National News

Gordon M. Ambach, New York Education Chief in ’80s, Dies at 83

Posted June 6, 2018 10:21 p.m. EDT

Gordon M. Ambach, who, as the New York state education commissioner in the 1980s, drafted what were then the nation’s most demanding academic standards for high school graduation, died May 25 at his home in New Haven, Connecticut. He was 83.

The cause was complications of a stroke, his son Kenneth said.

Ambach developed a reputation for meticulousness during his 10 years as education commissioner, from 1977 to 1987, and later as the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington.

As head of that group he helped preserve the federal Department of Education by lobbying against a Republican campaign in Congress to abolish it.

Diane Ravitch, the education historian, said in an email that Ambach had been “greatly respected for his common sense and wisdom.”

The centerpiece of Ambach’s tenure in Albany, New York, was his pivotal role in persuading the state Board of Regents in 1984 to approve a new set of academic standards as put forth in an Action Plan, which he had been instrumental in drafting. It built on minimum competency tests for students that had been introduced in the mid-1970s.

In an analysis produced in 2009, Carol Siri Johnson, a professor in the humanities department of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, called the plan “the first official step toward a universal academic curriculum for all students” — one that “made universal competency in all academic subjects required, rather than optional.”

The requirements included two years of science and math instead of one, four years of social studies instead of three, and, for the first time, a foreign language requirement.

Moreover, the plan also called for periodic performance reviews of teachers and individual schools, letting educators, elected officials and parents measure one school’s performance against another’s and compare richer and poorer districts.

A booming economy and a national focus on failing schools generated political support for the proposals. But the Regents rejected as too costly Ambach’s call for a longer school day and an extended school year.

In an article in the Peabody Journal of Education in 1986, Donald H. Layton, of the State University of New York, Albany, wrote, “The Action Plan’s architects realized that in order to capitalize fully on the widespread national interest in education and the likelihood of increased financial support for educational initiatives, a comprehensive approach to reform not only made good educational sense but good political sense as well.”

“In retrospect,” he added, “this strategy seems to have been sound.”

Gordon MacKay Ambach was born on Nov. 10, 1934, in Providence, Rhode Island, to Russell Ambach, an engineer, and Ethel (Repass) Ambach, a teacher and school administrator.

He graduated from Yale in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in American studies and earned a master’s in teaching and an advanced certificate in education administration from Harvard.

Ambach taught history to seventh- and eighth-graders at the Wheatley School in East Williston on Long Island, New York, for three years, then served in education jobs in Washington and Boston before joining the New York state Education Department in 1967. He retired from the Council of Chief State School Officers in 2001.

In addition to his son Kenneth, he is survived by his wife, the former Lucy Emory; another son, Douglas; a daughter, Alison Illick; and 10 grandchildren.