Council for Basic Education

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The Council for Basic Education (CBE) was founded in 1956 by a group of distinguished citizens alarmed at the shift in American education from intellectual development to an emphasis on social development. From its inception CBE set out, as it states in its bylaws, to ensure "that all students without exception receive adequate instruction in the basic intellectual disciplines, especially English, mathematics, science, history, and foreign languages." CBE is a nonprofit educational organization whose primary purpose is to strengthen the teaching and learning of the basic liberal arts subjects in American undergraduate schools. A critical voice for education reform, CBE has complemented its strong advocacy by designing and administering practical programs to foster better teaching and learning.


CBE, in the belief that there is an intimate relationship between a healthy democracy and the ideal of excellence in education, from its earliest days published monthly and quarterly periodicals to provide a platform for its advocacy, analysis, and programs. Among its early directors, board members, and supporters were Mortimer Smith, Mary Bingham, Admiral Hyman Rickover, Potter Stewart, and Jacques Barzun. In 1959 James D. Koerner's The Case for Basic Education articulated CBE's ideals about the goals in education and contained what has become a celebrated essay by one of its founding members, Clifton Fadiman, on what he defined as the "generative" power of what is contained in the basic liberal arts. In 1971 CBE published "Inner-City Children Can Be Taught to Read: Four Successful Schools," an article by George Weber, then a director at CBE, which continues to be read by those who are alarmed at the number of illiterate students in the nation's urban schools.


In addition to speeches, publications, and conferences, CBE's programmatic activities began when it was invited by the National Endowment for the Humanities to administer a program that would allow school teachers to engage in independent study in the humanities during the summertime. From 1983 until 1997, more than 3,000 teachers participated as CBE Fellows, and from 1985 until 1996, CBE conducted Writing to Learn, which taught effective writing across the curriculum, primarily in urban school districts.

Following the National Education Summit in 1989 in Charlottesville, Virginia, which called for strong national standards for education, CBE's historic commitment for high standards established it as a national leader. CBE provided support for the development and implementation of academic standards in a number of states and school districts, including Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland (Ohio), Milwaukee (Wisconsin), Montgomery County (Maryland), and Sacramento and Santa Barbara (both California). In 1995, through its project known as Standards for Excellence in Education (SEE), CBE condensed, consolidated, and edited the national standards in the basic subjects to form a single volume, which continues to be used in many school systems. During that same period of time, CBE was asked to convene a panel to review the then controversial national history standards, which produced a report that became the basis for the revised national history standards.

In addition to its standards and fellowship programs, CBE developed a program, Standards-Based Teacher Education (STEP), to promote students' deep understanding of the subjects they will eventually teach and encourage the colleges of the arts and sciences to join forces with the teacher preparation faculties in requiring a strong academic curriculum for future teachers. STEP is operational on campuses in Maryland, Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, and Delaware. Schools around the World (SAW) is a program that engages teachers from eight nations to compare student work on common science and mathematics topics and trains teachers in the United States to improve instruction.

In 1997 CBE initiated the Humanities Scholars Fellowship program and the Charter School Fellowship program. In 1999 it collaborated with the Laboratory for Student Success and the Maryland State Department of Education to launch the Mid-Atlantic Regional Teachers' Project (MARTP), a coalition of five states that looks at issues of teacher quality and demand in a regional area. CBE is a partner with the George Washington University and the Institute for Educational Leadership to develop a National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform. CBE also manages American Education Reaches Out (AERO), a project designed to develop a set of voluntary academic-content standards for the American schools overseas that are supported by the U.S. Department of State.

Legal Status, Governance, and Publications

CBE is incorporated as a 501 (c)(3) organization and is governed by an independent board of directors. The council publishes Basic Education (monthly) and occasional special reports and books.

Assessment of CBE's Influence and Significance

From its beginning, CBE has been known as an independent voice for educational reform, and it is frequently called upon and quoted in national newspapers, periodicals, and on television and radio. Its publications are read by a diverse audience, including professional educators, members of Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, state legislators, and the media, as well as by members of the general public who seek an understanding of educational policies and trends. Both national and international education officials confer regularly with CBE about education policy. As of 2001, CBE had worked in twenty-five states, twenty-eight districts, and eight countries.

See also: School Reform; Standards for Student Learning; Standards Movement in American Education.


Barth, Patte, and Mitchell, Ruth. 1992. Smart Start. Golden, CO: North American Press.

Koerner, James D. 1959. The Case for Basic Education. Boston: Little, Brown.

Mitchell, Ruth. 1992. Testing for Learning. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.

Patton, Susannah, and Holmes, Madelyn, eds. 1988. The Keys to Literacy. Washington, DC: Council for Basic Education.

Pritchard, Ivor. 1998. Good Education: The Virtues of Learning. Norwalk, CT: Judd.

Tyson, Harriet. 1994. Who Will Teach the Children? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tyson-Bernstein, Harriet. 1988. A Conspiracy of Good Intentions: America's Textbook Fiasco. Washington, DC: Council for Basic Education.

Weber, George. 1971. "Inner-City Children Can Be Taught to Read: Four Successful Schools." Washington, DC: Council for Basic Education.

Christopher T. Cross

M. RenÉ Islas

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Council for Basic Education

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