Policy Studies Essay

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The term policy has many uses and, as a result, is difficult, if not impossible to define in a meaningful way that is free from controversy. Arguably, the disputes over such definitions are largely what create policy in the first place. Said differently, the arguments concerning what should or should not be guaranteed by law are the arguments that give rise to the implementation of policy. In a stronger sense still, policy exists to define (and redefine) what is real. “It is our policy that .. .” and “The policy clearly states .. .” place ontological boundaries on what actions, behaviors, or ideas will be accepted. Such boundaries dictate the experiences undergone by those affected by policy and serve to circumscribe the meanings created by those experiences. When understood as a major impetus for policy authors, these boundaries become part of the larger narrative which defines what is “real” not only regarding policy studies, but regarding larger ontological factors surrounding policy. Because the term “policy” can be replaced with rules, guidelines, mandates, and the like, and still be consistent, for purposes of academic clarity, policy is differentiated as the larger umbrella under which the more specific terms fall.

Historically, policy, broadly conceived, has been a focus of debate between those who wish to maintain the traditions that a policy represents and those who wish to enact change in the society a policy affects. The process of negotiation that ensues between these two sides is what ultimately takes shape in the form of policy. There are two main threads of history that serve to highlight the development of policy as a union of debate and meaning: (1) a historical review of events that led, and continue to lead, to the creation of policy; and (2) a retracing of the etymology of the term policy. This overview acknowledges the history of policy as a series of events and changes in etymological meanings in an effort to illustrate ways policy is currently conceived. Because this entry must be relatively terse, the history described herein outlines only some of the significant starting points and shifts in meaning that policy as a term has undergone.

Historical Contrast

The role of policy in society can be traced back to the ancient Greek debate between custom or human law (nomos) and nature or natural law (physis). This discussion was framed by some of the earliest recorded Greek philosophers, such as Thales and Parmenides, and historians, orators, and playwrights also influenced the courts and politics. In search of a guiding principle for life, both public and private, philosophers, politicians, and citizens discussed the roles played by human law in contrast to the influence of natural law. Policy as human law falls on the side of nomos, due to its influence of human interactions. The citizens of Ancient Greece are renowned for their arguments in the public square and the Assembly pertaining to questions of justice and the laws made by society to embody policy definitions.

Likewise, the role of the current democracy in the United States is heavily argued, but, significantly, the locus of such debate has changed. The Senate, House of Representatives, and White House administration serve as the voices for U.S. citizens. Whereas Ancient Greek citizens were speaking directly to the Assembly, which consisted of other Greek citizens, in order to persuade legal change, U.S. citizens are now represented by the governmental district officials they vote into office who, in turn, speak to other elected representatives to enact change. The shift from the ability to have one’s voice as a citizen heard physically to having one’s voice represented by a ballot, which is cast wholesale for or against an already constructed policy, is a significant change in the way in which policy is written and enacted. The most immediate effect of this change is the removal of any citizen or group of citizens from the space where policy is contested and materially changed. As a result of their removal, important also is the lack of citizens’ need to be able to express themselves in an informed and persuasive manner regarding the policy in which they are implicated.

While the Greek Assembly was not without its own set of difficulties, its organization allotted a publicly recognized space for any and all citizens to participate in the writing, amending, and even negation of laws. For better or worse, such direct power is unavailable to U.S. citizens. Instead, U.S. policy makers enact policy that citizens are required to follow but unable to directly dispute at the time of its conception. This shift away from direct to representative participation is further corroborated by the ways in which the word policy has historically changed meanings.


Etymology sheds light on the current meanings of policy and relates the word to some of its cognates. Knowing policy’s etymology allows for a much broader conception of how the word came into use and what other ideas and words contribute and share elements that also belong to policy. The word policy has its origins in the Ancient Greek word polis, which means “city” or “state.” From polis comes both polites, meaning citizen, and politea, meaning both “government” and “citizenship.” The Assembly was both the governing body and the citizenry in Ancient Greece. Indicative of such a union is that citizens and the government were one and the same.

As the Romans developed their society, the Greek politea shifted to the Latin politia, which means simply “the state.” Already, there is a shift away from the inclusion of citizens in the government, though the state is arguably comprised of citizens. Still the change in the word’s definition can be understood as meaningful for the ways which people, through a shared language, conceived of their relationship in and to the state. Whereas citizenship and government were said in the same breath with politea, the Latin politia was exclusive to the state and separate from civis or “the citizen.” As the Latin language spread with the Roman Empire through Greater Europe and into Asia, the ideas represented by politia came into direct contact with many parts of the world, but the next change in the etymological evolution of policy took place only a few hundred miles north of Rome. In fourteenth-century Old French, the ideas expressed by the Latin politia shifted even further from citizen involvement in government with the new word policie. Interestingly, this word parented not only the English word policy, but policy’s cognate police as well. As this division suggests, the meaning of policie takes on a more calculating sense as a way of management, government, or administration. As a way of management, policie adds to its former roots an institutional sense of ordering through which actions can be “policed” or controlled. This should not suggest that such ordering did not take place in the name of politea or politia, but policie exhibits the first overt mention of such managing in policy’s etymological history. As well, considering that policie gave rise to the English words policy and police, the move toward a clearly more controlling notion of government gives a more contemporary ring to policy as it is presently enacted.

