Wilson Pressures Panel To Cede Standards-Setting Control

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Bowing to pressure from Gov. Pete Wilson, the California commission created by law to set standards for what students should know and be able to do agreed last week to wrap up its activities and turn the job over to the state school board.

Gov. Wilson made clear both in a budget document and in a letter last month to the commission that he did not want the panel to do what it had already started work on: setting standards for how good is good enough in students' academic performance.

Ellen F. Wright, the panel's chairwoman, recommended to the commission--and it agreed--that it not try to fight the governor's will. "He is telling us that we're done," she said last week. "In my estimation, it's a situation where we ought to leave with dignity."

The commission voted to write a report about its work and recommend how the state board could go about setting performance standards. Over the past two years, the commission has issued content standards specifying what knowledge students should glean from mathematics and language arts instruction. By July 1, the commission is to vote on final content standards in science and in history-social science. Some experts argue that content standards are meaningless without accompanying performance standards.

Last week's meeting was heated at times, said Robert Calfee, a cognitive psychologist at Stanford University who is the vice chairman of the commission and heads its performance-standards subcommittee. "There was a lot of unhappiness expressed about our basically being told, 'Stop what you're doing,' and the sense that this might undercut the content work that we were doing."

Power Play?

In a May 18 letter, a copy of which was obtained last week by Education Week, Mr. Wilson argued that the performance standards should be turned over to the state school board--a body he alone appoints. By contrast, 12 of the commission's 21 members were appointed by Mr. Wilson, a Republican. The legislature and the schools superintendent name the rest. The governor said time was running out for the work and that he did not like the direction the commission had taken. Mr. Wilson favors an approach to curriculum guidelines that stresses the academic basics.

The commission's tenure ends in December. A one-year extension of its life and budget, which was the commission's preference, would not make sense because a new governor, whom voters will elect in November, might appoint new members, causing further delays, Mr. Wilson argued in the letter.

The panel last week rejected a motion by Ms. Wright, a Wilson appointee, to urge the legislature that a nonpartisan group, instead of the state board, be created to write performance standards.

The episode is another installment in California's long-running struggle to craft state academic standards and statewide tests linked to them. It illustrates the continuing policy and political struggles between the governor and his appointed education board on one side and the commission on the other. Two commission members said last week that their tenure on the panel was the most unpleasant professional experience of their decades in education.

"The most disturbing part of this most recent action is that it ends the process of public discussion and debate that the commission has promoted," said Mr. Calfee, who was appointed by the schools superintendent. "My fear is that it will become much more partisan."

Some saw the action by the governor, who has presidential aspirations, as a political power play.

But Dan Edwards, a spokesman for the governor, disputed that interpretation. "This is not a political thing." Instead, he said, the action was intended to move the reforms ahead in a timely fashion.

Vol. 17, Issue 40, Page 32

Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as Wilson Pressures Panel To Cede Standards-Setting Control
Web Resources
  • Read the Academic Standards Commission's current drafts of standards for history/social science, science, English/language arts, and mathematics. The drafts are available in text or as PDF files.
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