State Assessment Becomes Political Spectacle--Part VIII: Explaining the History
by Mary Lee Smith, Walter Heinecke & Audrey Noble - September 13, 2000
The preceding narrative was constructed around the theme of politics. Consequently, it suggests that fair deliberation and rational action do not always or necessarily characterize policy making. Taking the conventional view of policy assumes that rational choice, although "never optimal" is the "central influence in decision-making and policy making." Better information and democratic deliberation by informed participants will lead to better policies . This view assumes that policy-making aims to optimize the consensual and core values of the commonweal and that the democratic process adjudicates differences in values among constituent groups. In educational policy-making, it assumes that once consensus is reached, the policy translates rationally and predictably through program development and implementation to its logical consequences in schools, distributing the benefits imagined in policy goals. Means and ends are coordinated. Policies are instrumental: they lead to achievable consequences with few surprises. Costs and benefits are understood . Stone refers to this set of assumptions as "the rationality project." Rein (1976, p. 100) distinguished political decision-making from rational problem-solving by noting, "Rationality does not...imply that some definable logical procedure has been followed which has exhaustively scrutinized all possible options or considered all relevant information. Rather, it suggests that, at the least, the process of making a decision made use of whatever resources of knowledge, judgment, imagination and analysis were available in the circumstances....To disregard real, scientifically discoverable risks is irrational."
Edelman contrasted instrumental from symbolic and political policy : Any "analysis that encourages belief in a secure, rational, and cooperative world fails the test of conformity to experience and to the record of history." Instead, politics and policy are "matters of symbol, myth, and spectacle constructed for and by the public" pp.4-5).
The political nature of Arizona assessment policy is revealed by reference to a variety of frameworks in the literature: political culture, political trends and structure, garbage can, transformation of intentions, micropolitics, political symbolism and political spectacle models. We will reference each of these and indicate the features of the Arizona case that instantiate the categories of each.
The policy that takes hold and persists in a state tends to be one consistent with that state's political culture . Those policies that conflict will not long endure. Arizona's political culture tugs policy more often toward its dominant values of efficiency, accountability, and choice, and away from contending values of quality, equity, and professionalism. Assessment policy before and after the ASAP era reflected these core values. ASAP, conceived by professionals and embodying progressive ideals, was soon overrun by demands for central control over curriculum and tangible test results for the least expense. Claims of policy to enhance fairness and equity were unlikely to last for long in a state political culture hostile to these values. Traditionalistic policy cultures such as Arizona's emphasize "the leading role of economic elites in shaping public decisions, with a consequent fusing of private and public sectors and a limitation on citizen participation" , p.118), as well as a distrust of bureaucracy, labor unions or teacher and administrator authority and concerns (e.g., professional development and certification standards). Furthermore, there were strong anti-taxation sentiments and persistent demands for accountability in the political culture that had effects on assessment policy.
The national discourse on education and political trends interacted with the state policy culture . Claims that public schools were failing were repeated as Arizona's policy actors proclaimed the need for greater stringency in state assessment policy. Discourse about the link between achievement test scores and economic competitiveness reinforced this trend, as did the image of schools as factories manufacturing achievement test scores and producing economic prosperity. The role of corporate elites and national networks of conservative actors in the local policy-making and standard-setting process further revealed the influence of national political culture and political trends. The shift to the political right that characterized national and state politics from the late eighties to the middle nineties also influenced assessment policy. Early on, the policy actors were split between the parties. Later, Arizona became virtually a one-party state. The governor, state superintendent, and legislative majorities were conservative Republicans. The appointments they made to the State Board of Education, Arizona Department of Education staff, and various ad hoc groups reinforced this trend. The dominant discourse was union-bating and educator-bashing, federal mandate- and court order-defying. Right-wing extremists often made the news, as did religious conservatives. Assessment policy could hardly be immune to this climate, particularly because of the relationship between political and pedagogical conservatism.
