Gordon MacKay Ambach, an engaging and probing technocrat who, while in charge of New York’s Department of Education and the Council of Chief State School Officers, helped usher in the nation’s standards and accountability movement, died at his New Haven, Conn., home May 25 . He was 83.
The cause of death was complications from a stroke, family members said in a press release.
As the education commissioner of New York between 1977 to 1987, Ambach instituted the Regents Action Plan, one of the nation’s most-ambitious statewide reform efforts. It lengthened the time students spent in school, raised learning standards across the state, and instituted statewide exams.
“The influence of those exams over the 20th century has just been incredible, in my judgment, by way of ensuring that any place you went in rural or urban New York, you would have access to the array of courses required for a regents’ diploma,” Ambach said to Education Week reporter Kathleen Manzo in a 2000 interview. “The exam system provided an opportunity for students to stretch themselves and reach for a higher goal. They raised the ante for teachers and students, parents and schools.”
During his subsequent years as the president and then executive director of CCSSO between 1987 and 2001, he advocated for national standards and heavier accountability by state officials. At the time he joined the group, CCSSO was a middling advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., with little say over federal and state education policy. Under his leadership, CCSSO grew from a $2.5 million-a- year operation budget employing 18 people to one with 65 employees and a budget of $14 million, much of it from grants. It was influential in advocating for high standards and strict school accountability and in the national debate in the runup to passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Ambach authored three books about leadership and the federal role in education. He also served as a board member of the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds, the Newspaper Association of America Foundation, the Education Board of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Center for Naval Analysis.
He is survived by his wife, Lucy Emory Ambach, his three children, and 10 grandchildren.
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.