The Politics of Education &
The Politics of Knowledge

Anna Bailey
Aymee Naumann
Marnie Nieves
Patricia Puerto


The politics of education involves power struggles over three important questions:

  • What knowledge is most worth teaching?
  • What are the best instructional methods and school organizations for teaching this knowledge?
  • What should it cost to disseminate this knowledge?


  • The first question deals with the school curriculum and the politics of knowledge.
  • The second questions deals with teaching methods and school governance including highly debated topics such as choice, scripted lessons, progressive instructional methods,home schooling,charter schools, and a host of other issues.
  • The last  question deals with how much a society is willing to spend on education; how money should be collected to support schools, and how money should be spent on education. (Spring, 2011, pg.1)

Educational Governance and Competing Voices

In the United States, the educational governance structure embraces political units ranging from the U.S. Congress and U.S. Department of Education to state governments to local school districts. (Spring ,2011, pg.2)

There are many competing voices  trying to influence what is being taught in schools, how it is taught, and how much it will cost, such as:

  • Professional, business, political, special interest, and other organizations.

Many aspects of schooling are now globalized:

  • Nations having similar educational ladders leading from primary school to post-secondary education.
  • Using the same international test to compare their schooling with other nations.
  • Having the same educational goal of economic growth and supplying workers for global economic competition.

The educational landscape is dominated by multinational corporations which publish school materials and standardized test, produce software, and manage for profit schools and tutoring facilities. (Spring, 2011, pg.2)

What do people talk about when they talk about schools?

  • National media primarily and uncritically report the opinions of politicians who claim schools are failing and want to implement economic goals for education. (Spring, 2011, pg.2)
  • School administrators stress the importance of outside factors affecting school achievement such as children's poverty and health care, racial and economic segregation between and within schools, and the lack of bilingual teachers.(Spring,2011, pg.2)
  • A majority of politicians say that the curriculum should be organized to ensure American economic development in a global system and should prepare students to compete in a global labor market. (Spring, 2011, pg.3)
  • Many politicians talk about educating students so that the U.S. economy can grow and compete globally. (Spring, 2011, pg.3)
  • These same politicians want a test-driven school system where students, teachers, schools, school systems, states, and even national school system are judged by the results of standardized testing. (Spring, 2011, pg.3)

From the Local to the Global in Society Governance

  • The growing nationalization and centralization of educational control has occurred over time, particularly with the advent of federal categorical aid in the 1950s.
  • Federal aid linked school policies to national policy objectives.
  • No Child Left Behind strengthened the power of state education authorities over local schools.

Civil Society and Schooling

There are many interest groups that make up the American Civil Society. These interest groups try to guide educational policy. Some of these interest groups are:

  • Professional Organizations such as the American Educational Research Association (Spring, 2011).
  • Teacher Unions such as the National Education Association (Spring, 2011)
  • Special Interest Groups such as The Christian Coalition (Spring, 2011).
  • Foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which is currently funding the advancement of technology in the classroom, Online Education and Common Core (Spring, 2011).

Here is a video on how Bill Gates explains Common Core and why he feels its the answer to solving many of the problems within education.

This foundation is a perfect example of how groups who have more resources (money) become more effective at impacting school policy.

Politicians and Educational Ideologies

Those individuals and politicians that make up our civil society influence school policies with many different ideas.  Many of these ideas are geared to follow certain characteristics depending on the individual or organizations interests.  These are:

  • "Human capital economics
  • Liberal and conservative cultural ideals
  • A belief in American exceptionalism
  • Free Market economics
  • Regulated markets
  • Multiculturalism and multilingualism
  • English-only
  • Liberal and conservative religious values
  • Progressive education
  • Environmentalism
  • Arts-based schools"

(Spring, 2011, pg.4)

Most politicians, however, share a main goal of human capital education. This means that their ideas are geared to create educated citizens that will aid in the economic growth of this country and help in the competitive nature of the "Global knowledge economy" (Spring, 2011).

The Education Business: Making Money and Influencing Schools

Politics effects many aspects of the educational system. Spring refers to education as "big business".  Meaning there is money to be made in educational needs.  Some of these areas that are"money-making" sources are:

  • "Textbooks
  • For-profit and franchised educational services
  • Testing corporations
  • Educational management companies
  • Supplementary educational services"

(Spring, 2011, pg4)

No Child Left Behind is an example of a program that uses its resources in order to hire companies such as those listed above as a secondary aid to schools otherwise not performing up to standards.  These sources aid the school in providing "achievement enhancements" in the form of tutoring or testing preparation (Spring, 2011).  This is also seen globally and is commonly referred to as "shadow education systems".  In the United States one example of this would be the Sylvan Learning Center.

"Human capital ideology" strongly promotes our current educational systems support of "high-stakes testing" in order for placement of students and evaluation of school faculty and administration (Spring, 2011).  Clearly these shadow education companies are interested in the general populations support of Human capital ideology.  Do to this current trend, parents are more inclined to spend money on these programs for added support.

