January 2, 2007

Boundaries, agendas, and meta-narratives

Kevin Carey has an interesting discussion about policy perspectives and POV boundaries in the context of a broader discussion about the role of teacher unions. (Minor point here: to his good, bad, and good and bad perspectives on unionization, I'd add look at the d***ed specifics. Also see Michele McLaughin's response, which I'll just respond to as editor of Education Policy Analysis Archives: Hey, submit stuff for peer review here! Disclosure: I'm a union member affiliated with both the NEA and AFT as well as an education [and maybe even an educational] historian.)

Carey's looking at it from a policy wonk's (and think tank staffer's) perspective: how do you move ideas?  In the long term, you try to reshape political agendas, and Carey's argument about pushing perspective boundaries around is about agenda shaping...

... which brings me to two political books on NCLB published in 2006, Paul Manna's School's In and Patrick McGuinn's No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005. Despite the fact that schools are part of the unrecognized welfare state in the U.S., education politics have gotten precious little attention from grand(ly)-theorizing political scientists. I'm an historian, not a political scientist, but I think Jennifer Hochschild's The New American Dilemma (1984) and Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir's Schooling for All (1985) were the last books that took school politics as important, serious evidence about American political structures. Manna and McGuinn's books should end that drought and spark interesting dialog.

To put it briefly (and do great violence to their arguments), McGuinn's and Manna's books are part of ongoing arguments about what shapes agendas, something that has been challenged/reworked by Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones's Agendas and Instability in American Politics (1993). McGuinn argues that NCLB came about with a change in policy regimes, which I read as a dominant meta-narrative about policy. To him, federal policymakers were finally fed up with state intransigence on accountability in the late 1990s, and members of both parties were happy to jump on board the NCLB bandwagon, an event that would have been unthinkable 7-8 years before. To McGuinn, the underlying story about education policy shifted over 7-8 years, a change that involved partisan politics as well as the arguments of key players in Washington. McGuinn's focus is at the national level, and most of his evidence is there.

In contrast to McGuinn, Manna explicitly focuses on the interrelationship of federal and state actors, and as a result his story is different. To him, states were active in the 1990s, and they were willing to borrow strength from the federal government  in building an agenda and let the feds borrow it from them as well, either in the political rationale for action or the capacity for action. So to McGuinn, NCLB represents the hidden strength of governors, subtly letting the federal government claim all sorts of honors as long as it served their purposes. The reverse is true, at least in theory, but McGuinn tends to write his story from a state POV, while McGuinn's POV is clearly at the federal level.

Each book has some strengths in terms of detail. McGuinn's interviews with selected key federal actors provide retrospectives that I don't think you'll get anywhere else. The description of the AYP-definition train wreck in 2001 is Manna's surprise contribution. But the larger clash is one of levels of government and emphasis on meta-narratives vs. initiative. McGuinn's eye is on the federal level, while Manna's is on the interplay between federal and state. McGuinn focuses on policy regime (what I think of as meta-narrative), while Manna's is on who has the initiative in agenda-setting.

There are some irritating flaws that I found discomforting in each book. For McGuinn, the national teacher union affiliates are shadowy figures who are recalcitrant, anti-reform, anti-accountability, but he never provides any details though he had an NEA lobbyist as an informant. For McGuinn, Shanker's activism in the late 80s and most of the 90s was invisible, Bob Chase didn't exist, and he must not have asked his NEA interviewee any hard questions. For his part, Manna relies for the depiction of the importance of education at the federal level on one of the more trite types of political-science evidence, mentions of words in presidential speeches. Someone looking at both books would wonder why Manna failed to look at legislation (which McGuinn at least touches on in some depth, even if he ignored the issue of classroom space from the 1950s). In a book devoted to the interplay of different levels, that odd reliance on symbolic speech is... well, odd.

One last thing: Neither discuss the other's ideas much, though I suspect they know of each other's work (McGuinn had read Manna's dissertation, at least). I would love to get both of them in a room, have them talk about the issues, decide what things they really disagree on and why, and get the recording online. But both books should be required readings in education policy programs, in part for the substantive background on NCLB and in part for their very different and interesting uses of federal education policy to illuminate political dynamics.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on January 2, 2007 7:40 PM |