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Defining Education: The Rhetorical Enactment of Ideology in A Nation at Risk

Defining Education: The Rhetorical Enactment of Ideology in A Nation at Risk

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Published by Gregory Bernstein
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Seminar reading material for Emma's lab.

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Published by: Gregory Bernstein on Jul 27, 2013
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DEFININGEDUCATION:
THE
RHETORICAL ENACTMENTOF lOEOLOGY
IN
A
NATION
AT
RiSK
HOLLY
G.
MCINTUSH
Vie 1983
release
of
"A
Nation at
Risk"
by the National Commission on
Excellence
inEducation set the
agenda
for education policy in the United States. This
essay
analyzeshow the commission defined the problems facing the nation's school system and howthis construction framed the policy debate and thus constrained reform options. Theimpact of this definition for education discourse, education policy, and American soci-ety is then examined.
[E]ducation is a contested term in our culture not just because our nation long agoaccepted public schooling but because we link education to a range of positive valuesand assumptions about what will benefit both individuals and the nation.^Margaret Marshall
P
oliticians cannot lose by claiming education as a campaign issue. It is a valenceissue, a regular subject of rhetorical pieties. Nobody argues that they want tohurt the economy. No one stands up and says "Elect me and I'll increase the crimerate."And no sane politicians say they are against improving the nation's schools.-Often, the lip semce is just that. In her study of education discourse from 1890-1900,historian Margaret Marshall notes that education, though often low on the true pri-ority list, is a topic that is constantly on the nation's political agenda. "Americans stulargue about, agonize over, and insist on the need to improve public schools," sheargues, "And yet, somehow, the tone of public discussions about education periodi-cally takes on a kind of urgency, and the discussion congeals around a sense of newcrisis in the public schools that demands immediate reform."^ April 26,1983, the daythe National Commission on Excellence in Education released their report, A
Nationat
Risk:
Tlie Imperative for Educational Reform,
was one of those times of urgency.Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 following a period of economic unrest andstagnation. One of the themes he reiterated was that we needed to scale back
Holly G. McIntush
is a
research specialist with
the
Texas House
Of
Representatives Office
of
BillAnalysis in Austin, Texas. She would like
to
thank Marty Medhurst and Jim Aune for reading andadvising on earlier drafts of this
essay.
©
Rhetoric &
Public
Affairs
Vol.
3, No. 3, 2000, pp. 419-43ISSN 1094-8392
 
420
RHETORIC
&
PUBLIC AFFAIRS
government. Part of his original agenda was to eliminate the newly created cabinet-level Department of Education. Reagan's first education secretary, Terrel H. Bell,"arrived in Washington fuUy expecting to be back in Salt Lake City within the year."*Bell's assigned task was to develop a plan to dismantle the department. However, thecommission he created in April of 1982 ended dismantling plans with the release of
A Nation at
Risk.
Three years after the report came out, education journalist andcommentator Edward B. Fiske asked Bell what led him to create the commission,considering that his assigned task was to eliminate the department. As Fiske recalls,BeU responded:Let me tell you the story. It's a little embarrassing, but here goes: I was worried aboutthe folks over at the Heritage Foundation and all of the right-wing ideologues whowere running around the Reagan administration or on the periphery, especially dur-ing the early years. They were saying that American schools weren't any good, and Ithought that if
I
could get a blue-ribbon commission to study the situation and comeout with a report saying American schools are OK, that would get the right wing offmy back.^However, the commission's report reached exactly the opposite conclusion. Thecommission stated that America's schools were in crisis, and that reform wasabsolutely essential. Rather than muting the clamor for school reform, A
Nation at
Risk:
The Jmperative for Educational Reform,
armed reform advocates with rhetori-
cal fire—something quotable, from a "blue-ribbon" commission, no less.The report has been labeled a "brilliantly conceived, ... enormously importantpolitical document,"^ and
a
"best-seller-report"' that "captured the public imagina-tion."^ Analysts and commentators cannot agree on whether the commission actu-ally reported anything new or substantive. But what cannot be overestimated is theinfluence the document has had on public discourse. The very fact that it was sohotly contested from the time it came out increased its impact.The commission labeled its report "An Open Letter to the American People," andin many ways it
was.
The day after it was released, large portions were reprinted innewspapers across the nation, including the
New York Times
and the
M^ashingtonPost.'^
Kurt Senske's study of the impact of Reagan's rhetoric on education policy atthe state and local level reports: "The press clipping service for the Department ofEducation revealed that the commission's report made the front page of almostevery major newspaper across the nation. Similarly, the evening news of the threemajor networks featured the release of the Report as their lead story."^°Commentary and editorials followed in the next days and weeks. *^The report also influenced education policy at the state level. Educational histo-rians David Tyack and Larry Cuban report that "In the mid-1980s, responding tothe 'crisis' announced by
A Nation at
Risk,
the states promulgated more educational
 
DEFINING EDUCATION: THE RHETORICAL ENACTMENT OF IDEOLOGY IN
A
NATION AT RISK
421
laws and regulations than they had generated in the previous twenty
years."
^^
ANation at
Risk
wa.s
not just a temporary sensation. It is referred to whenever educa-tion reform is discussed. Twelve years after its release, Richard Riley, Clinton's sec-retary of education, titled his second annual State of American Education Address:"Turning the Corner: From a Nation at Risk to a Nation with a Future."^^In this essay, I argue that
A Nation at
Risk
generated a new discourse on educa-tion reform and structured the debates for years to come. The group that producedthe report—the National Commission on Excellence in Education—set the agendafor education policy. It shifted the focus of education discourse from education as ameans of
social
and political equalization to education as a means to economic pros-perity. This shift carried with it a potential threat to educational equality.
A Nationat
Risk
provides a rare opportunity to study how the ways in which a problem isdefined help to shape policy options. The questions this essay asks, are: How does
ANation at
Risk
define the problems facing the nation's school system? And how doesthis construction structure the policy debate and constrain reform options? Toanswer these questions, I will first give an overview of the history and functions ofpresidential task forces and commissions in order to situate
A Nation at
Risk
in
rela-tion to them. Then, I'll look at the literature on issue definition and agenda setting,which lays out the theoretical framework that guides the analysis. Next, I'll move tothe analysis
itself,
examining the language and themes the commission uses to frameeducation as an issue and
a
problem, and how that framing ultimately affects the rec-ommendations it offers. Finally, I'll examine the implications of the solution for edu-cation discourse, policy, and American society.
PRESIDENTIAL TASK FORCES AND COMMISSIONS
Presidential commissions are by no means a new invention. They have been used bychief executives since the beginning of the republic.^'^David Flitner
Presidents and their staffs turn to special task forces and commissions for a vari-ety of reasons. Special commissions extend the power of the president more directlyinto the bureaucracy. Tasks force members bring in new information and viewpoints.Often, they are commissioned to address an issue that is swiftly becoming a political
crisis.
Most importantly, commissions lend legitimacy and an aura of prestige andobjectivity to policy deliberations. As Flitner notes, "Simply by their existence, com-missions symbolize cognizance and concern over a situation at the highest level."^^Commissions and task forces are neither new nor rare. Congress and the execu-tive branch employ hundreds of small task forces, permanent and ad hoc, secret andpublic, routine and special, every
year.
Of these, a few stand out in public memorybecause their creation and findings became public and were used as political

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