Title: Education Policy and the Politics of Performance

Committee: Sarah Pralle (Chair), Keith Bybee, Kristi Andersen, Mark Rupert, Tina Nabatchi


As social problems and political phenomena in general are increasingly seen as measurable, many push both the provision of more data and openness in government – as well as the increased use of data to make policy and governance decisions. My dissertation project considers the underlying politics of the information that is used in the policy process. The increasing reliance on data to guide policy decisions should not obscure the political debates that underlie them. Data is both the driver of improved policy science but also the center of political contestation. The ability to influence how particular kinds of information are used and understood serves as a source of power for political actors. In this regard, data’s role in politics is both instrumental and productive.

Education policy serves as a useful venue to explore the role that data plays in political debates and struggles for power. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, data from high stakes testing and how it is used has been the locus of debate and controversy in education policy. Data is at the center of debates about student achievement in support of policy prescriptions that aim to overcome this socioeconomic achievement gap such as the use of measures of teacher effectiveness to determine how schools pay, promote, and even retain teachers. In sum, the way in which data is used in education policy reflects specific ways of understanding and defining the problems and policy solutions, and has empowered particular constituencies and undermined others.

Using the case of No Child Left Behind, my dissertation traces the role of data as a mechanism in processes of policy feedback. Policy feedback considers the way in which policies create resource effects that provide political actors with tools of agency, interpretive effects that shape how social actors define political issues, and shape political institutions that structure political behavior. My focus in on what I call sanctioned data – information that is created by public policy and carries the weight of government authority. But the policies that create this data are purposefully designed with particular definitions of problems, ways to address them, and understandings of how these issues and solutions are represented and assessed. Thus, employing data as a policy tool serves to both define and communicate these understandings to intended target audiences. In this context, I consider the role of sanctioned data in influencing both structure and agency – organized interests use data as a way to pursue their goals while the meaning of data is constantly being (re)defined by political agents as they pursue their agendas, and public policy is a central terrain in which this contestation takes place.

My dissertation is structured as follows:

  • Chapter 1: The Data-driven Politics of Education
    • Discusses the contemporary data-driven political environment in general and in education policy in particular, defines central concepts
  • Chapter 2: Sanctioned Data and the Policy Process
    • Describes the study of policy feedback and lays out a model to understand how sanctioned data acts as a mechanism of these processes.
  • Chapter 3: A History of the Politics of Performance in Education
    • Beginning with Elementary and Secondary Education Act, this chapter establishes a baseline for the politics ushered in by No Child Left Behind by describing the key actors and debates in education policy prior to its enactment
  • Chapter 4: No Child Left Behind: Policy Durability Amid Dissatisfaction
    • Explicates the policy design of No Child Left Behind and the institutional structures it created, particularly those that revolve around sanctioned data. Discusses the federal and state level policies that have been enacted that build on this data, arguing that regardless of how No Child Left Behind is or is not changed as a whole, the sanctioned data that it has created have important political effects independent of the broader policy.
  • Chapter 5: Resource Effects: Data as a Tool in the Politics of Education
    • Builds off of the previous chapter to discuss the role of organized interest groups in either utilizing or contesting the sanctioned data created by No Child Left Behind to shape subsequent policy at the federal and state level.
  • Chapter 6: Interpretive Effects: Telling Stories with Data
    • Considers the same groups and patterns of political support as the previous chapter with a focus on the interpretive effects of sanctioned data: how organized interests use data to push particular understandings of political problems, their attendant solutions, and how these meanings are either contested by other groups or reinforced through subsequent policies that incorporate these understandings.
  • Chapter 7: Conclusion
    • Discusses the broader implications of the role of sanctioned data in processes of policy feedback. Charts an agenda for future research that considers the way in which data-based policies are designed differently depending on their target populations.