This so-called outcomes-based education (OBE) arouses intense opposition in Pennsylvania and later around the country. Proponents of OBE are accused of being anti-Christian and anti-family primarily because of one outcome on “appreciating and understanding others.”

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1989: The Wisconsin legislature passes the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which creates vouchers that enable low-income students in Milwaukee to enroll in nonsectarian private schools in the city. The legislation limited the number of Milwaukee students who can participate in the program.

What else was happening in the United States?

Jan. 20, 1989: President George H.W. Bush is inaugurated as 41st president of the United States.

March 24, 1989: Exxon Valdez crashes in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, causing the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

1989 Exxon Valdez Ap 090106022859 Use

An oil-covered bird is examined in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in April 1989 after the Exxon Valdez ran aground about 25 miles from Valdez, Alaska. (AP Photo/Jack Smith)

June 12, 1989: The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., removes Robert Mapplethorpe's gay photography exhibit.

June 21, 1989: In Texas v. Johnson, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that burning an American flag is protected speech.

August 1989: President Bush signs the savings and loan bailout, which provides $166 billion to failed savings and loans and overhauls regulations for the industry.

Oct. 5, 1989: Congress amends the Flag Protection Act to create penalties for individuals desecrating the American flag.

November 1989: Douglas Wilder wins the Virginia’s governor’s race, becoming the first African-American governor in the United States.

Nov. 9, 1989: The Berlin Wall comes down.

Share “1989”:


We welcome your conversation about the poll results and the other information we’ve assembled here. What did we forget? What do you remember about this year? How do you think the events of this year influenced the responses to our questions?