Within broad structural limits, policy itself is neither unitary nor invariant in that different actors in different situations experience and interpret assessment policy differently . At the stage of policy formation, policy actors construct links between assessment solutions and putative problems. The "problem," as defined by some Arizona actors, was that schools were not accountable, efficient or effective. Others defined the "problem" as an outmoded form of pedagogy held in place by an outmoded high stakes standardized test. With her progressive-minded staff, Bishop, as policy entrepreneur, grafted constituencies together to get ASAP on the policy agenda, doing so by obscuring the underlying contradictions between the two problem definitions. Change and the pace of change (at both the birth and death of ASAP) can be explained by the garbage can theory of policy-making . This theory suggests that there is a narrow window of opportunity during which the various constituencies (each with different policy goals) can be brought together to get a policy on the agenda. Coalitions of constituencies with conflicting agendas and interests often prove to be unstable, as happened in Arizona. The constituency for progressive reform through performance testing was scattered and silent by 1995. This short-lived confluence of alternative, even internally contradictory, perspectives reflects Kingdon's theory that policies usually obscure underlying contradictions in values and perspectives of political actors whose various agendas come together temporarily. Ambiguities and contradictions then send conflicting signals to those who must implement the policy and those who are supposed to react to it . An important influence on changing assessment policy was the change in policy entrepreneur and the political motivation to establish the leadership of the new superintendent. Bishop had defined ASAP as the centerpiece of her administration. The political competition between Keegan and the new coalition of Bishop and Symington in 1995 made a change predictable.
Once on the agenda, a legislated policy is still not invariant, as the ASAP case illustrates. Hall's model proposed that policy is a process of transformations from its original intentions through layers of administration and implementation . This helps explain how the Bishop administration could take a piece of legislation that specified one thing (only that essential skills should be assessed and reported) and turn it into something else (a program of performance assessment and reform of teaching and curriculum), and then later transform the policy to a form of high stakes accountability, even though the policy, a legislative text, remained the same. There were multiple incidents that revealed the conflicting goals and interests of constituent groups within the educational system that contended with one another for status, power, and definitions of the situation . For example, bureaus within Bishop's ADE contended over standardized verses performance assessments, ADE contended with ABOE, and ABOE with the legislature, over how to define accountability and which testing system best provided it. The micropolitics between levels, factions, and organizational units had effects on the radical change in assessment policy.
Once a policy enters the political arena, political analysis is necessary to understand it. When a candidate for office or office holder tried to identify him or herself as the "education governor," or when educational goals become part of campaign promises or function as bargaining chips among political supporters, a conventional policy analysis becomes incomplete or even distorted. Edelman disputed the conventional notion about politics as the authoritative allocation of benefits and costs across the polity. Political actions do "convey goods, services, and power to specific groups" (p.5). But these groups are the few. For most of us, "most of the time politics is a series of pictures in the mind.... a passing parade of abstract symbols" (p.5). Thus, policy analysis must distinguish between instrumental elements (rational process and real consequences) and symbolic elements. The following paragraphs present these elements, which, in Table 3 we instantiate with incidents from the narrative.
Maneuvering to obtain real effects for the few.
Political acts do result in tangible benefits to a few political actors. These political acts typically occur in the background, largely out of sight to the general public. They result in monetary gains and losses (through jobs and contracts) for the few, advancement of political careers and status positions, furtherance of an ideological position of a particular group of political supporters, and changes in the relative power of one agency at the expense of others. In contrast, the general public is engaged in a "spectator sport" where politics are concerned. Nearly all important or controversial political acts function primarily as symbols. The meaning of an act...."depends only partly or not at all upon its objective consequences, which the mass public cannot know, " (Edelman, 1985, p.7).
Invoking symbolic language.
The paradigm case of using symbolic language in educational policy is The Nation At Risk, from its title to its recommendations. The symbolic association of the status of U.S. schools to disease or national defense is by now so ingrained that one rarely notes that its concrete referent is only distantly related to its symbolic forms. It functions, Edelman would argue, to create anxiety in the public and justify actions on the part of political policymakers (Edelman, 1985). Use of hortatory language and metaphors aims to appeal to the support or at least quiescence of the public. Policies meant to determine high school graduation by attaining passing scores on competency tests, for example, use the metaphor of "seat-time." The phrase connotes that the system to be replaced is one in which students just sit passively and incompetently. It quiets the critical response that might refer instead to students accumulating Carnegie units on the basis of multiple teachers making professional judgments of their competence. But, as a result, material changes in authority and definition of schooling have been effected, largely out of public notice.
