Carnegie Mellon University

Shaping Education Policy in the Era of Neoliberal Reform: Lessons from the 2006 Spellings Commission

Author: Carolyn Commer
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2016

This dissertation project investigates the rhetorical strategies educators use to uphold the civic values of higher education at a time when economic concerns dominate global policy. I focus on the controversy surrounding the U.S. Department of Education in 2006 when then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings attempted major higher education reform, but failed to effectively engage educators and leaders in higher education. While previous scholarship on the rhetoric of education policy tends to focus on official policy documents from the Department of Education, my project shifts the object of analysis to the polysemous voices in policy debates. Using qualitative methods from rhetorical theory and argumentation studies, I analyze policy white papers, congressional hearings, newspaper articles, graduation speeches, and other public discourse from those in higher education who tried to shape public perceptions about the Spellings Commission, such as the Modern Language Association (MLA), Association of American Universities (AAU), and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
My analysis reveals key differences in the rhetorical strategies that policymakers and those in higher education use to engage in the debate. In Chapter 2, I analyze three dominant features of the Commission’s public discourse, including use of market metaphors and business analogies, objective stance-taking, and the exploitation of temporal and future-orientated discourse. I argue that these discursive features constitute a “neoliberal style” for policy-making, one that has shifted the grounds for public argumentation and types of arguments that can be voiced and heard in education policy cases today. In Chapters 3 and 4, I analyze responses from those in higher education and find two key rhetorical strategies used to rival the Commission’s neoliberal style: (1) a reframing of market-talk using a "civic frame," which draws attention to the importance of a civic-oriented education; and (2) a strategy of dissociation to break apart a false sense of agreement on highly-politicized issues like “accountability."

I conclude by arguing that the ability of those in higher education to engage effectively in policy cases relies on an understanding of these competing styles, the common argument topoi in education policy, and an awareness of the situational constraints of a neoliberal political style of policy-making. My project calls for greater attention to the rhetorical dimensions of policymaking and offers a critical, pragmatic perspective for educators to shape future education policy.