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The Politics of American Education

reviewed by Carolyn A. Brown - July 11, 2011

coverTitle: The Politics of American Education
Author(s): Joel Spring
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415884403, Pages: 296, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

Two weeks into teaching my first university course on Critical Issues in Education, a student raised his hand and angrily accused me of “politicizing” public education. I responded by asking him who signed his paycheck. It took that student the whole semester to admit to me (in private) that maybe education was political. Education is politics and Joel Spring’s book, The Politics of American Education, takes it to a new level by offering his characteristically liberal position to broaden the view of the factors influencing American education. He asserts that educational politics in the United States are falling victim to an encroaching hegemonic view of education as a vehicle for human capital development. He systematically develops his argument that American education must become more than a standardized, test-driven vehicle for developing workers for a global economy and supports his assertions with extensive use of information from media sources over several decades. He argues that education for citizenship for all people must be a Constitutional right.

Professor Spring sets up his argument by posing the question, “What do people talk about when they talk about school?” He considers this question from the viewpoints of the various stakeholders who contribute to educational politics: politicians, the media, parents, teachers, administrators, students, Black and Latino educators, and the “world’s richest man.” The elements that drive educational policies are further elucidated in each chapter. Spring discusses the traditional institutional influences on policy of local, state, and federal governments, including school boards and mayoral control models. He decries the increasing centralization of authority for education to the state and federal governments while pointing to the range of local issues in diverse communities that exert various levels of influence and often gain unequal benefits in a centralized system. Professor Spring devotes a chapter to the impact of power, money, and civil society on educational politics. Although he discusses the roles of traditional interest groups such as teachers’ unions and professional associations, he also expands his discussion to cover the increasing role that foundations and think tanks have exerted on educational politics.

In the chapter on the role of politicians and formal educational politics, Professor Spring veers away from a traditional view of politics as a rational process and stresses the dichotomy in American politics between the liberal and conservative positions that has given rise to the “culture wars.” His command of political movements, events, and commentary over the last decades is impressive. The picture he paints of the changes in educational politics is rich with facts. A full chapter is devoted to the impact of the education business--including publishing, supplemental educational services, and educational management organizations--on educational politics. Professor Spring aptly details the political influence of the education business in the rise of charter schools, voucher programs, and the expansion of the “shadow” education system under the No Child Left Behind legislation. His chapter on the politics of school finance offers a cursory overview of the judicial involvement in the educational equity and adequacy movements and emphasizes the role that persistent classism in the structure of taxation exerts on efforts to equalize educational funding.

His discussion of the global education and politics in education supplies a broad perspective for consideration of the future of educational policy and provides a framework for his assertion that international educational policy and international examinations are contributing to an increasingly homogeneous education system for the development of human capital to serve the needs of a globalized economic system.

In the final chapter, Professor Spring summarizes the issues of power and control of American educational politics and offers his solution to the problems of narrowing education to a system for the development of workers for a worldwide market economy: a lengthy amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would mandate a federal commitment to free, compulsory, and equitably funded education for all students, including those in religious schools. The amendments would provide for parental choice, freedom of expression for teachers and students, and rights of minority language students.  

Professor Spring’s book offers an overview of the multiple forces, from the local to the global and from public to private, that are currently shaping the politics of American Education. His discussion of  “shadow” education systems and the influence of the for-profit sector on educational policy proffers a perspective not often found in traditional texts on educational politics. His focus on the globalization of education in the final chapters supports the position that global forces are shaping American education and American forces are shaping global education. The addition of a global perspective in a book on politics of American education is a real bonus. Books on American education too often place the global perspective outside of the American system, and Professor Spring not only includes the global, but he fully integrates it into his argument. In addition to his discussion of how nations are reacting to the results of international tests, he examines how the policies of the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are contributing to global standardization of educational policy. He also offers support for his position that global business interests are acting on educational policies around the world through corporate interests in developing and circulating skilled workers.

This book is rich with research from the field of educational policies and facts and details from a variety of media sources that support Professor Spring’s very distinct argument against a human capital development model for education. As often happens with a strong ideological argument, some information is presented in a way that supports the argument but obscures parts of the reality; however, Professor Spring is clearly not trying to present a balanced or bland approach to educational politics. This book offers an insightful analysis of the human capital paradigm into which American educational politics has become increasingly locked. It casts a broad net to cover the range of influences on the educational politics and offers a clear and erudite argument from an expert in the field.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 11, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16464, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 7:48:40 PM

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About the Author
  • Carolyn Brown
    Fordham University
    E-mail Author
    CAROLYN A. BROWN is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership, Administration and Policy in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. Her teaching and research interests focus on education politics and policy and on the application of social and political theories to issues of research, policy, and practice in education. She also maintains an active involvement with K-12 schooling in both the U.S. and abroad. She is currently studying the effect of state data systems for student discipline incidents on the implementation of programs for safe schools.
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