Invoking political settings as symbols.
According to Edelman, political acts take place in contexts that suggest some individuals are actors but most are spectators. These formal settings reinforce and justify the social distance between the two groups and legitimize " a series of future acts (whose content is still unknown) and thereby maximizing the chance of acquiescence" (Edelman, 1985, p. 98). Policies announced from in front of the Presidential seal, rules handed down from a Federal Court bench or from other formal or evocative settings have this function.
Positioning political actors as leaders.
Politicians in the policy arena take advantage of the common ideology that some people are born leaders and thus are different from the rest of us, according to Edelman. They reinforce images of themselves as leaders by acting in formal, public settings and "through a dramaturgical performance emphasizing the traits popularly associated with leadership: forcefulness, responsibility, courage, decency, and so on" (Edelman, 1985, p. 81). Leaders publicly associate themselves with innovation, emphasizing the apparent differences between their own qualities and programs verses those of their predecessors or competitors. The defining of policy actors as leaders functions to insure quiescence and justify unequal privileges and authority.
Part of the process of constructing oneself as leader involves evoking crises as justification for one's policy initiatives. For example a precipitous (though possibly artifactual) test score decline becomes a pretext for changing curriculum to the leader's (or the leader's political supporters') favorite alternative. The change is justified because of the dire risk the decline implies, say, to the state's economic health. Likewise, leaders create enemies and stage battles for dramaturgical effects. Media reinforce the aspects of spectacle rather than substance.
Democratic participation as myth.
Leaders are privileged to act. Others react. Most people believe they participate in a democratic or representative way by voting or testifying at hearings where legislation or regulations are decided. In politicized policy making, according to Edelman, the actions of the public amount to mere rituals because they are highly formalized and far removed from where the real decisions are made. The backstage is where broad visions and fine details of policies are made.
Myth of rationality.
According to Edelman, "complete rationality in decision-making is never possible... because knowledge of consequences of any course of action is always fragmentary, because future values cannot be anticipated perfectly, and because only a few of the possible alternative courses of action ever come to mind" (Edelman, 1985, p.68). In political acts, actors evoke symbols of rationality even when reason does not govern the act itself. Thus, political actors point to the results of public polls, census statistics, or test score declines as justification for actions they want to take on political grounds. But the public must believe in the rational and ethical underpinning of the action or else it will fail the test of credibility and authority.
Disconnection of means and ends.
One can distinguish instrumental from symbolic policies by judging whether the goals they purport to achieve have credible relationship to the means provided or suggested to achieve them. Is there a technology established or a research base that connects programs to desired outcomes? Are teachers equipped to deliver the programs? Have enough time and material resources been provided to develop and implement them? Is there any provision for monitoring implementation or assessing effects? If not, one suspects a primarily symbolic policy. Symbolic policies reinforce the leadership image of those who proposed them and instill quiescence among others - a dulling of critical response. Calling for a reduction in class size positions the political actor as a friend of education and defender of high achievement standards. The public is lulled into a satisfied mindset that something positive is being done. People in such a state are unlikely to ask about the potential side-effects on teacher supply and classroom availability (or what children are most likely to be taught by uncertified teachers as a result). The high costs of the program may make implementation prohibitive. The leader symbolically benefits, and material benefits for children will be unequally distributed and largely out of sight.
Creating political spectacle.
The element of symbolism in policy making adds up to what Edelman (1988) referred to as the political spectacle. Assessment policy is not solely political in nature. Policy actors and those who administer policy have positive intentions to do substantive good. Instrumental goals are both implicit and explicit at all levels. But to ignore its political nature; that is, to treat it solely as rational and instrumental, is to engage a cycle of confusion, optimism, frenzied activity, disappointment, and cynicism.
TABLE 3: Elements of Symbolic Politics and Incidents from Arizona Assessment Policy Narrative