Biographical Sketch

Gordon MacKay Ambach was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1934. After graduating from the Providence school system, he went on to attend Yale as an undergraduate, as well as receiving several graduate degrees in education from both Yale and Harvard. He taught history in East Williston, New York, from 1958 to 1961, eventually becoming President of the East Williston Teachers Association. He later served with the U. S. Office of Education in 1961-1962, and from 1961-1963 was a program planner and legislative assistant for U.S. Commissioner of Education Frank Keppel. In 1963-1964, he served as Executive Secretary to the Higher Education Facilities Act Task Force. This led to his appointment as the Executive Secretary of the Faculty Seminar at Harvard, chaired by Daniel P. Moynihan, which published the groundbreaking study on race and education “On Equality of Educational Opportunity” in 1966.

Ambach joined the New York State Education Department first as a Special Assistant, and later becoming Assistant Commissioner of Education for Long-Range Planning from 1967 to 1970. From 1970 to 1977, he served as Executive Deputy Commissioner of Education. He was inaugurated as Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York in 1977, and served in that capacity until 1987. During these years, Ambach, working with the Board of Regents, developed and implemented the Regents Action Plan, the most comprehensive school reform plan in the nation at the time. The Regents Action Plan enacted rigorous graduation standards and more stringent benchmarks for both teacher and school performance. Ambach’s work as Commissioner also produced important changes in pre-kindergarten and adult education, as well as education technology. He played an important role at the White House Conference on Libraries and Information Science in 1979 and again in 1991. He also served on the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science from 1980 to 1985. Additionally, he continued the work of his predecessors in increasing access to education for minorities and the disabled.

In 1985, Ambach was elected President of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Consequently, in 1987, he left his post as New York State Commissioner of Education to become the Executive Director of the CCSSO, and served in that capacity until 2001. In this position, he was responsible for managing the rapid growth of the CCSSO during years of tumult for education at both the federal and state levels, and he helped to establish the CCSSO as one of the most influential organizations involved in national educational policy. The CCSSO represented state education officials, and advocated for their policy positions with federal education agencies, Congress and the White House.

Ambach’s work as the CCSSO’s advocate was particularly noteworthy concerning the Goals 2000 and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiatives, as he was a driving force behind each. Relatedly, he was also tasked with encouraging the development of national coalitions of educational organizations, leading to work with Investment 21, the Education First Alliance, and the Task Force on Increasing Minority Teachers. He worked to increase CCSSO services to the states through direct assistance, and was responsible for significant increases in private sector support for work on student assessment, community service, and assessment of the performance of federal programs. Ambach was a strong advocate for the implementation of improved standards and assessment of student performance, both as Commissioner of Education and with the CCSSO. Accordingly, he was a leader in the development of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and a member of the Board of Trustees for the Educational Testing Service. He was an advocate for arts education, and became a member of the Arts Education Standards Committee to promote state testing in the arts. He served as an advisor on educational issues to several Presidential administrations as well as Congress, and was a member of the Clinton-Gore Transition Team in 1992.

Ambach was a consistent supporter of international education at the CCSSO, becoming a member of the U.S. Board on International Comparative Studies in Education of the National Academy of Sciences (BICSE). He also served as the U.S. Representative to the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement General Assembly (IEA), and was a member of the IEA Standing Committee. Concurrently, he worked with educational leaders in Japan to develop cooperative agreements for exchanges of information and research on educational reforms and practices. In addition, he led the U.S. delegation to the World Conference on Education for All in 1990.

Other highlights of Ambach’s work at the CCSSO include his administration of the Christa McAuliffe Fellowship Program, the partnership of the Interstate Migrant Education Council with the CCSSO, and the formation of the Resource Center on Educational Equity. His work by the end of his tenure at the CCSSO in 2001 had included advocacy for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Telecommunications Act on E-Rate, as well as reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and the Vocational-Technical Education Act.

Ambach also served as a member of a number of advisory boards on education both during and after his association with the CCSSO. These included the National Council on Educational Standards and Testing in 1993, the Education Committee of the National Alliance for Business from 1994 to 2001, the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund (as a member of the Board of Directors), the Newspaper Association of America Foundation, the Education Board of the National Academy of Sciences and the Center for Naval Analysis.