To educate means to lead, but the governor's specially appointed commission to determine school performance is all over the map
To paraphrase Georges Clemenceau, education is too important to be left to politicians.
The latest proof of this dictum can be seen in Governor Wilson's battle with his own Commission for the Establishment of Academic Content and Performance Standards.
The commission is a group created by a 1995 law that Wilson enthusiastically signed and to which he appointed a plurality of members, including its chairwoman, Ellen Wright of Redwood City.
In plain English, the commission was supposed to decide what California's 5 million public school pupils will learn and whether they learned it.
But like nearly everything that involves education, political agendas were never far from the surface as the commission plodded through its work.
On one side was the governor, intent on imposing strict, back-to- basics rules.
On the other was the educational establishment, led by schools chief Delaine Eastin, which contends that the methods favored by the governor don't always work. Eastin is in another squeeze. She didn't win enough votes in June to be re-elected, so she faces a November runoff against Gloria Matta Tuchman, an opponent of bilingual education.
Beyond the politics, commission members would not get A's in the "works well with other" category on their report cards.
Nothing has been easy for this panel. Battles have already raged over phonics, whole language and fuzzy math.
It is not enough that the opponents disagree. Being on the other side in this conflict is akin to admitting that you think Satan would make a fine principal at Dovewood Elementary School.
If you believe that youngsters should do multiplication tables, then you must believe the Earth is flat. If you think there is more to life than phonics, you obviously are squishy on Alger Hiss.
In the latest chapter in this depressing exercise, Wilson wants the commission to halt work and leave what remains to the State Board of Education, whose members are all appointed by the governor.
"I have significant concerns that the commission's direction will not substantially contribute to the assessment system and may, in fact, be an unwise use of state funds," Wilson wrote to Wright, the commission's chairwoman.
The disagreement is over how to measure pupil performance. Wilson says the method proposed by the commission is experimental and unreliable.
Wilson wants to use "empirical data," which means the test results, to set the standards. The commission is leaning toward a more abstract measurement, under which it would set the standards, not pupil performance.
Wilson likes multiple choice tests, with right and wrong answers.
Eastin folks favor writing samples and science experiments for their tests. It is a battle of memorizing facts vs. thinking, they say.
Wilson administration insiders believe that Wright is like a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome, in which prisoners come under the thrall of their captors - Eastin, a Democrat, and her allies.
Wright's friends say Wilson is simply trying to ram through a politically charged agenda that will boost his chances for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.
This is the commission that rejected an offer from Nobel-winning chemist Glenn Seaborg and other scientists -- at no cost to the education department -- to write the state's science standards.
Instead, the commission picked a team from California State University at San Bernardino to write the standards for a mere $178,000.
To Wilson and his allies, that incident reinforced the notion that the commission was more interested in the methodology of teaching rather than in the content of the curriculum.
The governor had the last word -- appointing Seaborg to the commission as chairman of the subcommittee writing the science standards.
And this is the commission that had its math standards rewritten by the State Board of Education, so there is ample precedent for this to happen again.
It may be that Wilson and Eastin each care deeply whether kids in California schools learn why Hamlet agonized or why the tangent equals the opposite over the adjacent.
But it might be better if they didn't care quite so much.
******************************************************************* Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: JBECKER@SIU.EDU