Economistic Versus Humanistic

Today policy can be conceived as having bifurcated along the lines the above etymology suggests. Policy understood from the Greek polis, polites, and politea holds the role of citizenship as collectively identical to the state. A contemporary analogy to this meaning is found in social justice advocates’ notion of policy, what is designated here as humanistic policy, which seeks laws that promote democratic participation of all citizens with the aim of eradicating poverty, racism, classism, and other social inequities that currently serve and promote the status quo through federal, state, and local laws. Policy from this side seeks critical engagement in the government on the part of diverse citizens and citizen groups in order for the voices that influence policy to reflect their pluralistic roots.

On the other side of this bifurcation, derived from policie, policy is understood as a means to police or control through positivistic appeals to objective data. Support for this area is drawn from foundations, legislation, and think tanks that are economistic in their motivation. Policy from this side seeks uniformity and assimilation of citizens in order for one, universalized voice to dominate society.

In order to draw the division between economistic and humanistic policy more clearly, educational policy serves as an excellent example. Educational policy gains much of its definition from primary and secondary iterations of meaning. Specifically, policy leads to public policy, which leads to, among other ideas, educational policy. Whereas policy is a principle, plan, or course of action which is typically pursued by an individual, organization, or government, public policy qualifies the primary definition by, theoretically, restricting the domain of the definition to groups (organizational and governmental) rather than highlighting individuals. This should not suggest individuals have no role in policy, but that public policies concentrate on the welfare of the larger public (to such a degree as a “public good” exists and is positively regarded). In linear fashion then, educational policy is borne of public policy and typically denotes attempts to either reinforce or alter prevailing norms in schools.

Public policy and educational policy have similar defining features. While both “look out” for the welfare of their charges, educational policy, specifically, exists in an effort to guide schooling practice where “doing” educational policy studies, as conceived at present, means to appeal to objectivity, politics, and power. This being said, current educational policy, referred to here as economistic, can be understood as having two, interconnected purposes: (1) appeals to impartial data (objectivity), and (2) economic competition (politics/power).

Underpinning both of these purposes is a free market logic which holds that schools are merely businesses, and if they fail to supply what the market demands then they, by necessity, should “go out of business.” A key term used in this ideology is competition, or more specifically, competition in a global market. As a free market construct, schools, and the policy that surrounds them, are results based. Emphasis is placed squarely on what the market “gets” as a result of schools. The student becomes the product of schools, rather than a participant in schools, and as a product, the student is expected to function within the market as a worker in a globally competitive economic system.

One of the more influential proponents of education as a free market enterprise is the economist Milton Friedman. In his view, the government’s role in public education (as well as the rest of society) should be drastically minimized if not entirely removed through the implementation of a national voucher, or choice, program through which schools compete with each other by providing a globally competitive workforce and the losers of the competition (schools whose students are not trained for jobs) are subsequently closed.

Economistic Education Policy

But understanding social institutions and writing policy in economistic terms is not a phenomenon which appeared ex nihilo. The influences which have brought about this change are, like the schools and other institutions they have affected, historically situated. What follows is a brief exposition of some of the important events that helped reframe the discussion of educational policy specifically in an objectivistic free market paradigm.

The Space Race

This history arguably takes for its starting point the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which was the first instance of federal funding in K–12 public schools. The funding from the Smith-Hughes Act was specifically intended to support vocational education and what would become a central feature of industrialization: careerism. Furthered by the GI Bill after World War II, the United States increased its role on the global stage, finding itself enmeshed in a military-industrial effort to broaden its reach of power and deepen its economic interests. In 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched the Sputnik satellite into outer space, the U.S. federal government firmly recognized the nexus of schooling and national interests.

