23 SES 12 C, Governance, Standards and Power
For some time, there has been an endeavor in the policy arena to persuade the public with references to the term “evidence-based policy”. The term seems to have its origin in the UK’s election of the Blair government. The evidence-based policy movement emerged from a desire to remove ideology from the policy process and consequently increase the credibility of policy proposals. Subsequently, governments in several member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) expressed the same assumption of systematic policy knowledge (Botterill & Hindmoor 2012). In this paper, the purpose is to explore some of the salient international policy discourses underpinning school reforms in Western countries, with the current school reform in Sweden used as an example in a context of ongoing reforms in all the Nordic countries.
The research questions are: (i) what arguments and actors in the international education arena are relevant to the national reform priorities and what references are considered important for legitimizing the reform? (ii) how can comparative research perspectives contribute to explore aspects of (in) equalities in national school reforms against a backdrop of international educational policy discourses?
Drawing on Vivien Schmidt (2015) and her theory of discursive institutionalism, the missing link in understanding the connection between ideas and collective action is discourse. Within discursive institutionalism, discourse is understood as human interaction through discursive argumentation by which ideas are conveyed and translated. People have both “background ideational abilities”, which help them understand meanings and act within different institutional contexts, and “foreground discursive abilities” , which enable them to deliberate on institutions in a critical way in order to change them. In their discursive argumentation, actors form discourse coalitions, which are basically kept together by their shared ideas and basic principles. For this type of opinion formation, the agents of change use a communicative discourse to argue, deliberate, and persuade people to change their view of an institution, such as the school. Communicative discourses can be both deliberative and persuasive (Author & Non-Author, 2018).
The concepts of background and foreground ideas, as well as cognitive and normative ideas and coordinative and communicative discourses, are all conducive when forming an analytic framework for exploring school reforms. Policy ideas communicated through coordinative and communicative discourses represent aspects of power regarding the meaning and purpose of the institution. Three different ways of thinking about the discursive power of ideas can be identified. First, power through ideas is relevant when actors have the capacity to persuade other actors to adhere to a certain viewpoint. Second, power over ideas is demonstrated when certain actors have the capacity to control and dominate the meanings of ideas. Third, and finally, power in ideas is about ideational power in institutionalizing certain ideas at the expense of other ideas—that is, forming dominant discourses about an institutional idea or activity. There are good reasons for combining discursive institutionalism (Schmidt, 2015) and curriculum theory (Deng & Luke, 2008; Author & Non-Author, 2018) in studies on educational reform. Discursive institutionalism contributes to an understanding of how ideas are formed, communicated, and translated into collective action in international arenas, while curriculum theory has more to say about different analytical levels, views of knowledge, and connections between policy ideas and discursive and social practices at the local level. Moreover, a comparative approach contributes to educational studies through its methodology of detailed comparisons of certain phenomena in different arenas, especially at different levels in an educational policy system with consequences for national and local conditions for schooling (Steiner-Khamsi 2012).
Methodology In 2014, the Swedish government commissioned the OECD to review the quality of the Swedish national compulsory school system, to identify reasons for the decline in the Swedish students’ knowledge achievements, draw on lessons from other OECD countries based on the PISA results, and suggest policy areas for renewed efforts (OECD, 2015). Upon receiving the report from the OECD, the Swedish government’s instruction to the recently established 2015 School Commission was to propose school reforms based on the proposals in the OECD report. The main documents for analysis in this paper is the OECD (2015) report and the official report from the Swedish School Commission (Green Paper 2018:41, 2018). The methodological point of departure is a focus on the policy documents produced by the OECD and especially their country reports. In this case, the Swedish government commissioned the OECD to evaluate the Swedish school system for compulsory school. The task for the OECD was to “identify the main reasons for the decreasing trends in Swedish students’ performance” and to “draw on lessons from PISA and other benchmarking countries/regions with an expert analysis of key aspects of education policy in Sweden” (OECD, 2015, p. 14). The OECD report Improving School in Sweden (OECD 2015) is thus one the main document for exploring an ongoing school reform based on what the OECD considers to be international standards. The analysis is based on document analysis, comprising the following analytical steps of content analysis: (a) reading closely and systematically to identify the main educational discourses in the texts, (b) analyzing the shifts in the justification of the discourses in the texts, and (c) taking the discursive and social aspects into account in understanding the displacements and changes in the discourses.. My understanding of discourses is based on critical discourse analysis (CDA) as outlined by Fairclough (1992, 2010) and Wodak (2008). This framework applies a dialectical approach to the analysis, and given its emancipatory knowledge interest, positions itself within the very practice it theorizes. Policy is in this context viewed as a place for struggles and negotiations. By drawing on Fairclough’s (1992: 64) definition: “Discourse is a practice not just of representing the world, but of signifying the world, constituting and constructing the world in meaning”, the interest is centered on the communicative interactions in terms of coordinated and communicative discourses (Schmidt 2015).
