Background Information for Open Letter to Governor Schwarzenegger and Members of the California Legislature

Note: Endorsing the Open Letter does not necessarily signify agreement with any statements on this page.

The July 7, 2006 letter from former Governors Davis and Wilson is linked here.

The governors' letter includes point-by-point rebuttals and corrections to "incorrect claims being advanced about California's  recent experience with standards and accountability."   Those incorrect claims appear in a document entitled, "Part I, California  Education in 2006: State Policy," written by Jackie Goldberg, the Chair of the California Assembly Education Committee.

Goldberg's essay with rebuttals is linked here:

Her essay without rejoinders appears contiguously at the end of that document. Below are the opening paragraphs of Goldberg's essay, which begins with a denunciation of California's K-12 academic standards (to which she refers inappropriately as the "revised 'adopted' standards"):

In the mid-1990's a noble idea was "kidnapped" and K-12 education in California began to move down a path that has led to as disastrous result for the majority of California students.  The original concept was excellent and included the idea of statewide standards for each grade, in each core subject: Math, English, Science, History/Social Sciences.  Statewide panels of teachers and academicians were appointed for each of the four curricular subject matter areas.  They worked together, battling over and discussing each standard, and remarkably achieved consensus.  

But their work was thrown out by the State board of Education (SBE).  Instead, one member of the SBE, at the time, rewrote the work of each of these statewide panels.  This was done at the urging of, and with the personal active participation of, "fellows" at the conservative Hoover Institute located on the Stanford University campus.  These ideologically based "scholars" created new standards which immediately set off the "math wars," "reading wars," and the "science wars" which rage on to this day.  These new standards from the Hoover Institute began the forced march towards the current rigid, one-size-fits-all, top down regimentation of K-8 education in California.  And, when they added "standards' aligned testing" and "standards' aligned textbooks," rigor mortis set in.

Statewide standards as originally presented had broad-based support by academicians and teachers.  The revised "adopted" standards do not.

As Governors Davis and Wilson indicate, Goldberg's description is not accurate. What follows is a summary of the events leading to, and following, the adoption of California's standards.

By the mid-1990s, dramatic failures of "whole language learning" in teaching primary grade students to read, and analogous shortcomings in mathematics education resulted in public pressure to change state education policies. In early 1995, state Superintendent of Schools, Delaine Eastin, convened task forces for reading and math to recommend improvements for instruction.  That same year, the California legislature passed a bill that required school districts to include the teaching of basic skills in reading and math as part of their curriculum.  Governor Wilson signed this "ABC Bill" in October 1995, and it became law in January 1996.  The State Board of Education scheduled a rewrite of the 1992 Math Framework two years ahead of the normal time table. Rewrites were also scheduled for other subject matter frameworks in 1998.

In January 1997, the Academic Content and Performance Standards Commission (Standards Commission) was charged with writing new standards for California and submitting its drafts to the State Board of Education for final approval.  The committee consisted of non expert citizens appointed through a political process. The majority of the Standards Commissioners were largely in agreement with past practices which emphasized discovery learning at the expense of basic skills and coherent development of subject matter.  The Standards Commission first released its proposal for state math standards. That document not only embraced practices that California was trying to escape, but was also incoherent and full of mathematical errors.

Math Standards

The Commission majority, knowing that the State Board of Education was opposed to their draft, delayed presenting it for the required Board approval until the last day allowed by law, effectively foreclosing debate within the Commission itself at its final October meeting. The expectation was that the deadline of January 1, 1998 for the Board's final decision would make it difficult for the Board to make substantial changes in the Commission's draft.  However, the success of this hardball politics was foiled by the rapid response of the forewarned Board, which appointed four mathematicians, Gunnar Carlsson, Ralph Cohen, Steve Kerckhoff, and R. James Milgram, of Stanford University to rewrite the draft K-12 math standards.

In a few weeks the Stanford math professors rewrote the standards, corrected more than 100 mathematical errors, and eliminated all pedagogical directives, leaving the standards pedagogically neutral.  The new document would allow teachers to use discovery learning or direct instruction, or whatever classroom techniques worked for them, so long as they taught all of the grade level content standards.  The mathematics framework was regarded as the proper document for discussions of pedagogy, but not the standards themselves. 