Politics of School Finance and the Economics of Education

  • Middle and lower income groups generally pay more money in education than higher income and corporations (Spring, 2011).  
  • Schools surviving lower income groups receive funding from the federal and state government.  "Schools serving families in the top 20% of income and those serving  families in the lowest 20% of income spent the most per pupil (Spring, 2011, pg5)."
  • Those schools categorized as serving the middle-income population is given less money per student.
  • Many scholars argue that money is not the answer in aiding the improvement of our schools.  They suggest that more emphasis should be directed at "teacher efficacy and control, teachers' advanced degrees, and teacher development (Spring, 2011, pg.5)."

Global Education Politics and the United States

The United States models educational policy based on a global network.  This global network is being used to create the benchmarks and standards within our curriculums and tests.  There are "Global Benchmarking Tests" used to rank countries on their educational efficiency.  Some of these benchmark tests are:

  • PISA (Program for International Student Assessment)
  • PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy)
  • TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study)

The Organization for economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank have worked together to provide a set of global education standards for both developed and developing countries.

The migration of workers is another issue affecting all global schools because of the constant circulations of citizens.  Spring refers to this issue in Chapter 8 as "Brain Gain and Brain Loss" (Spring, 2011).

Human Capital Ideology promotes global schooling and global benchmark tests because of its interest in the United States competing in international economics.

Human Capital:
Dominate Global Education Ideology

Human Capital defines the primary goal of education as economic growth (Spring, 2011). The ideology states that school prepares workers for the business world (Spring, 2011).

            - Curriculum and knowledge should align with economic needs.

            - Standardized testing is the medium used to gauge productivity.

            - Teachers and Administrators are responsible for ensuring productivity.

Evolution of Ideology:

1961 - Theodore Schultz states people themselves are a valuable part of the economy and they invest themselves in education to get good jobs (Spring, 2011).

1964 - Gary Becker published book Human Capital. The main ideas include that human capital represent wealth in the united states and that education would be linked to economic development (Spring, 2011).

1973 - Daniel Bell coins the idea of "post-industrial" and anticipates change in work force (Spring, 2011, pg. 7).  The transition would be from working class to the general population being more highly educated.  

1983 - A Nation a Risk was published pointing out flaws in US educational system.  The text suggested that failing schools negatively impacted the US economic productivity as well as technological advancements (Spring, 2011).

1992 - President Clinton spoke of the importance of education for a successful nation and economy.  This shows the transition of this ideology of "knowledge economy" on a national political level (Spring, 2011, pg. 8).  

2008 - Politics (Republicans and Democrats) speak of education needing to be "world-class" for every citizen and knowledge being the most important skill (Spring, 2011, p. 8).

Issues with this ideology:

1. There are not enough jobs for the educated.

2. The global market is constantly changing.

3.  Educational Inflation.

4.  Jobs are not necessarily tied to more schooling.

The Human Capital Education Paradigm

   (Please watch the video above to view an interview of education reformer, Sir Ken Robinson, speak about the importance of imagination and creativity in the classroom.)

There are two human capital arguments that contain an educational agenda of the standardization of the curriculum:

  1. Accountability of Students and School Staff Based on Standardized Test Scores
  2. Deskilling of the Teacher Profession
  • Deskilling - When teachers are required to follow a lesson that has been created by an outside agency.  Deskilling does not allow for teachers to create their own tests or lesson plans.

                  "...The human capital paradigm has made teachers into technicians

                         carrying out predetermined instructional packages" (Spring, 2011, p. 11).

    Features of the Human Capital Education Paradigm (Spring, 2011, p. 11):

  • The value of education is measured by economic growth
  • National Standardization of the curriculum
  • Standardized testing for promotion, entrance, and exiting from different levels of schooling
  • Performance evaluation for teaching is based on standardized testing of students
  • Mandated textbooks
  • Scripted lesson

                                          Questions That Need to be Answered:

  • Why has human capital ideology come to dominate global school systems including that of the United States?
  • What reasons do people have for accepting and/or promoting this particular educational ideology?
  • What other educational ideologies exist and how might an alternative ideology affect educational goals, instructional methods and curricula, the evaluation of students, teachers and administrators, and organization of schools and school systems?

Throughout history, there have been different trends and initiatives put into place in order to determine "what knowledge is worth most teaching in schools..." (Spring, 2011, p. 11). For example, is it better to teach nationalism and patriotism or how to be a good democratic citizen?

However, the truth of the matter is the people in charge, politicians and businessmen/women, "believe that human capital goals should dominate schooling" (Spring, 2011, p. 11)


The author, Joel Spring, leaves you with questions to consider as "a guide to analyzing educational policies" on page 12.  We leave you with the following questions:

  • Do you believe that the stakeholders that make up our American civil society are positively or negatively affecting school policies?
  • Is there a way to even the playing field so that school policies and reforms are guided primarily by those who understand education most?


  • Spring, J. (2011). Introduction: The Politics of Education and the Politics of Knowledge. In The Politics of American Education. New York, New York: Routledge.

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