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When Governors Talk Education, It’s About the Economy, Stupid

By Sean Cavanagh — October 25, 2011 3 min read
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Most governors are fond of talking about education—why it needs to be improved, how they’re going to improve it, the consequences of not improving it, and so on.

But when governors attempt to use the bully pulpit to sell their ideas about education to the public, what are their favored rhetorical themes? A new analysis examines that question, and finds that governors overwhelmingly choose to frame education as important for economic reasons, rather than for the development of individual abilities, or as a matter of civic responsibility. And that political strategy has implications for society and its schools, the researchers say.

The analysis, published in the International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership, is based on a detailed review of governors’ “state of the state” addresses between 2001 and 2008. Why focus on those speeches? Because they’re the most widely reported examples of gubernatorial rhetoric, and, the record shows, they typically provide an accurate roadmap of where governors’ policies are headed, according to the authors.

Authors Dick M. Carpenter, of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and Haning Hughes, of the United States Air Force Academy, reviewed passages in nearly 360 combined governors’ speeches and 560 phrases in which the elected officials spoke about the purposes of education. The authors then coded the passages within different categories, according to themes raised by the speakers.

The authors examined the extent to which governors define the purpose of education in four broad categories: economic efficiency; self-realization, which is generally defined as developing individual abilities, curiosity, and creativity; what they call human relationship, which focuses on issues of, and tensions between, individual freedom, justice, and social equality; and civic responsibility, or preparing students for roles as citizens and leaders.

Over the time period studied, the authors found that governors defined the importance of education in economic terms much more often—62 percent of the time—than they did in other ways.

Governors touched on the importance of education for self-realization only 27 percent of the time. And they connected education to civic responsibility just 7 percent of the time.

The paper offers a sampling of that rhetoric:

Education is “vital if we are to strengthen our economy,” former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, said in one speech.

“Knowledge is the new economic fuel, not physical labor,” asserted one-time Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia.

“In the knowledge economy, business and education are linked,” said Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat and then governor of Michigan, as quoted by the authors. “You cannot succeed at the former if you do not excel at the latter.”

There were few regional differences among the various governors, in terms of the rationale they offered for supporting education. Republican governors made reference to human relationship and civic responsibility significantly less often than Democrats. GOP governors discussed economic purposes more often than the other party, but not in a way that was statistically significant.

Why does any of this matter?

Because governors create policies based on how they define the purpose of education, Carpenter and Hughes contend. The emphasis that governors place on “economic efficiency” is likely to feed states’ overall interest in standards, assessment, and accountability, the authors say.

It’s also important, they argue, because state goals in education that are not related to economic growth “will quite likely remain marginalized.”

And finally, “the de-emphasis of the other purposes of education carries with it the potential of perpetuating a citizenry committed to self above all,” the researchers conclude, “shrugging off responsibilities inherent in a free and pluralistic society.”

“Considering the breakdown of social capital, the disengagement of youth, students’ lackluster knowledge of civics, and voter apathy,” the authors say, “such a dynamic may be in contemporary evidence in the United States.”

Disengagement has never been an issue for readers of this blog, so I trust that you’ll give me your read on the prevailing rhetoric from the governors, and the authors’ analysis of it.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.