Worried about their late start in what would be known as the “space race,” the United States turned to schooling as an important reason why the Soviets had launched first. The following year, 1958, the United States launched Explorer I into outer space and instituted the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). This policy, born of competitive concern, provided federal monies to elementary and secondary schools primarily for improvement of their mathematics, science, and modern foreign language curricula with the intent of making scientists and technology workers who would be better prepared to compete with global science and technology industries. This act has been reauthorized and renamed as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) and is discussed below in more detail. Significant to the NDEA was the focus on science, math, and foreign languages as singularly important to national education for remaining ahead of other countries in the field of industry. Education can be narrowly understood through the NDEA as preparatory for global competition as exhibited by its impetus, the space race.

War On Poverty

In what can be understood as a response to the NDEA’s specific focus on math, science, and foreign language education, the next sweeping federal educational reform came in 1965 with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the centerpiece of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” A specific feature of this act, the Head Start program, is discussed below, but important to this historical discussion is the focus of the ESEA on students who come from low-income and poverty-stricken families. Whereas the motivation behind the NDEA was a desire for the United States to win the space race specifically (more basic even, to be the winner in global competition), the ESEA was written to address poor students’ backgrounds and social situations within the United States. In reading the ESEA as a response, rather than framing schools as productive of members of the U.S. workforce, this policy looks at the problems students and their families face that can hinder their education.

Returning to the notion of schools as productive in economistic terms, in 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education published the report A Nation at Risk at the behest of the U.S. Secretary of Education, T. H. Bell. This report, which was responsible for the wave of educational reform that framed much of the language of NCLB, strongly characterizes the United States as having fallen from a position of unquestioned dominance in science, commerce, and technology and being overtaken by competitors from around the globe. A “rising tide of mediocrity” is accordingly what threatens the future of the United States in this view. With A Nation at Risk establishing a direct link between schools, the global market, competition, and workshops, future policy and policy research avidly pursued these themes as the goal of education in the United States.

Education Policy Research

The casting of schools as markets both shapes and is shaped by educational policy in the 1990s. A review of policy center reports on education across several U.S. states from this time will be helpful to substantiate the point and further portray the ways in which policy is shaped by policy center research in order to achieve specific ends, in each case framing public schools as competitive spaces (i.e., productive of a globally competitive workforce).

For instance, the Indiana Consortium on Educational Policy Studies compared international tests of math and science and concluded that U.S. students consistently score poorly. Furthermore, students were compared to students of previous decades and the Indiana Consortium concluded that dropout rates, literacy rates, and basic skills like math and reading were comparatively lower on a variety of measures. The consortium’s point is that if the educational achievement of future workers does not improve, then the United States will face increasing competition in areas like technology and engineering.

Linking the purpose of its policy center with an ideal, the Centers for the Study of Education in Florida suggested that new “stakeholders” in education enter into a kind of “collaborative thinking” in order to better figure out how to make schools both more competitive and productive in a global economy. The goal of the South Carolina Educational Policy Center was to focus research on issues related to student performance in order to better inform state and district school officials, legislators, and foundations.

In general, policy centers and policy research primarily involve accounting, quantitative data analysis, national, regional, or state economic considerations, global competition concerns, and performance assessments. Overriding these various purposes is the need to supply information to policy makers. Policy making, exhibited above at the state level, results in an assertion of power by policy centers that are interested in replacing lobbyists and partisan organizations with “nonpartisan” information. Yet policy analysts, aware of and involved in their current political climate, have their focus set by political officials. More bluntly, if a governor wants information on the effects of smaller class sizes on learning, analysts research precisely that. The studies, in other words, are traditionally set by legislatures. Further still, tax studies, student population growth rates, teacher-to-pupil ratios, and so on, become studies (i.e., funded) when issues involving such information are raised in legislative sessions or are underwritten by foundations.

No Child Left Behind

During the 1990s, many policy centers couched their language in terms of market ideology. The culmination of such policy research for the 2000s was the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). An examination of NCLB reveals the most recent and sweeping iteration of economistic policy described here. Briefly, NCLB promotes a standards and accountability-based scheme that holds public schools, from the school districts down to the students, liable for their performance. This is done through economic sanctions whereby schools that fail to perform up to preset statewide standards in a timely manner are no longer eligible for federal funding. In other words, if a school fails, that school no longer receives monies (Title I funding) from the U.S. government.

The economistic sense of this policy is already apparent, given the use of the word accountability, which comes from economics. Also the enforcement of standards, through test scores, brings with it the idea that persons need be controlled because of scores that represent objective determinants of ability. By this logic, other issues can be represented by the test scores of schools that fail, including a lack of knowledge or character.

In addition, if a school is determined to be failing through insufficient test scores for three consecutive years, NCLB contains provisions that allow for the school to be closed (i.e., no longer a place which receives public funds) and reopened by private companies that will provide educational services to students with the possibility of making a profit, for example, Edison Schools, Inc. Conceivably, a public school closed due to failure to meet standards set by NCLB can be taken over by Edison Schools, Inc. in an effort to make the school profitable through private investments from industries such as computer manufacturers as well as through the sales of advertising space within the school. Through the NCLB policy, private corporations are now eligible to take over formerly public schools.