Expected results Policy translation—something borrowed, something own, and something rejected. The translation of educational policies to national contexts never occurs in the form of “a whole package”; instead, each policy reform is transformed and recontextualized on the terms of the receiver. Something borrowed: A reform element that Swedish policy actors perceive as attractive to borrow is the OECD (2015) proposal to establish a publicly funded national institute for enhancing teacher and school leader quality. The School Commission (Green Paper 2017:35) has followed up on this suggestion with a similar proposal to establish a national function for teachers’ and school leaders’ development. Two additional official reports have elaborated the details of the proposal (Green Paper 2018:17; Green Paper 2018: 41). Something own: The OECD (2015) report suggests several reform elements to strengthen the national governance of the Swedish school system. The School Commission (Green Paper 2017:35) has proposed a solution that goes further than the OECD proposal. A return to state governance of schools has long been an option in the policy stream (Kingdon, 1995). This was most clearly expressed by the Liberal Party and has now been reintroduced on the political agenda in a national takeover of transnational policy solutions. Something rejected: While the OECD (2015) is concerned about the quality and resources for what it thinks is an overly widespread teacher education organization, and suggests a review of the number of teacher education providers, the Swedish policy actors have rejected this element of the suggested reform. Instead, the School Commission (Green Paper 2017:35) has claimed that there are good opportunities to strengthen the quality of teacher education within the framework of the current structure. Thus, this suggested reform element has been rejected despite “policy evidence” and benchmarked results.
Author & Non-Author (2018) Botterill, L. C., & Hindmoor, A. (2012). Turtles all the way down: Bounded rationality in an evidence-based age. Policy Studies, 33(5), 367–379. Deng, Z., & Luke, A. (2008). Subject matter: Defining and theorizing school subjects. In F. M. Connelly, M. Fang He, & J. Phillion (Eds), The SAGE handbook of curriculum and instruction (pp. 66–87). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications. Fairclough N., (1992), Discourse and Social Change, Cambridge: Polity Press. Fairclough N., (2010), Critical Discourse Analysis. The Critical Study of Language, Harlow: Pearson. Green Paper 2017:35. (2017). Samling för skolan. Nationell strategi för kunskap och likvärdighet [Gathering for school. National strategy for knowledge and equivalence]. Slutbetänkande av 2015 års skolkommission. SOU 2017:35 [Final commission report of the 2015 School Commission]. Green Paper 2018:17. (2018). Med undervisningsskicklighet i centrum – ett ramverk för lärares och rektorers professionella utveckling [With teaching skills at the center – a framework for teachers’ and school leaders’ professional development]. Slutrapport om utredningen av en bättre skola genom mer attraktiva skolprofessioner. SOU 2018:17. [Final report of the investigation of a better school through more attractive school professions]. Green Paper 2018:41. (2018). Statliga skolmyndigheter – för elever och barn i en bättre skola [State school authorities – for students and children in a better school]. Betänkande av 2017 års skolmyndighetsutredning, SOU 2018:41. [Commission report of the 2017 School authority investigation]. Kingdon, J. W. (1995). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies. New York, NY: HarperCollins. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2015). Improving schools in Sweden: An OECD perspective. Paris, France: OECD. Schmidt, V. A. (2015). Discursive institutionalism: Understanding policy in context. In F. Fischer, D. Torgerson, A. Durnová, & M. Orsini (Eds.), Handbook of critical policy studies (pp. 171–189). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing. Steiner-Khamsi, G. (2012). Understanding policy borrowing and lending. Building comparative policy studies. In G. Steiner-Khamsi & F. Waldow (Eds.), Policy borrowing and lending in education (pp. 3–17). New York, NY: Routledge. Wodak R., (2008), “ Introduction: Discourse studies – Important concepts and terms”, in Qualitative Discourse Analysis in the Social Sciences, R. Wodak & M. Krzyzanowski (eds.), Basingstoke: Palgrave.
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