Policy? or Politics?

Could the hegemony of “policy” be coming to an end?

For many years state officials, “private” foundations, benevolent billionaires, academia and a certain elite media have been telling everyone else what is what in “education”.  (For one sense of this set look at Brill’s 2010 story in  the New York Times magazine).  In the world of academia where I live, this will have been the decade of “data-driven” “policy” “studies.”  We keep being told, repeatedly, such “narratives” (stories? fiction?) as:

In Rhode Island schools, a multidisciplinary effort helps teachers to quickly understand what skills their students have already grasped and which subjects need more attention. In Houston, a regional alliance has noticed signs of students going off-track on higher-level math skills and acted to intervene.

What do these stories have in common? Success here derives from access to data, or big data as it’s sometimes called. The examples above come from the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit effort driving education outcomes through hard numbers.
(GovTech November 2014, retrieved in December 2015)

What interests me here, of course, is the hint of an “actor-network” of local schools and a corporation “e.Republic, Inc.” “The nation’s only smart media and research company focused exclusively on public sector innovation for state and local government and education” (retrieved in December 2015)

One problem with just sketching an actor-network (an excellent thing to do) is that it can end with an altogether static map and little sense of the movements through it, or the temporalities that assemble and then sometimes dissemble the network.

So, recently, I have tried to write about such networks as acting (and revealing themselves) through crowded conversations (deliberations).  I am experimenting with generalizing conversational analyses (somewhat like Latour generalized ethnomethodology when he moved from looking at the production of knowledge in short interactions among a few people (Garfinkel et al. 1981;  Goodwin 1995), to looking at a laboratory (Latour 1979), to looking at the scientific enterprise as a whole (Latour 1987).

And so, once upon a time, we had Senator Kennedy and President Bush (as symbolic leaders) producing “No child left behind” after very long conversations that started at least 20 to 30 years earlier –unless it is 200 years (Varenne 2007, 2011).

And then, a few years later, President Obama and Arnie Duncan, his secretary of education, started new conversations which, among other things,  privileged “data-driven policy.”  I am necessarily wrong in suggesting that they are those who literally started these long-turn taking sequences that were disrupted last years.  But they can stand as markers of a new sequence with somewhat different participants and discursive order as the original metaphor (a child is like a sponge) developed into practical conceit (regulations, the attendant bureaucracies, the texts to be produced among the various actors, etc.).

And then, starting last year most visibly, parents, teachers’ unions and others, organized their own networks and, in altogether short order, led the withdrawal or watering down of policies about the “common core” and its measurements, not to mention “value-added teacher evaluation.”

Whether presidents and senators really start conversations is less an issue than the reality that they are heard as “having spoken” in a voice others speakers will use as their authority to speak/act.  Through various methods I associate with ethnography, even if they appear quite distant (Green forthcoming), one can follow statements, responses, amplifications, controversies, re-statements, etc. and one should then be able to specify more exactly how the conversational coherence actually gets maintained including the mechanisms that establish certain speak/actors as “legitimate participants” and others as not so legitimate.

My sense of the “policy” conversations is that, for many years, they were quite closed to many who expressed doubts about “data,” “evaluation,” “evidence-based reform,” whether in academia (altogether a small set in various disciplines), in government or the public.  I love to quote Arnie Duncan’s attempting to close participation:

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a group of state schools superintendents Friday that he found it “fascinating” that some of the opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” (Washington Post, November 16 2013 retrieved in December 2015)

“White suburban moms” saw through such attempts to make them subservient to the experts who authoritatively assess their child as mediocre.  Within a year they were refusing to have their children tested and a year later state politicians folded.  The expert participants in the policy conversations, including the State agent who give them legitimacy, appear to have been caught flat-footed.  How could they let this happen?

I’d say that many of them appear not to have noticed (induced méconnaissance?) that the hegemony of policy was a political act within a broader conversation and that the preservation of this hegemony required political rather than data resources.  The policy actors discounted that “the people” (to simplify greatly) would educate (in my sense) themselves about their new conditions and then speak/act with a panoply of weapons and resources that mostly did not include “data.”

And so:

Today is an historic day for public education in New York State.

This morning I was able to stand at the White House with …  leaders as President Obama signed legislation that bars the federal government from mandating the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers and the use of the Common Core standards.

Later this afternoon, Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force issued its report. In essence, the task force report urges a fundamental reset of education policy …  (from a December 2015 report to his troops from Michael Mulgrew, head to the United Federation of Teachers)

Discounting “the people” and politics is something which, as Rancière reminded us many times, certain types of intellectual elites keep doing whether it was the old-style French marxists of the 1960s (Rancière 1974 [2011]) or the graduates and professors of Research One Universities, their Think Tanks and benevolent billionaire funders.

Politics will not be abolished.  People will educate themselves.  What happens next will sometimes be frightful.  I will side with the anthropological romanticism that delights in temporary “solutions” (cultures) that always surprise.


Garfinkel, H. et al. (1981) “The Work of a Discovering Science Construed with Materials from the Optically Discovered Pulsar.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 11, 2:131-158.

Goodwin, C. (1996) “Transparent vision.” in Interaction and Grammar. Edited by E. Ochs, E. Schegloff and S. Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 370-404.

Green Saraisky, N. (Forthcoming). Analyzing public discourse: Using media content analysis to understand the
policy process. Current Issues in Comparative Education.

Latour, B. [all references]

Rancière, J. (2011) Althusser’s lesson. Tr. by E. Battista. New York: Continuum. (First published in 1974)

Varenne, H. [all references]


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