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Think tanks, education and elite policy actors


The past decade has seen think tanks operate in sophisticated ways to influence the development of education policies. In this paper, I reflect upon the influence of think tanks in the formation of national reform, using the Common Core State Standards initiative in the USA as an illustrative case. In doing so, I explore how certain think tanks, headed by political elites and backed by significant philanthropic funding, have sought to influence the reform initiative. My central argument is that meanings and practices associated with political publics are being transformed as elite policy actors gain influence. Through mobilising significant political and economic power, elites work through think tanks to influence policy debates, re-frame policy problems and advocate for particular policy solutions. The new public formations that are resulting appear to be shifting the conditions of possibility for policy making in education.

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  1. In political and sociological theory, the terms ‘elite’ and ‘political elite’ (as well as ‘cultural elite’ and ‘economic elite’) are conceptually contested, and there has been a long history of debate over exactly what constitutes ‘the elite’ (see Mills 1956; Zuckerman 1977; Milner 2015). In this paper, I understand political elites to be those individuals with high status, visibility and capacity to exert a disproportionate influence over political and policy processes. This may include individuals who are (or have been) in political office, or those that occupy positions that offer powerful opportunities to influence political and policy processes. As the foundational theory of C. W. Mills (1956) suggests, and as Milner (2015) has more recently argued, political elites are constituted by an incredibly small proportion of the wider population, but are nevertheless able to dominate political processes.

  2. Medvetz’s conceptualisation of thinks tanks as ‘boundary organisations’ shares some similarities with Lubiensk et al.’s (2011) concept of ‘intermediary organizations’ (IOs) that serve to assemble, produce and promote evidence tailored for policy makers. Medvetz’s framework, however, is specific to think tanks, whereas Lubienski, Scott and DeBray’s concept of IOs focuses broadly on think tanks, philanthropies, policy coalitions and advocacy organisations.

  3. During the writing of this article, in February 2015, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assumed the role of Chair of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.


  5. In this paper, my analysis of the Hunt Institute’s activities is aided by an interview I conducted with a senior policy member of the organisation in early 2013. Whilst this empirical interview data has not been used directly in this paper, it has been crucial in informing my understanding of the organisation’s involvement in the CCSS.

















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Correspondence to Glenn C. Savage.

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Savage, G.C. Think tanks, education and elite policy actors. Aust. Educ. Res. 43, 35–53 (2016).

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  • Think tanks, education policy
  • Political elite
  • Publics
  • Common Core State Standards
  • Curriculum
  • Philanthropy