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Fast policy: reform first and ask questions later?

published 15 April 2017 updated 15 April 2017

By Anna Hogan and Steven Lewis

Education is increasingly positioned as a problem in need of fixing. And, with the rise of new governance trends, and associated demands for increased accountability and transparency in public policymaking, the solutions to these problems must now be informed by ‘evidence’.

A new policy market

Increasingly, such evidence is cherry picked by politicians who are looking for expedient, cost-effective and highly visible forms of political action. This desire for certain types of research has arguably created a new global market for policy, populated by new policy actors and new genres of policy research. Even while research was traditionally considered the domain of academics and in-house government employees, the research space has increasingly come to be populated by international organisations, aid agencies, philanthropies, think tanks and corporations.

Fast policy

Some scholars have argued that these new actors, who each bring to bear their own new interests, work to produce and promote particular forms of evidence that is tailored to the needs of policymakers, meaning that they orchestrate research knowledge in order to influence policy production.

These actors tend to construct simplified and definitive solutions of best practice, with their resultant policy reports often taking the form of short, easy-to-read and easy-to-implement glossy productions. These reports are perfect examples of ‘fast policy’; that is, policy shortcuts via readymade examples of ‘what works’, often which are borrowed from international countries or systems.

‘Silver bullet’ solutions overlook local needs

Our recent paper in Critical Studies in Education – ‘Reform first and ask questions later?’ – explores the uptake of this new genre of ‘fast policy’ reports and highlights the potential impacts that can arise when employing such policymaking approaches.

We focus on three different examples of fast policy schooling documents at the level of a transnational intergovernmental organisation (the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA for Schools report), an international edu-business (Pearson’s The Learning Curve) and an Australian state (the New South Wales Department of Education’s What Works Best).

We show how all three documents promote an overly simplified, decontextualised and ‘one-size-fits-all’ understanding of schooling policy, which often risks overlooking the local needs and requirements of the schools, school systems, educators and students for whom these solutions are being proposed.

Convergence of policy method, acceleration of policymaking  

Despite these reports being produced by an intergovernmental organisation, an edu-business and a state government department, we make the point that there is a clear similarity between these reports that reflects what we describe as a ‘convergence of policy method’. This is perhaps akin to the fact that different cookbooks are readily recognisable as cookbooks, even if the recipes (or policies in this instance) contained therein are not necessarily the same.

We similarly argue that these reports are evidence of a new policy temporality, reflecting a speeding up of policymaking. Many other assessments, such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS are conducted every three or more years, and are thus seemingly too ‘slow’ for the data-driven policy demands of governments, policymakers, educational systems and (increasingly) the public. These groups are increasingly driven by the rationale of a fast, ultra-connected polity, in which schooling reform is regularly demanded and ‘quick-fix’ solutions are needed.

The deprivations of fast policy

As such, the desire for fast schooling policy has created a new global market awash with the same reform ideas. In this case, an international organisation, an edu-business and a state government have all adopted similar approaches to schooling reform, notionally to improve student outcomes and drive up standards. There is a sense that ‘best practice’ in schooling is now the same in every country around the world, and that there is no need to account for national, social, or cultural context.

So while this new policy genre is ‘fast’ in terms of speed, we argue that it also constitutes the notion of ‘fasting’ (that is, to deprive or deny), where the over-simplification of policy into easy to implement solutions constrains the possibilities for reform, and denies local alternatives to be imagined and practised.

We conclude by suggesting that, in spite of the seemingly obvious alignment between fast policies and a fast social world, there are clear policy benefits to be had from ‘making haste slowly’.

Read the full paper here:  Steven Lewis & Anna Hogan (2016) Reform first and ask questions later? The implications of (fast) schooling policy and ‘silver bullet’ solutions. Critical Studies in Education. pp. 1-18

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