As detailed above, an appeal to objective measurement is one aspect of educational policy for which legislatures have called. In response, analysts have researched particular aspects of schools in particular ways largely to justify the economic models of schooling that support the research in the first place. Since a school’s failure, according to NCLB, is determined entirely by low test scores, much of educational policy research is currently focused on what causes low test scores with the aim of raising those same scores.

For instance, the category of “at-risk” students has been created by educational researchers to describe students with low test scores. This category allows students to be quantified and disaggregated according to discrete subsets, such as race and physical ability. Such labeling can adversely influence a student’s self-esteem. Critics argue that the appeal to objectivity fails to examine the ethical assumptions that underlie categories like that of at-risk students and fuels an accountability regime that seeks, not social change, but social compliance. Policy that designates at-risk students as failing to score adequately on standardized tests operates in tandem with policy that stresses the importance of schools producing a globally competitive workforce. Ultimately, this is the success of economistic policy. When the supply can be clearly identified and measured, then efficiently produced by private enterprise for the market’s demand, questions hinge on quality assurance and effective methods of production, and “better” comes to mean cheaper and more efficient in order for students as future workers to better compete in a global market.

A Humanistic Alternative

Returning to the larger sense of the word, policy as a humanistic endeavor can be understood as an alternative to the more economistic notions described above. Where current policy and policy analysis primarily assumes a free market ideology underpinning the functions of society, policy that is oriented humanistic ally seeks to involve citizens in its authoring with the aim of mirroring the diversity represented in the U.S. democracy. It is humanistic in the sense that it re-centers the human, as an inclusive term, in the realm of policy. Law is, after all, a human creation.

As well, a reformulated policy studies guards against status quo reproduction and offers different means of validating disparate forms of questioning without marginalization and without regressing to relativism. That is to say, rethinking the domain of policy does not eschew viewpoints merely because they are not objectively and economically oriented but instead encourages a notion of policy that serves as a legal manifestation of the space in which such viewpoints are brought together in order to address social inequities that are currently in place and enact change toward a more just society.

The Head Start Example

To ground the idea of humanistic policy in existing legislation, this entry examines the Head Start Program of 1965 as such an effort. Head Start is one of several programs that comprised the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Each program established under the ESEA addressed poverty of children and their families in the United States, specifically in terms of their difficulties in pursuing education. Part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative, Head Start was authored with the direct intent of bringing together viewpoints that originate in social inequalities. In the words of the program, “Head Start was designed to help break the cycle of poverty by providing preschool children of low-socio-economic status families with a comprehensive program to meet their nutritional, emotional, social, health, and psychological needs.”

The original focus of this policy was on students and the problems that they brought into schools as a part of their social status. As a result, Head Start implemented an array of mediation efforts, such as a strong emphasis on bilingual education and counseling and guidance programs, in order to create experiences for students that were not predicated on their poverty. Also, Head Start established programs that involved the families of the students in order to strengthen ties within the family and their larger community.

The inclusive intent of Head Start’s implementation does much to substantiate the humanistic qualities that policy can engender. However, Head Start is not a perfect representation of what is described here as humanistic policy. The purpose of citing the Head Start program is to focus on its intent of addressing broad social inequalities rather than discounting and dismissing such inequalities as the necessary byproduct of a free market economy.

An Economistic Turn

There is much about Head Start that is now economistic, such as the “objective” statistical research that goes into reshaping the policy today. As a historically situated policy, the Head Start program’s impetus as a redress to children living in poverty has taken on new meanings shaped by dominant policy discourses up to the present. In fact, the Head Start program has appropriated much of the same language as the largely economistic policy described above. This serves as an example, however, of how the assumptions underlying contemporaneous policy research and policy overlap and influence one another. To be sure, these assumptions are adopted by policy to the degree it is written with the same rhetoric, until that policy is scrutinized critically in terms of value, purpose, and meaning.

In educational policy research, ideas for policy analysis become entangled in market logic and accountability schemes when the thrust or essence of the larger project (pedagogy) is neither market logic nor accountability, regardless of appeals to “real world” phenomena such as “at-risk” students. By opening up policy to viewpoints that challenge the status quo, that bring into relief the difficulties inherent to policy making, rather than casting them aside in the name of economic efficiency, that insist democracy is made by the entirety of its participants, citizens and the state merge in a way the root of policy, that is, politea, provided.


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  12. Saltman, K. (2005). The Edison schools: Corporate schooling and the assault on public education. New York: Routledge.

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