National teaching standards in Australia’s federal system: A ‘policy assemblage’ analysis

Year: 2016

Author: Savage, Glenn, Lewis, Steven

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper engages with emerging theories on ‘policy assemblage’ to provoke new ways of understanding the development of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (‘the Standards’) within Australia’s federal system. We draw upon the work of Ureta (2014, 2016), who conceptualises policies as assemblages, comprised of a complex array of historically contingent and heterogeneous actors, organisations and technologies. We connect this approach to a related body of research that seeks to understand ‘policy mobilities and mutations’ across multiple spatial scales. Positioning the Standards as a policy assemblage, we analyse the development of the Standards from the late 1990s to the present, and chart how policies and practices associated with teaching standards have been assembled, and re-assembled, in response to different conditions of possibility.We frame our arguments in relation to what Ureta (2016) calls ‘four configurations’ of policy assemblage (‘crisis’, ‘infrastructuration’, ‘disruption’ and ‘normalisation’), and in terms of three distinct periods in the development of the Standards: setting a national reform agenda in the late 1990s; establishing a national reform architecture and specific policies in the late 2000s and early 2010s; and a deepened and expanded national agenda in the past few years. We locate a number of important shifts in how the Standards have evolved, including, inter alia: changing notions of teacher professionalism; a marked shift from ‘teaching’ to ‘teacher’ standards; an increased belief in the logic of standards and evidence-based reform; the increased influence of global actors and reform agendas; a significantly expanded role for the federal government; and moves to make the Standards more ‘high-stakes’. Although political shifts at the federal level have played an important role in the evolution of the Standards, there is also a strong thread of bipartisanship present, suggesting that party politics are arguably but one of many elements informing the policy assemblage. Our analyses show that specific policy ideas and practices are assembled in ways dependent upon broader conditions of possibility, and that Australian federalism might itself be understood as a complex assemblage of contingent and emergent structures, forces and relationships. We also argue that adopting a policy assemblage approach is particularly generative for understanding the complex development and evolution of policies, not simply to generate ‘thick descriptions’ of policy actors, processes and technologies, but also to provide powerful analytical foundations to interrogate the consequences of different political/policy manifestations.