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Political Spectacle and the Fate of American Schools

reviewed by Paul Kingston - 2004

coverTitle: Political Spectacle and the Fate of American Schools
Author(s): Mary Lee Smith with Linda Miller-Kahn, Walter Heinecke, Patricia F. Jarvis
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415932009 , Pages: 282, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com

In 1996 the Arizona Board of Education met with the intent of approving the Arizona Standards for Reading, Writing and Math. These proposed standards reflected the initiative of Lisa Graham Keegan, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, who had scuttled the efforts of her predecessor – and hoped to lay personal claim to bringing “accountability” to Arizona education, thus advancing her own gubernatorial aspirations. The stage was set for her to shine in the public eye. But of course no self-respecting politician could let a rival dominate this popular “policy”: accountability had become a buzzword that captured the public imagination. So, without notice, just as the proceedings were about to start, Governor Symington entered the room with an entourage of advisors and reporters and proceeded to read  his own press release on what should be done to bring real accountability to Arizona education. Quite clearly, political maneuvering had taken precedence over reasoned debate.  Mary Lee Smith, self-identified “progressive” professor of education at Arizona State, sat in the audience, dismayed by the proceedings, certain that her favored provisions had become doomed.


Detailed as an extended vignette in Political Spectacle and the Fate of American Schools, this sorry episode encapsulates the central message of Smith’s impassioned book.  In her view, American educational policy has become captive to base political manipulations, ideological posturing that allows little room for rational deliberation or democratic participation, and unreflective acceptance of conservative nostrums.  In making this argument, Smith draws on Murray Edelman’s well-known “theory” of political spectacle in which elite actors enact scripts designed to sell particular ideas to the larger public. These scripts are long on lofty rhetoric and emotional appeal and short on substance, especially directed to the public good.  And while the elite-bias of these public performances remains clouded, the real action happens backstage where elites dominate the political apparatus. Smith’s starting premise, then, is as much an indictment of American democracy – a “degenerative politics” (p. 5), an “oligarchy” (p. 253) – as of educational policy.


Inspired by Edelman’s dramaturgical vision, Smith likens herself to “a child with a new hammer” (p. x) and, indeed, finds that everything in the educational policy arena can be banged into that framework.  She hammers with a vengeance on current hot topics: assessment policies, school choice, desegregation, reading pedagogy. The separate “issue chapters” draw on the work of Miller-Kahn, Heinecke, and Jarvis.


The details in the case studies represent the strength of the book. Considered together, they show, in often compelling detail, how narrow self-interests propel political actors, how misleading rhetoric hides these interests, how democratic ideals are severely compromised, and how policy research is highly politicized. If anyone needs reminding that the real world departs from the idealized model of rational, deliberative decision-making, this volume provides the necessary reminder.


Yet there are underlying tensions in the analysis.  On the one hand, Smith forcefully argues for the ineluctably political nature of research (and researchers), but she also seeks to make the case against the rationality of existing policies on the grounds of empirical social science.  I agree with her claim that research doesn’t unambiguously support the conventional (conservative) wisdom, but she hardly provides a dispassionate or complete reading of the literature (e.g., the impact of promotion policies). Indeed, her discussion is often tendentious, as ideologically charged as those she criticizes.  If political bias taints the analysis of the “bad guys,” how does Smith escape the charge that her analysis is politically biased from the “other side?” To be convincing, Smith needs to be more reflexive about her own analysis.


At the same time, the political analysis that frames the study is problematic. Why does our political spectacle portray educational issues in particular ways? Smith’s unnuanced and deterministic answer is: “Corporate interests dominate educational policy (p. 235).” (This is one of “Ten Lessons” to be gained from the book.)  As much as the “reading wars” are highly politicized, it’s hard to see that the recent federal-supported emphasis on phonics reflects some distinct corporate interest.  Moreover, on this matter and others, Smith gives short shrift to the political capacities and possible good sense of the larger public. She can’t seem to imagine that large numbers of parents genuinely believe, based on their own experience, that phonics works better than whole language approaches – and that they are not simply dupes of some media-hyped, business-led cabal. Nor do the recent defeats of voucher initiatives fit her analysis –or, for that matter, does the support these initiatives enjoy from many underprivileged families. The politics of education is much more complicated than the Smith’s analysis allows.


For all those who care about the quality of American education, the upside is that educational issues are now front and center in the political arena.  We can move beyond a shallow spectacle only if partisans on all sides are willing to question their own assumptions and to engage those who are not fellow True Believers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 5, 2004, p. 968-969
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11248, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 10:38:37 AM

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About the Author
  • Paul Kingston
    University of Virginia
    E-mail Author
    PAUL W. KINGSTON is a professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia. Recent publications include: The Classless Society (Stanford, 2000); “The Unfulfilled Promise of Cultural Capital Theory” in Sociology of Education (extra issue) 2001,88-99; “Why Education Matters” Sociology of Education , 76(1): 53-70, 2003. With Steven Nock, he is working on a NSF-funded project, The Distribution of Obligations.
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