This was what the State Board was looking for, and the mathematicians' standards were adopted by California in December 1997.  These are now California's official math standards. They are clear, coherent, and meet the criteria set by the California legislature to be competitive with math standards of the highest performing countries.  

Professor Hung-Hsi Wu of the U.C. Berkeley math department, did a careful analysis of the California standards (that the board adopted), in comparison to the draft favored by Jackie Goldberg and submitted by the Standards Commission which the Board rejected.  Wu found numerous mathematical errors and lack of clarity and cohesion in the rejected Commission standards, in contrast to an overall soundness and clarity in California's now official math standards.

In contradiction to Jackie Goldberg's allegations, the only K-12 draft standards released by the Standards Commission that were rejected by the State board were the mathematics standards, and only one member, Bill Evers, of the 21-member Standards Commission was associated with the Hoover Institution.

Following strident denunciations in the press of the newly adopted California math standards by non mathematicians, more than 100 mathematics professors from colleges and universities across California added their names to a 1998 open letter  in support of the California's math standards.  The signatories included chairs of the math departments at Caltech, Stanford, several UC and CSU campuses, as well as community college faculty. Jaime Escalante, portrayed in the movie Stand and Deliver, also added his name in support.  In addition two consecutive evaluations of the  state math standards conducted by the Fordham Foundation, most recently in 2005, ranked California's math standards the best in the nation.

California assesses academic achievement of students in grades 2 - 11 annually through through the STAR exam.  For the math portion of that exam, students are not allowed to use calculators, and this sound policy is explained in detail in the California Mathematics Framework.  However, as of July 2006, the Multiple Subject California Subject Examination for Teachers (CSET), an exam required of prospective elementary school teachers, works against the elementary school math standards.  The CSET allows prospective elementary school teachers to use calculators for the entire math portion of the exam.  Thus, current state policy does not require elementary school teachers to be able to carry out any arithmetic procedures by hand.  California expects greater facility with arithmetic from its elementary school students than it does from its elementary school teachers.  These low expectations of elementary school teachers undermine the state's math standards.

Science Standards

In November 1997 the Standards Commission attempted to award a $178,000 contract to a group based at California State University, San Bernardino, to help write California's science standards. The Commission rejected a competing offer to write the state's science standards for free by a group calling itself the Associated Scientists that included three Nobel Prize winners.  A Los Angeles Times article of January 17, 1998 ("Rival Scientists to Collaborate on School Science Standards," by Richard Colvin) described subsequent events as follows:

Since its initial offer to write the standards was rejected, the Nobelists group has bolstered its ranks with the addition of six other winners of science's highest honor . . . and dozens of classroom teachers.

The rival group, based at Cal State San Bernardino, also includes top scientists but is weighted more heavily with educators.

"To have any role in the process at all is just terrific," said Stan Metzenberg, a Cal State Northridge biology professor who assembled the group featuring Nobel laureates, including Glenn Seaborg, a key figure in nuclear physics. "I think this is a real opportunity for the K-12 students in our state to have standards that are written by the best scientists and the best educators."

Bonnie Brunkhorst, a Cal State San Bernardino professor who heads the other group--which initially had gotten the job--was less enthusiastic about the compromise decision of the Commission for the Establishment of Academic Content and Performance Standards.

"We are willing to explore it," she said. "Working together requires two groups working in good faith, and we will work in good faith."

The Nobelists' group had complained that science education was being "dumbed down" in a misguided effort to make it more appealing. It wanted the standards to require students to learn specific concepts, such as how electrical charges bond atoms into molecules or how "the funny little bend" in the water molecule is a fundamental basis for life on Earth.

Brunkhorst's group, in contrast, thought the Nobel laureates' philosophy perpetuated a scientific elitism that risked making the curriculum inaccessible to all but a few students.

That group won out in a November vote of the commission, which rejected Seaborg's team as lacking experience both in the classroom and in writing standards. The commission also seemed suspicious of the offer to work for free.

But the spurned Nobelists appealed on grounds that the commission had failed to follow its own rules.

The commission then agreed that it should have given Seaborg and his colleagues more credit for offering to work without pay. Brunkhorst's group wanted to charge $178,000.

Governor Wilson appointed Glenn Seaborg to the Commission in January 1998.  The California State Board of Education adopted the Commission's recommended science standards as California's K-12 science standards in July of the same year.
The 2005 Fordham Foundation's evaluation of state science standards ranked California's science standards the best in the nation.

