The Measure of Our Commitment Is Our Commitment to Measurement: A Critical Discourse Analysis of the Language of Data in the Public Discourse of U.S. Secretaries of Education
The College Transparency Act of 2019 has proposed establishing a federal student-level data network that would compile data on individual students and facilitate data sharing between the U.S. Department of Education, other federal agencies, and third-party organizations. This proposal exemplifies the proliferation of individualized, data-driven approaches to education reform. Critical work on data-driven education policy has largely utilized poststructuralist approaches to discourse; consequently, few studies have attended to the linguistic features that mediate the recontextualization and operationalization (Fairclough 2007; van Leeuwen 2008) of data in education policy. In order to to problematize the view that educational data are neutral conduits of information, this thesis takes a systemic functional approach (Halliday & Matthiessen 2004) to critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 2003) to interrogate the language of data as it contributes to the discursive production, legitimation, and operationalization of official knowledge in the public discourse of U.S. Secretaries of Education from 2001–2019.Following an overview of the ways in which discourses of accountability and transparency are dialectically related to technologies and techniques of counting and making ‘visible’ particular ‘problems’ in education, the analysis attends to the lexico-grammatical and semantic transformations that take place when data are recontextualized as ‘facts’. Visual metaphors and the agentive positioning of data in relation to the actors and practices they ‘capture’ are textured together with discourses of measurement and efficiency in ways that construe ‘the observable [as] … the only possibility, resulting in loss of context, history, possibility, and situatedness’ (Powers 2007: 23). This framing of data as inherently meaningful and as ideologically neutral distances the data from the act of interpretation and enables the increasing accumulation, dissemination and analysis of data to emerge as the ‘solution’ to various ‘problems’ in education, which are themselves produced through privileged framings of student data that become reified as social ‘facts.’ In order to counter this tendency, it is necessary to critically reconsider the ways in which data—and the language used to speak about data—simultaneously constitutes practice and is constituted by it, thereby constraining the range of acceptable ways of being and (inter)acting in the social world.
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