Publications & Resources

State Standards-Setting and Public Deliberation: The Case of California

Sep 1999

Lorraine M. McDonnell and M. Stephen Weatherford

Setting rigorous academic standards is a key element of the nationwide commitment to raising the quality of American elementary and secondary education. While there is almost universal agreement on the need for new standards, however, there is much less consensus on what their content should be. This paper focuses on the formulation and adoption of content standards in California. We examine the standards-setting process through the theoretical lens of deliberative democracy in order to develop a better understanding of the process, and to assess the extent to which the institutions charged with deciding what students should learn can act as deliberative bodies. Our analysis is based on elite interviews, written input submitted to the state Standards Commission, and articles on its work in the state’s major newspapers. In many ways, the Standards Commission fulfilled its potential as a deliberative body. It provided multiple opportunities for public input, and while most of it came from professional educators, access to the Commission was open and relatively cost-free. Despite their philosophical differences, most of the commissioners subscribed to deliberative norms and worked to produce a consensus document. However, the larger political process in which standards policy was being shaped, inevitably impinged on–and sometimes undermined–the Commission’s efforts to ground decisions in reasoned deliberation.

McDonnell, L. M., & Weatherford, M. S. (1999). State standards-setting and public deliberation: The case of California (CSE Report 506). Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST).