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Title: 'Teach for America' as institutional subversive? : new agents in the contemporary politics of American education reform
Author: Baxendale, Helen
ISNI:       0000 0005 0291 8699
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2020
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This thesis seeks to explain how the Teach for America [TFA] organisation has precipitated consequential changes in American K-12 education. A large literature on education politics describes an inflexible system, riven with vested interests and therefore resistant to reform. Yet despite this oft-cited rigidity, consequential change has occurred in the last few decades and several recent studies have highlighted TFA's critical role in disrupting the traditional structures of the American public education system. In particular, TFA has fuelled the dramatic growth of alternative pathways into teaching as well as high-profile and rapidly expanding models of charter schooling. As elected and appointed officials and as leaders of prominent advocacy groups, TFA alumni have also been instrumental in the passage of choice and accountability reforms at the local, state, and federal level. To explain how TFA has acquired and exerted significant influence, I synthesise recent insights from the rational public administration and historical institutionalist literatures to develop and test, through process tracing, a model of 'institutional subversion'. 'Institutional subversion' describes a process whereby a group of programmatically-motivated agents progressively infiltrate a system and reform it from within. I argue that subversion enables concrete changes in policy systems that are resistant to top-down reform, owing to the dominance of vested interests and high degrees of agent discretion. Subversion exploits the fact that no matter how dominant they may be, system incumbents have limited information about other agents' capacities and preferences. Imperfect information means incumbent groups can be slow to recognise and mobilise against threats to the status quo posed by subversive action. In the meantime, subversive agents advance change by introducing innovations in structures and practices and capturing key decision-making posts within the system. If subversive challengers can amass sufficient power resources to resist incumbent reprisals, their legacy of change can endure. By conceiving of TFA as an agent of institutional subversion, we enhance our understanding of how recent changes in American education have come about. Extant explanations grounded in new forms of philanthropic intervention, neoliberal ideas, and variations in interest group power are essential pieces of the puzzle. But these explanations do not in themselves offer a complete account of why we have seen significant shifts in a sector traditionally characterised as highly intransigent. By placing agents sympathetic to reform at the heart of the education system, TFA provided a partial answer to the principal-agent problem that has plagued past attempts at top-down reform by philanthropists and policymakers alike. In accounting for one of the more spectacular instances of policy entrepreneurship in recent times, this thesis makes a novel contribution to the politics of education literature. Moreover, by paying careful attention to the interplay between structure and agency in new institutionalist theory, this thesis identifies and expounds a mode of institutional change that is generalisable to contexts well beyond American public education.
Supervisor: Culpepper, Pepper ; Ansell, Benjamin Sponsor: Clarendon Fund
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Political entrepreneurship ; Public policy ; Education