Language Arts and History/Social Studies Standards

The proposals by the Standards Commission for the  Language Arts standards and the History/Social Studies standards were adopted by the State Board of Education in 1997 and 1998 respectively.  The 2006 Fordham Foundation evaluation of state K-12 world history standards ranked California's the best in the nation, and the Foundation's 2005 evaluation of K-12 English standards ranked California's second in the nation.

Recent controversy has focused on whether different English language standards should apply to English language learners.  Governor Schwarzenegger weighed in on this issue in an editorial entitled, "Immersion is the best way to learn a second language," published July 16, 2006 in the San Jose Mercury New and posted at:

A July 19, 2006 unsigned editorial in the same newspaper supported the positions of all three governors, ending with this statement:

... having failed to convince the state board of its point of view, proponents of separate materials for English learners leaned on Democrats in the Legislature to strip the board's $1.6 million funding, prompting board President Glee Johnson to resign. Democrats won't restore the board's budget unless the governor signs SB 1769, sponsored by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Norwalk, which would force the state board to do what they want. Schwarzenegger is right to not play along and for finding other ways to pay the state board's staff.

The conflict with the state board reflects larger tensions in the Legislature over sanctions facing hundreds of schools statewide under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. However understandable the frustration, attacking standardized tests, weakening the high school exit exam and relaxing the definition of proficiency are fake fixes.

The three governors are right: Those tactics will hurt students in the long run.

A Los Angeles Times unsigned editorial entitled, "Forgetting the Bilingual Lesson" on August 29, 2006 argued similarly as follows:

CALIFORNIA WAS SUPPOSED TO have learned a sad but important lesson from its years of experimenting with bilingual education: When you isolate a group of largely poor, minority students and give them different instruction from what other students receive, they tend to get a dumbed-down, second-rate education.

Unfortunately, that lesson hasn't fully sunk in. Nor has the idea that playground politics and retribution are not in the best interests of schoolchildren.

This spring, the Assn. of California School Administrators and more than 30 school districts presented to the state Board of Education a flawed proposal to offer English-language learners a simpler language-arts curriculum, with separate textbooks. The plan, called Option VI, would require those students to devote 2 1/2 hours a day learning from texts with shorter words and bigger pictures. Either teachers would have to somehow teach two curriculums at the same time — one for English speakers, one for the rest — or the English learners would have to be separated out. Either way, students lose.

The board, which is responsible for setting standards and choosing curriculum and textbooks, rightly rejected Option VI as a regressive return to the days of lower expectations for children of color. That's when Sacramento got silly. In a fit of pique, the Legislature stripped all funding for board members' support staff. That triggered the resignation of board President Glee Johnson, and other members considered following her lead. Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) introduced a measure to restore the money but still override the board's decision. This is a juvenile way to deal with an adult problem.

California has embarked on a steep and difficult climb — one that is far from complete — to set higher standards, adopt strong curriculum and apply those standards and curriculum evenly so that inner-city students get the same education as their more affluent peers. It is true that the state's core English curriculum is, in many ways, a tough fit for the 1.6 million children in California who can't yet speak the language. Teachers have been scrambling to bridge the gaps, and they are pleading for help. The Board of Education did approve an extra hour of English instruction for those students, but that's not enough to make up for the 2 1/2 hours each day in which children feel lost amid material they don't comprehend.

Extra help is a valuable thing, but a wholly different curriculum for English learners reopens the door to the days of lower standards for the nation's immigrant children.

Escutia's bill should be dumped, the Legislature should stop playing petty politics with the budget, and both sides should work out a solution that gives teachers the tools to help all students learn the same rigorous curriculum.

Visual and Performing Arts

The 2004 edition of the Arts Framework is based on the Visual and Performing Arts Content Standards adopted in January 2001. It incorporates the content standards for dance, music, theater, and the visual arts and defines the five strands of an arts program: artistic perception; creative expression; historical and cultural context; aesthetic valuing; and connections, relationships, and applications.

More information

Detailed information about California's K-12 education system is available from these links:

California K-12 Academic Content Standards
California Frameworks
California Testing and Accountability system
California State Approved Textbooks and Instructional Materials