Exclusive: The Moral Disengagement of Education Reform

This week I blogged about the 2019 International School Choice and Reform conference in Portugal. What I didn’t mention in the post (See FROM PORTUGAL, WITH NO LOVE FROM THE EDUCATION REFORMERS) was the Twitter onslaught and venom from the White neoliberals directed towards Steve Nelson about his research after the conference.

I of course joined in the conversation on Twitter and came to his defense. One of the things that I  often note about their defenders is the fact that the education reformers largely lack of diversity in their conferences, their think tanks, their researchers— and their movement in general— is notable. If they do have diversity, they are typically former Teach For America. I will save the discussion about TFA and POC for another day because I just co-authored a new chapter with Amber Kim and Jameson Brewer about this very issue entitled Planting Toxic Seeds in Fertile Soil: The Knowledge Acquisition, Achievement, and Behavioral Beliefs Inculcated into Teach For America Corps Members of Color. Should be out later this year.

Perhaps this sums up the problem. One response on Twitter from a White Female was that her movement didn’t “bean count” for diversity. I’m glad that the organizers of the International School Choice and Reform conference reached out on Twitter to create a more diverse space for next year’s conference. I made some recommendations. Let’s see if they decide to “bean count.” Excluding people of color from these discussions that primarily impact their communities is immoral.

Also, I recieved a photo this week of the very obvious strategic approach of “union busting” from a source that attended the National Association of Charter School Authorizers conference.

I think denying teachers their right to freedom of speech, their right to organize, and their right to advocate on behalf of their students is immoral.

Recently, California State University Sacramento had a visit from the University Council on Education Administration (UCEA). During the visit, I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Megan Tschannen-Moran, Professor in the Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership program at William & Mary School of Education, about her students new dissertation. R. Davis Clement, II study is entitled “EDUCATION REFORM AS MORAL DISENGAGEMENT: THE RACIST SUBTEXT OF THE STATE TAKEOVER OF LITTLE ROCK SCHOOL DISTRICT” and it investigates the Moral Disengagement of Education Reform in a southern community. She writes “I think it makes a really important contribution to the work we are doing in education now around issues of race” and sent along the following summary:

Our collective understanding of education reform is evident in the shared norms of talk in urban social policy and education that we undertake (Goldstein, 2011). We understand, to a degree, what is meant by things like accountability and school choice; but other biases and marginalizing understandings are also wrapped up in our conceptualizations of things like accountability and school choice. Educational outcomes in urban policy arenas are, almost without exception, increasingly unequal, despite major reform initiatives. We can infer the implicit values of policy elites by analyzing the language they use to persuade, explain, and defend their policies to the public.

Common sense about education and education reform in the U.S. is rooted in colorblindness, and furthers a deficit-based crisis narrative around the education of Black students. As part of this colorblind narrative, policies are written to meet the needs of “all students,” instead of focusing the students with the greatest need (Lopez, 2003). Blanket reforms like NCLB or RTTT are facially race-neutral, but have disproportionately negative effects on urban schools, low SES communities, and Black students (Gillborn, Demack, Rollock, & Warmington, 2017). I used the case of the 2015 state takeover of Little Rock School District (by a majority white board of appointees) and dissolution of the Little Rock School Board (a majority Black elected board) to investigate the racism implicit in education reform politics.

Market-based reforms like school choice, charterization, magnet schools, Teach For America, and state takeover, have the effect of dispossessing communities of color of their spaces and resources, displacing governance of schools that serve these communities, and dominating education and policy discourse (Lipman, 2011). This last effect, the dominance of discourse, is the focus of this study; but the first two, dispossession and displacement, are the material effects of education reform that dominant discourse excuses. The purpose of this study was to propose and describe a framework through which institutionalized racism could be understood as the effect of individuals’ actions justified through policy discourse.

Theoretical framework

This study approached education policy from two perspectives—social psychology and critical race theory—in an attempt to reconcile those perspective as parts of a singular explanation for the persistence of racist education reforms in a supposedly egalitarian political culture. Moral disengagement is a social psychological framework that focuses on the role of individual agency in maintaining a system of social values in contradiction with the societal circumstances those values bring about. Bandura (1999) proposed that individuals justify behaviors they might otherwise consider immoral through the process of moral disengagement, a set of psychological mechanisms that allow individuals to suspend restraint from committing immoral acts. This description of rationalization parallels Lawrence’s theorization of unconscious racism.

Because of a psychological process by which people “exclude racism from consciousness” (Lawrence, 1987, p. 238), people can “continue practices they would otherwise condemn and in which their own complicity would be painful to admit” (p. 239). The concept of unconscious racism is the notion that discriminatory intent is not necessary for a law or policy to have discriminatory outcomes worthy of strict judicial scrutiny (Freeman, 1995; Lawrence, 1987). According to Lawrence (1987), individuals can take action that they know will have racist effects even if they are committed to equality and social justice. When there is conflict between one’s racial ethic and one’s actions, “the mind excludes his [sic] racism from consciousness” (Lawrence, 1987, p. 238).

Research methods

To determine whether morally disengaging discourse was deployed in the context of the takeover, I analyzed the discourse of identified white policy actors. I used van Dijk’s categories of symbolic elites to select actors (i.e., bureaucrats, elected officials, journalists, educators/academics, and policy advocates) to delimit my selection of policy actors. I located takeover-related direct quotations from 39 individuals in two newspapers and in official proceedings over a two-year period following the January 2015 takeover. I also conducted a Critical Race analysis of the U.S. District Court ruling in the case of the takeover, using Lawrence’s essay “The Id, the Ego, and Equal Protection” (1995) to critique both the logic and legal rationalization of discrimination in law.


The U.S. District Court opinion in Doe—in which the attorneys for a group of Black families claimed that the takeover amounted to racial discrimination against Black students and families—asserted the discriminatory intent requirement of Arlington, a parallel case to Davis, on which Lawrence (1995) based his critical race theory of unconscious racism. The Court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiffs’ case in Doe rested on the denial of unconscious racism.

In addition, in the sampled discourse of individual white policy actors in Little Rock, I identified a substantial number of instances of morally disengaging discourse at each of Bandura’s (2016) four loci (i.e., behavior, agency, outcome, victim); of each of the eight mechanisms (i.e., justification, euphemism, comparison, diffusion, displacement, dismissal, blame, dehumanization); and of various subtypes within each of those mechanisms. In Little Rock, elite white policy actors undertook a dissolution of the locally elected and majority Black school board in a majority Black district with an internationally notorious reputation for racial inequity. To justify this action, they claimed the city’s survival demanded it. They claimed economic growth would elude the city unless takeover occurred. They deployed a range of creative language and comparisons to disguise the severity of the takeover and the potential disadvantages it would unleash on Black students and families. As they acted, they shifted responsibility for the takeover onto state law, legislatures, courts, bureaucrats, and their predecessors. This misrepresented the consequences of their decision and denied its discriminatory impact. To the extent that they acknowledged the negative effects of their actions, they blamed Black teachers, leaders, students, and families for those effects.


If discursive evidence of moral disengagement is evidence of discriminatory purpose—and I believe it is—then education policies that rely on such rationalization warrant strict scrutiny by voters as well as the justice system. Moral disengagement is potentially a mechanism through which unconscious racism is converted into public policy, and this should be a concern for policymakers, education leaders, and education researchers. Policy actors and the consumers of political rhetoric in an arena where usage of the mechanisms of moral disengagement is as common as it was in the takeover of LRSD are likely highly aware of the discriminatory effects of their policies.

I’ll end with this because it made me so happy.

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